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A Christmas Eve gift from The Mailman

FILE - Karl Malone talks with members of the media prior to being inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 at Energy Solutions Arena.
FILE - Karl Malone talks with members of the media prior to being inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 at Energy Solutions Arena.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On a Christmas Eve 19 years ago, Karl Malone hid in the cab of his pickup truck in a driveway in South Jordan.

As recognizable as any person in Utah, the 6-foot-9, 256-pound star power forward for the Utah Jazz, months removed from playing in his second straight NBA Finals, was scrunching as best he could to stay out of sight — because on this night he did not want to be recognized.

Moments earlier, he’d sent Lori Rupp, the woman who ran his charitable foundation, to the front door of the house whose driveway he was sitting in. Her instructions were simple: ask to see a kid named Mitch Curtis and make sure he’s legitimate.

Rupp marched up, knocked on the front door and, after explaining she’d heard from friends about Mitch and would love to meet him, was welcomed inside.

A few seconds later she met Mitch.

He was sitting in a wheelchair, a smiling, friendly 14-year-old kid who weighed maybe 60 pounds and couldn’t so much as move his arms to shake her hand.

Mitch had muscular dystrophy. The symptoms had begun when he was much younger. In the years since he had gone from a high-energy boy running and jumping and riding his bike to having to be fed and carried to the bathroom.

The only hope for improvement was an experimental surgery the Curtises wanted to try. For months they’d been fundraising — holding car washes, bake sales, littering the south end of the valley with donation jars at 7-Elevens. They’d raised a substantial amount of money, in excess of $100,000. But they were still more than $60,000 short of what they needed.

Someone had alerted the Malone Foundation about all this. Every Christmas Eve, Karl “The Mailman” Malone had a tradition of delivering a gift to someone in need. On two conditions. One: the need had to be genuine. There were a lot of scammers out there, and he didn’t want to contribute to something that wasn’t on the level.

Two: no one could know about it – absolutely no media or outside attention allowed.

After Rupp’s reconnaissance had confirmed that Mitch was the real thing, she stood up and asked to be excused because she’d forgotten something in her car.

What she’d forgotten was Karl Malone.

• • •

Jackie Curtis, Mitch’s mother, remembers that Christmas Eve like it was yesterday.

“Lori Rupp said she was going to get her computer,” Jackie remembers. “Then she came back with him.

“We just sat there and stared. Then we all started scrambling around so he could sit in the soft chair, but he said, ‘Oh no, if you can just get me a kitchen chair I’d like to sit by Mitch.’

“He sat there and talked to him, eye level, like a friend.”

A few moments later, Malone pulled a check out of his pocket and handed it to Jackie.

She took it and said thank you.

“Did you look at?” Malone asked.

“I said that I had,” Jackie recalls. “I’d just kinda glanced at it and thought it said $6,200. I told him that would be a big help. He said to look again, and I did, and saw it was for $62,000 — the exact amount left that we needed.

“He said, ‘Now Mitch can have his surgery.’”

Mitch did have his surgery, and it did help him gain weight and add some muscle. But it was no cure-all. He died eight years later, in 2006, at the age of 22, five years beyond what medical science had predicted for him.

No one who knew Mitch, and I was lucky to be one of them, could remember a more kind, gentle and generous person.

Mitch and Malone had stayed close since they first met on Christmas Eve. Every year at the Karl Malone Foundation fundraisers, the Curtis family was a specially invited guest. “Karl Malone was awesome to Mitch. He was awesome to all of us,” says Curtis, who lost her husband, Scott, in 2008 and now lives in Nevada. “And it wasn’t just our family. He was good to so many people in Utah. He just did so much that nobody realized.”

On Christmas Eve especially.