RUSTON, La. — It’s pitch dark outside around 3:30 a.m. when Karl Malone awakes to turn on the coffee pot.
He slips on his hunting gear and heads out to the backwoods of northern Louisiana.
More than 1,500 miles away from downtown Salt Lake City, where an 8-foot-tall bronze statue of him stands, “The Mailman” is trying to beat daylight while hunting buck deer on his private property.
As Malone takes the half-mile walk to his stand, his mind is clear. He sticks around until roughly 10 a.m. trying to bag the same deer he’s been after for at least two years. He then leaves for "Malone Town" and his business obligations.
This is how the 55-year-old former NBA MVP now spends most mornings.
“I do a lot of thinking,” Malone said. “I only can think like that with either hunting, heavy equipment or working out and those times, I don’t like that interruption because I’m really trying to work through things and think about different scenarios.”
Later, inside his six-bedroom, 15-acre tornado-proof homestead, family members are playing games in the living room for entertainment because the Wi-Fi hardly ever works. Remnants of the past are scattered throughout his trophy room, just as his No. 32 jersey is hanging from the rafters of Vivint Arena just off of Karl Malone Drive in Salt Lake City.
The NBA's second-leading scorer of all time is still very much a presence in Utah for Derrick Favors, members of the current Jazz roster and fans alike — even when he’s not around.
“It’s huge," Favors said. "It’s almost like Michael Jordan in Chicago with him and John Stockton so it’s huge. Everywhere you go, it’s Karl Malone and John Stockton … they’ve got a street named after him and car dealerships so his name is pretty big out in Utah.”
People here don’t look at him as Karl Malone the basketball player. It’s more like ‘Hey, Karl’ or ‘Hey, KJ’s dad or Kadee’s dad’ because a lot of these kids don’t even know he played basketball. – Kay Malone
Although 20-plus years have passed since he led the Utah Jazz to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, Malone can’t forget about his Hall-of-Fame career.
“It’s impossible,” Malone said. “Every single day I think about how we got there and the sacrifices that (my family) made. My daughter was ready to turn 13 when I retired so that’s 13 years that I was gone.”
So while the games go on in Utah and the Jazz move into a new era with new stars like Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, Malone is locked in on one thing. These days, "The Mailman" is focused on family — mending ties with all his children, being an involved "Paw Paw" to his grandchildren, mixing those close to him with business, chilling at home and pursing his favorite pastime, hunting.
While he has opinions on Jazz teams past and present, Malone is so far removed from what happens on the hardwood that even his closest business partners have trouble tracking him and his not-so-smartphone down when he's in the hunting stand.
“He will die with that flip phone,” Malone’s public relations/business manager Nathan Banks said, laughing.
Life in Louisiana
Malone's latest business venture is most near and dear to his heart because he’s partnered with his daughter, Kadee Malone.
“When I say we do everything together as a family … I mean like everything,” Kadee emphasized. “It’s really just because we’re all best friends. ... That’s kind of why we have all these businesses in this one area, and it’s funny because everyone here calls this area 'Malone Town.'”
The new Legends Cigar and Vape shop opened Nov. 15 in Ruston, Louisiana. It's nestled inside “Malone Town” right off East Kentucky Avenue. Directly across the street is North Village Plaza, where the Malones own the Teriyaki Grill restaurant, the 5.11 Tactical by Karl Malone clothing store and an apartment complex where college students reside from his alma mater, Louisiana Tech University, located less than four miles away.
When Kay Malone is inside Teriyaki Grill, she usually greets customers herself and she’ll occasionally serve their food from behind the counter.
“This one has extra meat,” Kay recently told a customer while handing over the meal.
Louisiana Tech men’s basketball coach Eric Konkol has also grown accustomed to “The Mailman” randomly popping up to interact with the current Bulldogs team. He has an open-door policy for Malone, whose No. 32 jersey is also hanging in the rafters of the Thomas Assembly Center with the court being named in his honor.
“There’s impact from that where people talk about what he was like as a player, breaking backboards and all that type of stuff,” Konkol said. “And then, there’s an impact that’ll last a lifetime for the investment he’s made in our community from businesses to things he’s done at Louisiana Tech to really being someone who’s proud to be from a rural area, loves to hunt, loves to be a proud northern Louisiana man and it gives a lot of motivation to young kids around this community.”
Malone married Kay, a former Miss Idaho USA pageant winner, on Dec. 24, 1990.
Kadee, 27, is the eldest of their four children, who include Kylee, 25; Karl Jr. “KJ,” 23; and Karlee, 20. Growth and maturity has also strengthened the relationship Karl has with his three children prior to their marriage.
Malone is in touch on a near daily basis with his 37-year old twins, Cheryl and Daryl Ford, plus his son Demetress “Mechie” Bell, 34, especially after the birth of his seven grandchildren.
“I think with my dad, he was more scared of us becoming an actual family because he went through a lot with my older siblings and stuff but in the end, for us, my dad and mom always taught us that family is everything so they wanted us to become closer,” Kadee said. “So, we all really didn’t start getting close until like five years ago but it was all because we were all stubborn. We all literally are my dad’s children. My dad is the most stubborn person, and that’s where we all get it from.”
I didn’t handle it right; I was wrong, but I’m not going to every time I see you try to go back and make up for it because you can’t. – Karl Malone
Malone now admits that he wasn’t initially accepting of his oldest children, especially during his 19-year Hall of Fame career that spanned from 1985-2004. But at this point in his life, he sees things much differently.
“Getting that relationship with them, I was wrong, they wasn’t,” Malone said. “I made a mistake, they’re not a mistake, but being young myself and the responsibilities was overwhelming to me, but you just deal with it.
“I didn’t handle it right; I was wrong, but I’m not going to every time I see you try to go back and make up for it because you can’t,” he continued. “Father Time is the biggest thief that’s out there, and you can’t get that back. And we have a great relationship, but I’m still Dad, Pops, or Paw or whatever they want to call me. My grandkids call me Paw Paw.”
Bell said he's constantly laughing, talking and texting with Malone "everyday about something." His kids identify Malone's home as "The Big House."
They hunt together and share many of the same interests. In fact, Bell was among the 100 or so invited family, friends and guests at the Legends grand opening, where they interacted like lifelong pals over drinks, cigars and smooth grooves during the all-white-attire affair.
Although things weren't always that way, Bell can certainly pinpoint the switch with his old man.
“He came to the house, we sat down and talked about everything and how it was and put it behind us and we’ve been on an up-and-up ever since," Bell recalled. "The first thing we did was went on a hunting trip to Utah. That was the first thing we did as a father-son around 2014."
These days, conversations about basketball bore Malone, but his eyes will light up when recapping his recent hunting adventures with his 8-year-old grandson Darren Ford. Just a couple of weeks ago, Darren shot his first 10-point buck with Malone on their 700-acre high-fence property. Malone calls him his “mini me.”
“What’s cool to me is seeing all the kids and grandkids together,” Malone said. “That’s when I have my most proud moment with all the different ages and just seeing them all together and now seeing the aunties and uncles.
“However we got here, I love it, but with the grandkids we keep them and at times, Paw Paw then heard all the yelling and screaming he want to hear and I just go in the room and all of a sudden you’ll hear them coming in there,” he continued. “I can’t change the past. Remember it, own it, but when I was young I didn’t own it right. I didn’t handle it right and I’m not ever going back. I made the mistake.”
Life after basketball
Although basketball and constant hoop references are no longer a big part of his life, when Malone glances around his home, he can’t hide the fact that the game was his foundation for their family fortune. His grandkids weren’t old enough to witness him play but young Darren once dressed up as “Paw Paw” in a full Utah Jazz uniform as part of a recent school project, so he can never completely get away from his accomplishments.
"I don't want to fail. I'm not afraid to die, but I'm afraid to fail because when I fail, I just don't fail me. I fail the family and them," Malone said. "We need to have failures in life to succeed, but we don't want to fail. We never want to fail, but we need failures to learn.
"With me failing, I welcome that, I just don't with the family. We don't talk about it, but they depend on me. I welcome that."
Everything from his game-worn All-Star jerseys, his two NBA Most Valuable Player trophies, All-Star Game MVP awards and Olympic gold medals are kept at his private property. However, he hasn’t picked up a basketball since around February when he pulled a prank on New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis, dressed as a maintenance man wearing dreadlocks for a taped commercial in partnership with Red Bull.
Before that interaction, Malone couldn’t recall the time he last laced up his size 17 sneakers for competition. Fourteen years have passed since he last suited up in an NBA game on June 13, 2004, as a Los Angeles Laker.
Deer hunting season is in full swing, and if it were up to Malone, he would spend the entire day out there, in the dark, to free his mind. But he also has to run businesses and spend time with family.
He routinely trains four to five days per week to keep his fit physique, but he's currently recovering from surgery on his left knee for a Baker’s cyst that was pushing his sciatic nerve.
“I’m in the stand, I’m eating snacks and all that and this is double whammy because I haven’t been able to work out now in about a month and three weeks,” Malone said.
Still, he’s in tip-top shape with very little body fat even at his age. The only notable thing that’s changed in his physical appearance is his big gray beard.
“About hunting, I always say it’s shopping,” Malone described. “Women can go and get a thousand pair of boots to try on and maybe buy and maybe not. Same with us, we’re shopping, ‘No I don’t want that one, I want that one. … maybe his horns aren’t big enough, I want that one.’ That’s what it is and then I do a lot of thinking and I only can think like that with either hunting, heavy equipment or working out.”
Banks’ email is flooded with endorsement opportunities, but Malone often won’t approve them if it doesn’t somehow involve his loved ones. Mention them, or perhaps drive to Ruston, and you’ll be more likely to get a response.
“It has to make sense to him and his family has to be involved (in a new project),” Banks said.
Bell, who previously played for the Buffalo Bills, now runs a trucking company. Cheryl Ford starred in the WNBA for the Detroit Shock while Daryl Ford played basketball at Louisiana Tech. Daryl Ford also maintains his own logging operation in Louisiana, while Cheryl Ford is back in school.
Malone’s youngest daughter, Karlee, is pursuing modeling in Miami. KJ signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent earlier this year but decided to step away from the game after rookie minicamp to pursue a career in law enforcement. Kylee has ambitions to become a shop owner like older sister Kadee is at Legends.
After searching to find her passion, the newly turned 27-year-old Kadee has realized that co-owning Legends with her dad is what she loves.
“We’re 50-50 but at the same time, I say 90-10 because I do everything. He just kind of shows up,” Kadee explained before laughing, as she puffed on her father’s new barrel-aged signature cigar.
“But really, though, even when people come here and ask ‘Karl, can I do this?’ he’ll be like, ‘Woah, let me call the boss lady first’ so he has to call me,” she continued. “So he doesn’t do anything without me saying yes.”
The Malone family was entirely involved in the launch of the cigar shop — everything down to the packaging and design of his La Aurora Barrel Aged by Karl Malone signature cigar.
From taking the initial trip to the Dominican Republic to visit the La Aurora Institute — which is that country’s oldest manufacturer of premium cigars — to designing the interior of Legends, nothing got past her. Kadee also has future plans to open a shop in Southern Nevada.
In Salt Lake City, Malone’s companies employ 370-plus workers. His laundry list of businesses and properties includes Karl Malone Powersports, Karl Malone Toyota, Karl Malone Mitsubishi, Polaris and Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealerships, among others.
That entrepreneurial spirit was first introduced to Malone by late Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, whose family still owns the Jazz, dealerships and other business ventures across Utah and the Intermountain West.
“No matter what the backdrop or what he was doing, he always explained it to me and always talked to me about it,” Malone said of Miller. “Every time I walked into his office, no matter who he was talking to, he never hung his phone up. So quite naturally I would ask, ‘Larry, what was that?’ and he would tell me what that was.”
Malone's trips to Utah are now few and far between since moving the family back to Louisiana in 2005. And when he does, he likes to keep them low-key, as he’s grown accustomed to private life in the country where folks treat him normal.
“He’s very personable,” said Henry Wood, a regular customer at the cigar shop.
“When I first met him, I was kind of nervous,” added Donovan Price, a worker at Legends. “I just know him as Karl now.”
Honestly, he likes it that way.
“People here don’t look at him as Karl Malone the basketball player,” Kay continued. “It’s more like ‘Hey, Karl’ or ‘Hey, KJ’s dad or Kadee’s dad’ because a lot of these kids don’t even know he played basketball. They know him as a hunter. So, the kids here grew up hunting and mostly ask him about hunting.”
Occasionally, he’ll pop up at a Jazz game, but the former superstar doesn’t like to distract the current roster from their task at hand.
Malone admires Mitchell, Favors, Ricky Rubio, Gobert and the new guys because of their respect for tradition.
Malone feels the group has all the tools to finish what he and Stockton accomplished more than two decades ago, but it’s all about keeping the talent intact.
“There’s been some Jazz teams and players on the team before that really turned me off from the franchise that I love to death because I know they weren’t playing hard,” Malone said. “We’re not going to get into names, but that turned me off, so to get a group of guys like this, every single one of them that’s the stars of this team or have the great game, I can actually say this … every one of them, I would like to meet their dad and granddad because they’ve got old souls.
“Like that old, roll your sleeves up and I have yet to see an article that they did not give credit where credit is due,” he said, adding that's impressive that this Jazz team takes responsibility for the losses. "In the day and age now, where it’s me, me, me, if they get (beat) ... they say ‘they gave us a good ole’ butt whooping and we’re going to do something about it. It’s not saying a lot about me, it’s saying a lot about them and the whole state should be proud of them.”
Take a trip to Ruston, Louisiana with Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone in this behind the scenes video. “To the @utahjazz, I’m your biggest fan. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You guys appear to really care and love each other. I love that about y’all,” @TheDeliverer_32 said. pic.twitter.com/N19sjret6Q— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) December 4, 2018