Karl Malone was reliability personified in 18 seasons in Utah. He played in 1,353 games out of a possible 1,362, became the NBA’s second-leading scorer and one of its institutions with running mate John Stockton.
He’s no less reliable in retirement â€” as a thorn in the side of Jazz executives. The current CEO of the franchise, Greg Miller, took to Twitter this weekend to dispel Malone’s claim he had to scalp tickets to get in a recent game because none was made available to him by the club. A day later, Miller wrote an extensive personal blog post about his learning process with dealing with Malone. Namely, “I’ve tried to keep in mind the words of one of my mentors close to the situation who said “Karl Malone is a giant pain in the ass, but he’s our pain in the ass.”
It all stems from how each side wants to be remembered. Malone is still upset with how former coach Jerry Sloan left the team on Feb. 11, 2011, believing his hand was forced. Last week, nearing the anniversary of the coach’s abrupt resignation, Malone went on local radio and blasted the team again, which was followed by Miller calling Malone a liar.
Now, Miller isn’t a new hand to the ways of Utah as a son of the late longtime owner Larry Miller. With his longtime tie to the franchise and, in turn, its foothold as Salt Lake City’s main show, Miller knows probably better than any league executive what it means to protect a brand. This makes Miller’s airing of frustrations with an “unstable” Malone as an eye-opening, pull-back-the-curtain look at the league and the level of obligation franchises should commit to legends out of uniform.
Among active players, the NBA may be commissioner contained, but it is certainly player driven. That’s as true as it is unsurprising. Sacramento’s Paul Westphal didn’t hold back his issues with DeMarcus Cousins‘ alleged trade demands just two weeks into the season and was summarily fired days later. JaVale McGee made headlines for every reason but his play in the first month, but it was easier for Washington to can Flip Saunders than find a solution for one of its players. There aren’t T-shirts with coaches’ names on the back in team stores.
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And neither of those players are even marquee names. Malone, however, is very much still a brand even nearly a decade after retiring. He has an eponymous Toyota dealership in suburban SLC and a former one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to go with his legend status that still holds sway in SLC. Face it: When fans think of Utah, they don’t think of Tyrone Corbin and Al Jefferson, but instead of the back-to-back Finals teams.
There’s just one problem: Teams can invoke tradition all they want, but fans are watching the current team on the floor (Enes Kanter was 12 when Malone retired). It’s a franchise’s duty to protect the product from any detractor, let alone a member of its inner circle. Retired players no longer pay the freight for their former teams and have less room, if any, to voice displeasure. Maybe because of free agency and the age of the itinerant player, but legacies live on in a general NBA sense, not tied to any one team. That gives teams room to grow with the new team. Here as in his playing days, Malone proves to be singular â€” a veteran of one team for nearly his entire career, the fortunes of both are entwined tighter than most club/player relationships.
Miller claims when Malone would disparage the team during his playing days on his former radio show, sales dropped at the car dealership. He’s trying to make a not-so-subtle link that his new grievances are poisoning the climate around the team now. It’s a strong statement to make and understandable for his bottom line, but it’s too strong.
Finding the accurate tenor of response to former players is a fine line because both team and player came away from their partnership richer for it. In the case of the Jazz, who benefited immeasurably from the talent and production of Malone, Miller is betting his fans will see his response to the Mailman as protecting its future. I’d bet more than a few view it as Miller turning his back on the proudest moments in franchise history.
Teams and stars, in the glory days, can combine for runs like no other. But once it’s over and the jersey heads to the rafters, the love affair is over. Utah and Malone are discovering it’s mutually beneficial to keep the good, old times as they were and hesitate from trying to create any new ones.
Do you think Greg Miller was right in calling out Karl Malone?
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