When I was asked to write about Karl Malone posing in front of a statue of himself while puffing on a gigantic cigar ahead of Game 1 of the Jazz’s playoff showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers, I almost declined, because the story is really very simple. Hall of Fame forward and Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone has done some really hideous stuff during his time on Earth and should not be subject to fawning tributes from the Jazz organization or anyone else.
While Malone was a 20-year-old student and basketball star at Louisiana Tech University, he impregnated 13-year-old Gloria Bell. She gave birth to a son, Demetress Bell, a future NFL Lineman. Bell’s family could have pressed statutory rape charges but they didn’t because, according to Gloria, Malone was “a neighborhood kid.”
Malone also sired twins, Cheryl and Daryl Ford, when he and his partner, Bonita Ford, were 17. He opted to not engage with any of these children for most of his life. He settled paternity suits out of court in a manner whereby he was not made to publicly acknowledge he was the kids’ biological father, and remained disengaged from his children’s lives until the arrival of grandchildren inspired him to work toward building relationships with his now middle-aged children. For this effort, he received a fawning profile about his life after basketball in The Deseret News, a Utah newspaper owned by the Mormon church.
If that weren’t enough, the 57-year-old was also subject to a disturbing accusation, the sort that’s too specific to not be true, that he made a pass at Vanessa Bryant, fellow creep Kobe Bryant’s wife, during the Los Angeles Lakers’ powerfully stupid 2004 season.
Here’s an excerpt from ESPN’s story on the matter:
“Karl and his son were at the game sitting in the front row,” (Rob Pelinka, Kobe’s Agent) said. “Vanessa was on the cell phone talking to Karl’s wife, Kay, and Vanessa said that her son looked bored. Kay told her to call Karl to have her son join her in her seats. Kay gave Vanessa Karl’s cell number and she called him. When she called, Karl’s response was, ‘Why don’t you come over here and sit next to me and give me a big hug?’ Vanessa said, ‘Why? For what?’ And Karl replied, ‘If you do that it will be on the cover of every magazine in the country.’”
“Vanessa didn’t know what to say because this was the first time she had ever spoken to Malone without Kobe or Kay being around. Karl continued. ‘Do you like me?’ Malone asked her, to which Vanessa said, ‘As my friend, Kay’s husband,’” Pelinka said.
“From there Malone asked Vanessa if she could keep a secret, and that he would like to tell her something. At which point Vanessa told him she was a married woman and he was a married man who was old enough to be her father. To which Malone replied, ‘Oh, like your daddy?’ At that point she told me she ended the conversation,” Pelinka said.
“Malone asked Vanessa if she could keep a secret, and that he would like to tell her something. At which point Vanessa told him she was a married woman and he was a married man who was old enough to be her father. To which Malone replied, ‘Oh, like your daddy?’ At that point she told me she ended the conversation.”
But wait, there’s more:
In the second half of the game, Malone sent his son to sit with the Bryants.
“Vanessa told me that she just was very uncomfortable at halftime and that Karl was acting and saying weird things,” said Pelinka. “When the game ended, Vanessa walked Malone’s son back to Karl. She told me that she asked Malone why he was wearing that [cowboy] hat. His response was, ‘I’m hunting for young Mexican girls.’ (Vanessa Bryant is a Mexican-American) at which point Vanessa just walked away.”
On the car ride home, Vanessa Bryant told Kobe what had happened. Vanessa decided to call Kay Malone and tell her about the way her husband had spoken to her. After they hung up, Kobe Bryant called Karl Malone on his cell phone.
“Kobe told me that Karl just listened and didn’t deny any of it. Kobe said Karl’s only reply was, ‘You know me, man.’ To which Kobe told him, ‘That’s right, I do know you—and stay away from my wife,’” said Pelinka. “The next day, with all four of them on the phone, Karl denied it. At that point the Bryants knew that there was nothing left to talk about since they knew Karl wasn’t telling the truth. Vanessa told me that she told Kay that she [Vanessa] wanted her [Kay] to know ‘just exactly what your husband [Karl] did, and you do what you want with the information.’”
The Lakers went on to lose to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, and are remembered to this day as one of the wackest teams in NBA history.
Speaking of the Lakers, when Magic Johnson tried to make a comeback after his HIV diagnosis in 1991, Malone was vehemently opposed to the idea, claiming that the scrapes he incurred during the course of play made him vulnerable to exposure when he shared the court with Johnson, going so far as to claim that players would hesitate to defend him on drives out of fear of contracting the virus—which, of course, does not spread that easily at all. These sorts of public sentiments made Magic’s return short-lived, delivering a blow for acceptance of HIV-positive individuals everywhere.
Anyway, real creep. But he was also perhaps the greatest player in Utah Jazz history, so, you know, they built a statue for him, even if his appearances in the Finals were mostly just an excuse for Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman to stunt on him. The stink just never clung to him in the way it does for many pro players who’ve done terrible shit in their lives.
Because Malone just isn’t the kind of person who NBA fanbases, especially predominantly white ones like the Utah Jazz’s, resent. Observe the reception of his contemporaries in Portland, the so-called “Jailblazers.” Appearing in notably-white Portland during the height of Iverson’s reign as the NBA’s cultural center, the Jailblazers were dudes with cornrows who liked to smoke pot and clown on reporters, a collection of rogues whose unapologetic Blackness alienated them from media and fans alike and posed an existential threat to the future of the franchise. The fallout from Jailblazer-dom has subtly affected the roster composition of the team ever since.
Malone, on the other hand, does not possess these cultural signifiers. He grew up in rural Louisiana, not Philadelphia. He is an avid hunter, and he served on the NRA’s board of directors. He dabbles in public exaltations of respectability politics. Even after the hideous crap he’s done, a Mormon newspaper is more than happy to publish a story recasting him as a family man. He might have sired a child with a 13-year-old, but he also doesn’t seem like he smokes pot and he made the Finals twice, so, whatever, we’ll build him a statue anyway.
There’s a Senate office building named for Richard Russell Jr., a longtime senator from Georgia. Brilliant in some ways, Russell represented courtliness, deliberation, negotiation, and tactical thinking—all the things the United States Senate believes are its best qualities. Russell was also a vicious racist: a defender of the “Southern way of life,” whose primary use of the power he amassed was the maintenance of a filibuster-sized Southern bloc that violently opposed the passage of comprehensive civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
But the Senate doesn’t dwell on that; instead, it honors him as a way of underlining the traits that he brought to the chamber, all smoke and mirrors.
This statue of Malone operates from a similar impulse, albeit on a drastically smaller scale. It’s a monument to “Karl Malone,” a tough guy who set mean picks, scored a ton of points, and gave Isiah Thomas 40 stitches. It ignores any of the other stuff in this guy’s life: his character deficits and the misery he caused, and the heinous acts he did to rural teenagers that no one ever saw fit to address in a court of law. The public practice of history is all too willing to forget when it builds a monument to a symbol, memorializing an ideal instead of wrestling with the reality of the human being and the suffering they caused.