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Malone’s Return After 18 Years In Utah Was Far From Warm

Karl Malone #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands for the National Anthem before the game against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on April 13, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 109-104. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – There’s no doubt that when Mike Conley is introduced in the Jazz starting lineup at the FedEx Forum on Friday night in Memphis he will be greeted with a thunderous ovation, how will that compare to Karl Malone’s return to Utah as a Laker?

Conley will be making his return to Memphis for the first time since joining the Utah Jazz after spending 12 seasons with the Grizzlies. He ranks as the franchise’s all-time leader in games, points, assists, steals and three-pointers.

“Memphis is all I knew for so long. It’s the city that raised me and molded me into who I am. I owe everything to Memphis,” Conley said on Thursday morning after practice. “I know the feeling is mutual how much I love them.”

However, this story is not about Conley and his return to Memphis, because not all homecomings emanate the same warm welcome to players who left after years of dedication to their former team.

Malone’s Return Left Dark Cloud On Organization

Fans in Utah were on the giving end of a cold-hearted greeting when after 18 seasons with the Jazz Karl Malone was scheduled to make his return with the Los Angeles Lakers.

During the Lakers game in January 2004 the Jazz Bear and late Jazz Owner Larry Miller both played part in a skit that included a Malone impersonator that made Malone look as if he didn’t like playing with the Lakers.

The skit also poked fun at Kobe Bryant who was in the midst of legal trouble regarding an alleged sex assault.

Malone was not in attendance that night while he was nursing a knee injury back in L.A. But he got the message.

“After 18 years, for them to stoop to that level is no class,” Malone said. “I’ll never, ever forgive them for that. Never in my life.”

Although the NBA fined the Jazz $15,000 for the skit, Malone still called the Jazz front office cowards and said they were the reason he was no longer in Utah. He then promised that whether he was going to play or not, he would be in Utah for the next Lakers game there.

“Bring it on. If I’m living, I’ll be there,” Malone said.

A little more than a month later, Malone stepped off the bus with his Lakers teammates in Salt Lake City. Earlier that same day Miller was quoted in the paper expressing his disinterest in Malone.

“I don’t care (if he plays or not). I don’t need Karl in my life. I’m getting along just fine,” Miller said. “There was good and bad, now there’s only bad.”

Then on game day, Malone, still uncertain if he would play or not, told KSL TV he had too many positive memories for him to hold any grudges.

“I don’t know what all of the fuss is about. I’m happy. The Jazz are happy, they’re winning. I find it hard to believe that Karl and Larry are at it again when I’m not saying anything,” Malone said.

Malone’s agent Dwight Manley had plenty to say.

“So its kind of sad for somebody like Larry, who has so much, to cry like a child who has their toy taken away from them,” Manley told the Deseret News.

When specific reference was made to the skit done by the Jazz Bear and Miller during the Lakers first visit, Malone quickly shrugged it off in his pre-game media session.

“Been there, done that. We won’t talk about it,” Malone said. “What do we want to talk about now? Now.”

Malone didn’t play that night against his former team. When he entered the arena and sat on the Lakers bench he was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. Shaquille O’Neal was ejected from the game, the Jazz won and Malone’s return to Utah was quickly an afterthought.

Peace Made… Eventually

As the saying goes, time heals all wounds, not much had been said from either side of the quarrel. Then, nearly two years after retiring from the NBA the Jazz brought the Mailman home to give him the recognition he deserved with 18 years of Hall of Fame play.

The Jazz unveiled a larger-than-life statue on the south-east corner of the arena and retired the number 32, never to be worn again. The ceremony, which happened at halftime of a game against the Wizards, was in front of several of Malone’s family and friends, former Jazz coaches and teammates, and a sold-out crowd.

A crowd that showered him with adoration.

“I would just like to say to the fans, ‘thank you’ for allowing a little snotty-nosed kid from Louisiana to be a part of this,” Malone told the crowd during the ceremony. “To Gail and Larry, thank you guys. In life, after a while, it’s not about you. It took me a while to understand that.”

Even Larry Miller fought back tears to express his sincere appreciation for the Mailman.

Malone, Jazz End On High Note

“In spite of the ups and downs one thing that is for certain, my life and the life of this franchise have been blessed and are way, way better than they would have been without Karl and John in them,” Miller said before that game. “Tonight we honor Karl and Karl there’s no way to say thanks except, thanks.”

“I’m a better person by our paths crossing,” Malone added. “I don’t think I would have had it any other way.”

Malone didn’t receive the kind of homecoming that Mike Conley will get in Memphis but the love Jazz fans have for the Hall of Fame power forward is just as great, if not greater than the love Grizzlies fans have for Conley.

The Mailman is always welcome in Utah.