This wasn't the trophy Karl Malone hoped to be holding at the end of the season.
Actually, Malone wasn't even holding the Maurice Podoloff Trophy Thursday after winning his second NBA Most Valuable Player award in three years. It's still in New York, where Malone is expected to pick it up over the weekend.
"So they got me a hat," he said bemusedly, while looking at an "MVP" cap sent to him by the league office. "They said FedExing it (the trophy) was out of the question."
It was that kind of season for the 35-year-old Malone, another banner individual year marred by setbacks in other areas, notably Utah's failure to win its first title.
"I wish we were here in a different scenario, but we're not," Malone said. "Last time when I won this award, I went out on the court, held it up and then had to go back to playing ball. ... I prefer doing that to doing this."
Despite posting his lowest scoring and rebounding numbers in over a decade, he edged fellow big men Alonzo Mourning of Miami and Tim Duncan of San Antonio in the voting by 118 North American media members. Malone received 827 points and 44 first-place votes to Mourning's 773 points and 36 first-place votes.
Malone, who also won the award in 1997, became the ninth player in league history to win the MVP award twice. It comes at the conclusion of a 12-month span in which Malone wrestled Dennis Rodman on pay-per-view, started a short-lived talk radio show, vowed to never again play for the Jazz and then returned, all but promising to finish his career in Utah.
He then led the Jazz to a league-best 37-13 record, but his team sputtered down the stretch and was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah's earliest exit since 1995.
"This whole year was weird, so to top it off with this was really special," Malone said. "I didn't like the way I played in the playoffs, but I'm getting the award Saturday, and I'm not giving it back."
Malone is the first MVP in nine seasons to fail to take his team to at least the conference finals. Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers also were upset in the second round of the playoffs in 1990.
"Individual awards are nice because they come with the territory, but you play this game for a championship," Malone said. "Everybody knows we're disappointed with what happened, but this could start the healing process on that."
Duncan, the second-year big man many thought deserved the award after a tremendous late-season surge, finished third in the voting with 740 points and 30 first-place votes. Philadelphia's Allen Iverson finished fourth, followed by Phoenix's Jason Kidd, the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal and Sacramento's Chris Webber.
Malone grinned when asked if he would trade the MVP trophy for a championship.
"Yeah, because I have another one," he said. "I'd trade the one from '97. This one is different, but it's still bigger for me."
Malone also was chosen by the league's coaches for the all-defensive first team, was third in the league in scoring, 11th in field goal percentage (.493) and 14th in rebounding.
His first MVP award, for which he beat out Michael Jordan, was considered by many to be a lifetime achievement award for a brilliant career. Jordan then led his Bulls to the first of two NBA Finals wins over the Jazz.
"You're going to have people talking about this one, too," Malone said. "Some guys in the last couple of weeks have been taking their shots, but they're going to have to swallow really hard now."
Malone averaged 23.8 points per game in 1999, his lowest since 1986-87, his second year in the league. His rebounding average was down to 9.4 per game, lowest since his rookie year in 1986.
But Malone almost always came through for the Jazz during the regular season, when they tied the Spurs for the league's best record. He led Utah in scoring for the 13th straight year and continued to be the Jazz's focal point on both offense and defense.
In one memorable week in April, Malone went 12-for-12 from the field in a victory over the Lakers, scored a season-high 38 points in beating Golden State and hit three free throws with six-tenths of a second left to beat Phoenix by a point. His coach, Jerry Sloan, called it the finest week of Malone's career.
Malone is now a free agent, though he said Thursday that "I'd probably bet the ranch" he wouldn't consider offers from other teams.
"I'm not interesting in dealing with that right now," he said. "I've cleared my schedule, and I'm going to relax."
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