It's December, the Los Angeles Lakers are visiting Dallas, and Karl Malone appears at peace with himself.

He seems to have no qualms about having moved from Utah the summer before, no real regrets that in the rearview mirror are an owner, a franchise and a state that all had embraced him with mostly open arms for nearly two decades.

The Mailman, as he has been known throughout his 19-season NBA career, is California cool while contemplating all he left behind.

"How everything transpired — that's how I can sit here with the calm that I have now," he said then. "Because it's one of those things that worked out for everybody."

Since he sat with such serenity that winter evening in Texas, however, precious little has worked out as Malone would want.

The Lakers and their perpetual theater of the absurd have become something scripted out of daytime television. Malone, typically a picture of perfect health, has an injury unlike any other with which he ever had to deal. And the owner, Larry H. Miller, no longer has that warm and fuzzy feeling for the man he once treated like a son.

Still, Malone senses he did the right thing.

"A lot of players have left Utah and not had good experiences. It's kind of just the way it is there," Malone's agent, Dwight Manley, said Saturday. "But Karl loves the sand. And he did love playing in Utah — but he made it clear the quest for a championship was how he wanted to end his career. He didn't want to just play for stats, and that wasn't possible (with the Jazz)."

When Malone opted last July to sign with the Lakers, he was off to chase the NBA title that eluded him in Utah.

The chance to become the league's No. 1 all-time scorer, a lofty status that prior to the departure had been well within his grasp, was set aside.

A championship, Malone said, "would mean a great deal to me."

The Jazz, meanwhile, were free to get on with what everyone from Miller on down knew was inevitable.

They were free to rebuild.

"The Jazz's plan was all about saving money, and getting under the (NBA's team payroll salary) cap, and moving on with things," Manley said.

"He (Malone) didn't fit into those plans."

On, then, to L.A., where it's been one calamity after another for a Laker team built to win it all right away.

The NBA suspended Malone for elbowing Dallas point guard Steve Nash in the mouth, causing him to miss a Dec. 7 game in Los Angeles that would have been his first against the Jazz as a Laker.

Three weeks later, in a game against Phoenix, one of the Suns awkwardly fell on Malone, crushing his right knee.

Initially, a sprain was suspected.

Malone worked hard to rehab the injury, which turned out to be a medial collateral ligament tear, keeping him out much longer than he ever anticipated and preventing him from playing in a highly hyped Jan. 24 game that was to have been his first at the Delta Center since leaving Salt Lake City.

Because of the knee injury, Malone does not plan to play in tonight's Jazz-Lakers game at the Delta Center, either. But as one of Utah's highest-profile public figures, even eight months after leaving the state, he does intend to watch.

He was not on hand, though, in late January.

Then, in Malone's absence, an imitator mimicking his voice did make an audio appearance on the arena's public-address system.

That royally ticked off the Jazz's longtime scoring king, exposing that he is much-more disappointed about being ushered out of Utah than initially he was willing to admit publicly.

Miller, in turn, was ticked by Malone's reaction, prompting the owner to say last Friday night that "I don't need Karl in my life."

Yet there is much about his former life that Malone misses.

"I miss 'five minutes, I'm in the mountains,' " the avid outdoorsman said. "I miss the hunting — really miss that a lot. . . . I miss 'two minutes out of my house and I'm hiking.' "

That's not all.

"I miss a lot of the people (in Utah) that I became really close with — some of them my teammates, some of them people off the court."

One of them a man named Jerry Sloan.

Before he was suspended, Malone considered how he would handle the first time he was to see his old coach on the opposite bench.

"I know for a fact I'm gonna go up and shake his hand and maybe give him a hug. That's just the way I am," he said. "You don't spend 18 years in a place and not have that kind of feeling."

Tonight, even though he won't play, there is no reason to suspect the plan has changed.

Sloan, after all, grew so close to Malone and now-retired teammate John Stockton that the three all consider each other family.

That is why the longtime Jazz coach has long felt the initial reunion might be awkward.

"Probably so," Sloan said, "because the relationship Karl and I had over the years is just a little bit different than an ordinary player-coach relationship."

Early this season — several weeks before what was to have been Malone's first game against the Jazz — Sloan had a third party deliver a message to The Mailman.

"I told him we were gonna kick his (rear end)," Sloan said. "I thought I could say that to him more than I could to anyone else."

It was with less frivolity that the two spoke over the summer, when Malone still was coming to grips with what then seemed like the toughest call of his life.

On one hand, choosing to move was a family decision. Yet every time he turned, Malone realized the responsibility for actually pulling the trigger was his. One of his own daughters, WNBA player Cheryl Ford, suggested as much in revealing her advice to him.

"I said, 'Do what you want,' " Ford said.

In the end, Malone did opt to take a relatively paltry salary (by pro basketball standards) to pursue what Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ran away with the two years Utah did reach the NBA Finals.

Informing Sloan followed shortly afterward.

"He just said, 'This is what I'm gonna do.' And I said, 'Well, I respect that, and we wish you nothing but the best,' " Sloan said. "That's the only way I know to handle it: Go on about our business."

The response is not nearly as cold as it may sound.

"At an early age," Sloan said, "I lost my father — and you learn with that that you go on about your business."

Especially when the business decision is one that makes sound sense to those whose opinions matter most.

"He put winning over money in a league that, quite, frankly, needed that," Malone-agent Manley said. "In a league known for greed, he said, 'Winning is my biggest priority,' and put his money where his mouth is."

Malone is being paid $1.5 million this season, well below the $19.25 million he made in his final season with the Jazz and millions less than what at least one other team (San Antonio) was willing to pay.

More than the money, though, the hardest part may have been accepting that he and the Jazz would no longer be mentioned in the same breath.

That, and leaving his much-respected — and quite-understanding — coach.

"You know, it's not a matter of life and death, or anything like that," Sloan said. "He's happy and doing well, and we're just still trying to do our job — and that's all there is to it."

But is Malone really happy?

In December, relieved of the weighty burden of a franchise carried for so long on his and Stockton's shoulders, those around him most insisted he was.

"Why would he want to think about the past?" asked Bryon Russell, a longtime teammate in Utah and now a teammate with the Lakers.

Malone himself said that after "a couple of years where, you know, it was kind of touch-and-go," he was "having as much fun as I've had playing the game."

Three-plus months and one very serious knee injury later, the likelihood of moving from No. 2 to No.1 on the NBA scoring list now perhaps pushed beyond reality's reach, the chance of an actually winning a title with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton and Phil Jackson much less-certain than it seemed back then, he is said to still be quite upbeat.

Upbeat, despite O'Neal's need to periodically remind everyone he is the man around whom everything really revolves in L.A.

Upbeat, despite Bryant's legal troubles with a sexual assault charge, personal troubles with Jackson and, now, troubles with a shoulder injury that will keep from playing tonight and perhaps for another month.

Upbeat, despite Payton's problems with playing time in Jackson's triangle offense, and Payton's wondering if joining Malone in L.A. really was a wise move.

Upbeat, despite Jackson's disdain for Bryant's need to upstage O'Neal whenever he gets a chance.

"He's very, very happy as part of the (Lakers)," Manley said, "and he's actually taken on the role as sort of the leader — a locker room presence that's neutral in all of the soap opera stuff."

Malone is sure, then, that actually parting ways with the Jazz makes sense.

"There ain't no doubt," The Mailman said. "I had to do it. I don't think they would have done it, so I had to do it."

Ultimately, Malone feels firmly the split is "best for both sides."

It's March, the Lakers are visiting Utah, and Malone won't know for a few more months if he truly can be at peace.

"Hopefully, in June, we get the better end of it," he said. "That's the main thing."


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com