LEHI, Utah – When Real Salt Lake look to make history on Wednesday night, they'll have the support and full attention of arguably the most famous figure in Utah sports history: NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone.
“I know a lot about the team,” Malone told MLSsoccer.com over the phone after taking a break from mowing his lawn in Ruston, La. “One of my daughters follows a couple of the players really closely.”
One of those players is defender Chris Wingert, whose publicist, Roxanne Hasegawa, was Malone’s former publicist during his years in Utah. The MLS player met Malone’s daughters, passed along an RSL jersey and, in the process, won a legion of supporters.
“I like to watch kids that people respect,” Malone said. “So that’s why I know them.”
Although the former Utah Jazz great and two-time NBA MVP admits he doesn't follow soccer too closely, he said he was planning on watching Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League finale (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer, TeleFutura) from his home in Louisiana.
“When I was there you [could] see soccer starting to grow,” Malone said of his near 20-year tenure with the Jazz. “When they got Real Salt Lake, you could see the floodgates open.”
[inline_node:109969]Another chief reason he’s tuning in to the CCL finale: His good friend and former Jazz executive Dave Checketts (at right) is the founder and co-owner of RSL.
“Dave Checketts is an awesome owner,” Malone said of the person he credits for bringing him to the Jazz. “I think the world of him. … When you’ve got an owner that’s willing to do what it takes for a team to be successful, what else do you want from an owner?
“If he said, ‘I’m working on a basketball team and I need you to help,’ I’d say, ‘Dave, where do you want me at?’ That’s what kind of person he is. He’s never changed. He’s always been the same person toward me. It’s wonderful he can keep an even keel as an owner. Great owner.”
The former Jazz great was also a soccer dad during his days in Salt Lake City. When she was 12, his daughter Kylee played goalkeeper for an indoor soccer team in Utah and she always had her dad, and Jazz teammates Bryon Russell and Matt Harpring, cheering on the sidelines for her matches, along with members of the Utah Freeze indoor team.
However, ever since the Malone family moved to Louisiana, the kids’ soccer playing also came to a halt. Kylee now throws javelin and practices shot put while her older sibling, Kadee, is currently redshirting for the Louisiana Tech women’s basketball team. Younger brother Karl Jr. is a football player while the youngest, Karlee, rides horses.
Today Malone is busy with development projects back in Louisiana. With a partner, he has opened a Texaco/Arby’s and he also leases properties including condominiums.
His car dealership in Utah often brings him back to Salt Lake City, although he does not own a home there any longer. Malone and his family have been trying to make it out to an RSL match but conflicts have prevented it. Then there was last year. A family trip to Salt Lake City to celebrate Malone’s 47th birthday coincided with the July 24 Pioneer Game against Chivas USA. It was sold out.
“They wanted to go see [Wingert] but Real Salt Lake was sold out,” Hasegawa said. “It didn’t matter who you were. Even he couldn’t get tickets. They ended up watching the game on TV but they’re going to come back up here and watch them play soon.”
If Malone couldn’t get a ticket for a regular-season match, there would even be less of a chance for the CCL finals second leg on Wednesday night.
“The Utah fan is very knowledge about soccer and everything about other sports,” Malone said. “It’s only fitting to have a game of this magnitude. Those are some of the most unbelievable fans in all of sports."
Malone has a great deal of respect for soccer and the athletes who play it.
“How long do they run?” he asked. “They could get up and run from their home to the field and that’s just their warm-up for the game.”
He got a taste of the passion that exists around the sport in South Africa last summer while on a safari hunt. He says he was “in the bush” but still was able to keep up with the competition where he was hunting. Real Salt Lake are now a Champions League trophy away from advancing to their own World Cup – the international club edition.
“I’m not able to make it but it’s just awesome that it’s in Utah,” Malone said of Wednesday's CCL finale. “Fans in Utah are starving for great, entertaining sport. Soccer was already big in Utah and it’s only getting bigger.”
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