A Rare Portrait of Karl Malone’s Life Back Home in Louisiana

RUSTON, La. -- Some folks in town call it “Malone Land.”

You’ll find it about a mile off Interstate 20, where road signs rise higher and higher, like trees in the forest canopy competing for sunlight. It stretches all the way to the Jiffy Lube on North Trenton Street, but its true epicenter rests right where East Kentucky Avenue fades into Burgessville Road, on the northeastern edge of Ruston, Louisiana.

There’s the Arby’s along Farmerville Highway. Down the two-lane street, Legends Cigar and Vape. Across the way, a strip mall featuring a Teriyaki Grill, an Eskamoe’s Frozen Custard & More, and a 5.11 Tactical store. Behind that, a sprawling luxury apartment complex—complete with a pool, barbecues, bonfire pits, a rec room and a gym.

All owned, and most operated, by Karl Malone and his family.

“It's just one of these places that have allowed me to grow and thrive as a young man,” Karl tells CloseUp360 this summer, while granting access inside his life in Ruston for the first time. “And to be able to come back home, things still don't seem real.”

Karl Malone spends some quality time at home with his dog and his coffee. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Karl Malone spends quality time with one of his dogs—a Havanese named Holden—at his family's home in Ruston, Louisiana. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Karl first came to Ruston in 1981, when coach Andy Russo recruited him to play college basketball at Louisiana Tech. At the time, Karl was, in his words, a “little snotty-nosed kid from Summerfield,” about an hour south of where the seat of his budding Bayou empire now rests.

After leading Summerfield High School to three Louisiana state championships, Karl took his talents to Tech, where he was the Southland Conference Men’s Player of the Year as a sophomore and a National Association of Basketball Coaches All-American as a senior.

Long before Karl groomed his game in Ruston, he learned the basics of business from watching how his mother, Shirley, handled hers.

“My mom had a little country store, but I saw the way they treated people,” he says. “And I also saw the way successful business people treated the lowest person on the totem pole.”

Even for a tower of power like Karl Malone, it came down to the little things.

“What, in our mind, we consider the lowest person on the totem pole, in their mind, they're not,” he says. “Why can't we treat them accordingly? Simple things. Speak to 'em. Acknowledge 'em. ‘Thank you. Great job.’

“But be prepared to jump their butt, jump the janitor's butt, just like you would anybody else, and vice versa. And that's what I've always tried to do.”

Shirley also encouraged Karl, the youngest of her nine children, to chase his dreams, as wild as they seemed to most around him.

“I was that little boy that everybody, including family members, said, ‘Yeah, boy, get on. Dream on,’” he says, “except my mom.”

A commercial truck driver? A colonel in the Marines flying a Harrier jet? One of the best players to ever set foot in the NBA?

Where others had their doubts, Shirley would encourage her ambitious son.

“I know you will,” she would tell him.

A photo fo Karl with his mother Shirley (right) from the Malone family home in Ruston, Louisiana. (Amir Ebrahimi)

A photo of Karl with his mother, Shirley, from the Malone family home in Ruston. (Courtesy of the Malone family)

For 19 years, Karl’s primary business was playing basketball in the NBA. And for those 19 years, business was booming.

Fourteen All-Star appearances, 11 All-NBA First Team selections, four All-Defensive nods, two league MVPs, two All-Star MVPs—all with the Utah Jazz. The second-most career points scored in the NBA. Two Olympic gold medals, the first with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the “Dream Team” in 1992.

But for all his on-court accomplishments, Karl rarely brought the game home with him. Such was his “promise” to his wife, Kay, and their hope to show their four kids—Kadee, Kylee, Karl Kr. (better known as K.J.) and Karlee—that, though their dad’s basketball career provided a comfortable life, there was much more to it than just the game.

“We wanted to keep our kids grounded,” Kay says.

And not keep them up too late on school nights, either. When Karl played home games with the Jazz in Salt Lake City, Kay would bring the kids home from the Delta Center at halftime. That way, they’d be in bed before the adrenaline of his job rubbed off on them.

We'd just make it a routine,” she says.

It wasn’t until after Karl retired from the NBA in 2004, when the family moved back to north Louisiana—in part, to teach their children about “Southern hospitality”—that their kids began to realize who their dad was and what he had accomplished on the court.

“I really didn't see his game until, like, I moved down here and everybody's, like, ‘Your dad is Karl Malone?,’” K.J. says. “And I was, like, ‘Yeah, that's my dad.’”

Kadee didn’t really know either, even though she was known as the “Mail Lady” on the girls’ basketball team at Cedar Creek School in Ruston. It wasn’t until 2010, when she was watching Karl’s career highlights during his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, that she realized how great a player her dad had been.

“I'm just sitting there, like, ‘Wow,’” she says. “The only thing I could really say was, like, ‘I didn't know my dad could run that fast.’”

Karl’s business acumen, though, was no secret to his family.

“He started talking about life after basketball when we got married,” Kay says.

That was in 1990. By then, Karl was a perennial All-Star. He and Kay would talk endlessly about the businesses they wanted to get into. Karl, ever the Paul Bunyan of Lincoln Parish, had logging atop his wish list.

“He's always talking about [how] he has his little pee brain,” Kay says. “That little pee brain works overtime all the time.”

While in Utah, Karl learned the ins and outs of business from the owner of the Jazz, the late Larry Miller. Since then, he’s opened three car dealerships and two motorsports dealerships in Salt Lake City.

Back in Louisiana, all that bore the Malone moniker were the people in his family. And there were plenty of them, with Karl being the youngest of nine and the father of four more who share his last name.

Karl's Ruston Requirements

1) A flip phone, rifle and an outfit from 5.11 Tactical

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2) Coffee from Black Rifle Coffee Company

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3) Donuts and kolaches (sausage rolls) from Daylight Donuts

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4) La Aurora Barrel Aged by Karl Malone cigars

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(Photos by Amir Ebrahimi)

That changed this August, with the opening of 5.11 Tactical by Karl Malone in Ruston. The ceremonial door-busting—5.11 doesn’t do the traditional ribbon-cutting—had been years in the making. Like the rest of his business ventures, this one began with his passion for the product, which he wears nearly everywhere he goes.

The company typically targets markets with populations of at least 1-2 million people to open new stores. Ruston’s rests around 22,000, rising when Louisiana Tech and nearby Grambling State are in session. But in discussions with then-CEO and current 5.11 advisor Tom Davin, Karl didn’t budge. If he was going to work with his favorite clothing brand, the partnership would have to begin in Ruston.

“I just watch years and years of every time something new come that people need,” Karl says, “it normally go to Shreveport and Monroe or New Orleans.”

This time, it came to Ruston—the first time 5.11 Tactical had popped up in such a small market, the first time it had partnered with a pro athlete, the first time it had co-branded a store.

And the first time Karl officially planted his flag in Malone Land.

“I didn't want it to appear that, ‘Look at me,’ I guess,” he says. “But it's been really good for us.”

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Customers fill 5.11 Tactical by Karl Malone during its grand opening this summer in Ruston. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Terraforming is a favorite pastime of Karl’s. Ever since his family moved to Ruston, following his final NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he’s spent his days turning his visions into reality on his properties, starting from scratch.

He began with the dream home—complete with a cabin-like interior, trap doors and enough taxidermy to fill a Smithsonian museum. The Malones built the cozy headquarters of their estate on the outskirts of town, in a residential subdivision owned by a local businessman named Duke Marcus.

When Karl isn’t courting family and friends in his home or checking on his businesses around town, he often finds peace and freedom on the land—his land—that he shapes as he sees fit. On two nearby properties totaling around 2,800 acres, he hunts, fishes, rides buggies, harvests timber and, when it suits him, just gets away for a while. Each day brings a new path to pave, a new patch of brush to clear with his Caterpillar, a new pile of feed to lay out for the deer he’ll hunt in the fall.

All the while, Karl and his family have been busy turning a corner of town beyond sight of Interstate 20 into Malone Land.

“He’s an icon here,” says Bobby Sanders, Karl’s neighbor and most frequent workout partner.

“What he has done and his family have done for this area is just… you can't really pinpoint it,” says Duke, whose family considers the Malones “some of our best friends.” “You can't. It's immense, honestly.”

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Karl rides around one of his Ruston properties in his Wildcat buggy. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Karl didn’t build this kingdom by himself. Nor does he maintain it all on his own.

Kylee co-owns and manages the Teriyaki Grill, which began as Kay’s passion project. Across the street, Kadee co-owns and runs Legends, where Karlee works while pursuing a career in modeling—much like her mother, who was Miss Idaho USA in 1988, when she and Karl first met.

Karl spent two years observing Kadee as she helped design every detail of Legends, from the height of the bar and the Caribbean-inspired patio, to the rustic wooden decor and selection of family sports memorabilia on display.

“After everything my dad has done and everything that we've been around, I've seen how hard he worked to keep an empire for our family,” Kadee says. “So he kind of built all this. And I've always wanted to be a part of it.”

A week after Legends opened its doors this summer, Karl put Kadee in charge and gave her half of the business.

“Five years from, 10 years from now, she might not want to do Legends anymore,” Karl says. “But if she learn the principles of business by being at Legends, she always gonna be part-owner, no matter if she there running it or not. That's how we do it. That's how I do it.”

The entire family took part in the creation of the hottest-selling cigar at Legends: La Aurora Barrel Aged by Karl Malone. Across frequent family vacations to the Dominican Republic that doubled as business trips, the Malones spent time at the famed La Aurora cigar factory in Santiago de los Caballeros and dined with the León family, which owns and operates it. The Malones met the cigar rollers, designed the basketball-inspired wrapper and packaging, picked out the tobacco blend and, of course, sampled the product.

“He wanted us to do it with him because he wanted us to show everyone that we do everything as a family,” Kadee says. “That's just how we've always been.”

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Kadee Malone, Karl and Kay Malone's oldest daughter, poses in front of Legends Cigar and Vape in Ruston. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Together, the Malone family has created opportunities for people—especially local high-school and college kids—to work, live comfortably and stay in Ruston. According to Kay, who oversees all things family alongside Karl, her kids set an example for the young people in town by participating in the local workforce rather than resting on their father’s laurels.

“If we can help, if we can watch our children work,” she says, “[the people of Ruston] will see our kids working, like, ‘Oh your kids work? Why do they have to work?’ Well, they have to because they have to. It's just kind of a domino effect.”

So far, Karl and Kay’s daughters are capitalizing on the family’s many endeavors. So is Daryl Ford, Karl’s eldest son, who takes care of Karl’s logging business. And so is Demetress Bell, Karl’s second-oldest son, who took over the trucking business that transports those logs following his four-year career in the NFL.

Not all of Karl’s kids are directly involved in his endeavors, though they’ve taken after him in their own ways.

Like her father, Cheryl Ford, Karl’s eldest daughter, enjoyed a decorated career in pro basketball. She was a four-time All-Star, three-time champion and two-time rebounding leader with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, following four years at Summerfield High and four more at Louisiana Tech.

K.J. opted for football over basketball, and earned a scholarship to LSU as an offensive lineman. After suffering a knee injury in college that cut short his time in the NFL, K.J. parlayed his father’s passion for people in the service into the pursuit of a career as a Louisiana State Trooper.

“He was happy when I said I wanted to be in law enforcement because he said, ‘If I can trust anybody to protect me, it would be you,’” K.J. says.

Though Karl never became an officer himself, his son shares the same drive for excellence that helped dad find success in life.

“I kind of want to help change the look of how cops are,” K.J. says. “Like, we're here to protect and I was an offensive lineman, so I protected quarterbacks. Now I want to protect everybody.”

It may come as a relief to Karl that some of his kids have paved their own paths. Business can get messy, even more so when the ties are bound in blood.

“Who do I watch closest? My family, because our family… we the ones that can harm each other the most,” Karl explains. “But God, when it's ginning right, it's no better feeling. When everybody is pulling in the same direction, it's amazing. But when you have that one family member pulling in the opposite direction, it mess up the whole apple cart, so that's just always a work in progress.

“Family, it's the most rewarding and sometimes it's the toughest because when family do something that hurt, it's to the core. But you work through it, and don't take it personal. And sometimes in family, we do take it personal because it's family.”

When Karl speaks of family, he means more than just his wife, kids and relatives. To him, the people of Ruston are family, just as the town of Ruston is home. That street, like the stretch of East Kentucky Avenue that splits Malone Land, runs both ways.

“The public of Ruston have actually grown to not only love his businesses, but to love his family, love Karl and to appreciate everything that he's done for Ruston,” says Stephen Taylor, a lifelong Ruston resident, detective in the Louisiana State Police and friend of the Malones.

Karl and his family may be big fish in a small Southern pond. But as they see it, they are less Ruston royalty than stewards of a place that has embraced them for who they are.

“I wanna leave it better than I found it,” Karl says. “Not, ‘Thank you, Malone family,’ but Malone family saying, ‘Thank you’ to Ruston.”

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.