Malone, the eighth of nine children in a poor but fiercely independent family from a tiny town in northern Louisiana, has never been a stranger to hard work. His mother struggled to earn enough to raise her children, but she never applied for welfare even though the family was eligible. "It was my responsibility to take care of my own children. I believe every tub should sit on its own bottom," she later told Sports Illustrated reporter Craig Neff.
In the early 1980s Malone played college basketball for Louisiana Tech, only a short drive from his family's home in Summerfield. He was not eligible to play as a freshman because his high school grade point average (GPA) of 1.97 was below the 2.0 requirement, but by his junior year of college he saw this as a blessing. After leading his high school basketball team to three consecutive Class C state titles, "I was starting to think that I was better than other people, that I was special and things would just come to me," Malone told Neff. The shock of not being allowed to play forced him to put more effort into his studies, and by his junior year he had the third-highest GPA on the Louisiana Tech team.
Later in life, this willingness to work hard would do much for Malone's NBA career. A forty-eight percent foul shooter as a rookie, he concentrated on improving this aspect of his game and now makes three in four of
his free throws. He is legendary among NBA players for his rigorous training regimen, which includes cutting hay and branding cattle with his brother over the summer, on a ranch in Arkansas that he owns. Malone's teammates are invited to come along, but only one, former Jazz player Ike Austin, ever took him up on it. Austin, a protégé of Malone's who worked his way to a Most Improved Player award in 1997, told Sport magazine's Tom McEachin about one of their summer days together on Malone's ranch. The two got up at 5:00 a.m., spent forty-five minutes on the stair machine, another two-and-a-half hours lifting weights, and a few hours working in the fields—all before lunch. Then they lifted more weights after lunch. Austin recalled that when they were done "I couldn't lift my arms. When I got back from lifting, I just fell asleep, right there at the table. Everybody was laughing, and Karl was like, man, just go to your room." Malone's hard work has paid off. Since his rookie season he has more than halved his body fat percentage, from over ten percent to an even four.