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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Fans and officials gathered Friday to bid a fond farewell to former Utah Jazz player Karl Malone.
Malone, 40, has been a state celebrity since he was picked 13th in the 1985 draft. Over the years, he has become one of Utah's most recognizable residents. In 1997, the state's largest newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, named him "Utahn of the Year."
Friday's events began at the state Capitol, where Gov. Mike Leavitt thanked Malone for his years of citizenship and activism in Utah. Leavitt also signed a proclamation naming Friday "Karl Malone Day."
Malone and his family leave Utah this weekend for their new home and his new team in Los Angeles.
Wildlife organizations, law enforcement officers and others who he has helped over the years joined the governor to recognize "Karl Malone the citizen," Leavitt said.
Bob Flowers, state public safety commissioner, who said law enforcement agencies served Utah residents better thanks to Malone's contributions to officers and their families.
In the past, Malone, an honorary Utah Highway Patrol colonel, has asked state lawmakers for more funding for the troopers as well as helping out the officers in other ways.
Kevin Conway, Director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, called Malone, an avid hunter, an outstanding ambassador for wildlife conservation.
"You are leaving Utah wildlife better than you found it," Conway said.
Malone joked with the gathering that they should view his departure, one that he hopes will result in an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, as if he's going on a two-year mission -- referring to the proselytizing missions that devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serve.
"Thank you to the state of Utah for allowing me to grow as a person, as a man," Malone said.
Malone was emotional as he talked about the families that he has gotten to know through his work with the Karl Malone Foundation for Kids.
"I want to thank the families who give us inspiration," Malone said. "We get our strength from you as a family."
Melissa Hansen, of Salt Lake City, attended the event with her son Oakley, 9. Oakley uses a large motorized wheelchair, and the Karl Malone Foundation for Kids gave the Hansen a van about four years ago to improve Oakley's mobility.
"Karl, sweet, sweet, Karl. He provided something for our family that we could not provide for ourselves, and that is our freedom by giving us that van," Hansen said. "Wherever Karl is, that is where our hearts are. We're Lakers!"
Friday evening Malone hosted a free "thank-you" party at the Delta Center for fans. A few thousand of them filed into the arena where they were treated to free hot dogs and soft drinks, a highlight video on the arena television and a chance to win autographed Karl Malone Jazz paraphernalia.
Kay Malone helped dole out the prizes and Malone was expected to address the crowd. Malone Jazz jerseys dotted the arena, entire families were wearing No. 32.
"He's been a part of Salt Lake city for 19 years now. He feels like family," said Steve Finch, of Salt Lake City. "We're here to see him off, send him to get his ring."
But come Jan. 24, when Malone returns to the Delta Center as an opponent, these fans admit it will be hard to see their favorite player in Laker yellow.
"We hate the Lakers. But I'd like to see him get his ring he deserves it," said Marge Priest, of Layton.
"We'll cheer for him, but we'll be cheering against the Lakers," Finch said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)