Malone's worst first at 40

The promise was made and shared back in July. "Coach Jackson," Karl Malone relayed, "says three out of four of us will be on the floor at all times."

Turns out Phil Jackson was hoping, not promising.

Turns out the Lakers used up a lot of their good fortune the last time they employed a 40-year-old big man bound for the Hall of Fame.

"It was just an incredible year when everything went right," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalled, rewinding to the 1986-87 season. "We had no injuries or any of the things that can jump up and snake-bite you."

Today's Lakers, living out their worst fears already, will actually be without three of their four cornerstones Friday when the schedule finally delivers the season's first L.A.-Sacramento grudge match. Shaquille O'Neal is nursing an ongoing calf problem that threatens to linger. Kobe Bryant's surgically repaired shoulder is freshly sprained, and the Lakers are forced to exhale because the injury isn't more serious. Karl Malone, meanwhile, is somehow in worse shape than both of them, dealing with the first long-term injury of his career and thus facing his first-ever comeback from injury ... which can't be easy, at 40, when you've never had to rehab before.

Turns out, then, that there's a new media hex to put up there with Sports Illustrated's famed cover jinx and the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings jinx.

Add the Men's Fitness jinx to your list.

Our favorite Mailman is on the cover of that magazine's February issue, guns flexed and billed right there on the front as THE NBA'S FITTEST MAN. On the inside pages, Malone shares some of his workout tips, including a few of his offseason routines, which he previously insisted had to be kept secret.

The NBA's Fittest Man, sadly, has discovered that the secret for success as an elder statesman in this league is really no secret, no matter how well you prepare. No matter how freakishly low your body-fat percentage is.

Even a longevity king like Malone needed good luck to dodge the odds that suggested eventually -- someday -- he was going to have to take a turn on the injured list. Malone knows more than ever now how much good luck means, after Phoenix's Scott Williams crashed into him on Dec. 21, spraining Malone's knee and interrupting his chase of Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record.

"That year I turned 40, I (thought) I was going to retire, so I just wanted to go out playing well," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It turned out to be one of the best years I had in my career, just because I never had any physical problems."

At that age, Abdul-Jabbar couldn't have possibly been more productive than he was that season. He averaged nearly 18 points and seven rebounds during the regular season -- missing only four games -- and then averaged nearly 19 points, seven rebounds and two blocks during the playoffs. He also got ready for that season by teaching his skyhook to Magic Johnson over the summer, and it was Magic's "junior, junior sky hook" that sparked L.A. to a championship by clinching Game 4 at Boston Garden.

Malone was rather productive himself until his physical problem. He's averaging 14 points and 9.5 rebounds, numbers any team's third or fourth option would happily claim. Of course, he also hasn't played a single game since Dec. 21, thanks to a collision that figures to scuttle Malone's scheduled Jan. 24 return to Salt Lake City.

The contact with Williams didn't look so bad on TV replays, but when was the last time you saw such a look of anguish on Malone's face?



That look has to concern the Lakers as much as anything going on with Shaq and Kobe's bodies, because no one can say they know how Malone's 40-year-old knee will respond. Fact is, they need all four of their cornerstones in the new West to re-establish themselves as champions. With Rick Fox, their best hope of containing Peja Stojakovic, also injured, L.A.'s bench is awfully thin. Yet the dearth of power players on that bench can make Malone seem almost as irreplaceable as The Big Everything.

OK. Maybe no one is as irreplaceable as O'Neal. But Malone has been missed already and has to be cursing the timing of his Men's Fitness cover shot. He really is the NBA's Fittest Man, but that guarantees nothing when it comes to avoiding a bad break.

A bad break that was inevitable after 18 seasons of dodging them.

"I'm not a big gambler, but I rolled the dice in my career," Malone said early in the season, explaining why he's wearing No. 11 with the Lakers.

"Seven and 11 are lucky in Vegas and I just took 11 because I wanted double digits."

Is it too late to see if rookie Brian Cook can trade him No. 7?

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.