|Stockton, Malone master fading away|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
If the lockout of 1998-99 was a minor disaster for the NBA at-large, the shortened season that resulted sounded the death knell for the championship hopes of the Utah Jazz. In their two previous seasons, the Jazz had reached the NBA's championship series (losing both times to the Chicago Bulls) -- and with Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson (temporarily) retired, with Scottie Pippen in Houston and Dennis Rodman permanently reduced to civilian status, the Jazz were entitled to believe that the gold ring was well within their grasp.
At the time, Karl Malone was 35, John Stockton was 36 -- youthful old-timers, only a half-step slower than they were in their respective primes, yet still sporting sufficient skills and savvy to succeed the Bulls. Trouble was that instead of the normal schedule of approximately three games per week from November through April, the abbreviated remains of the '98-99 season required 50 games in less than four months -- an average of nearly five games each week.
Because Utah's two superstars were on the cusp of senior citizenry, the dense schedule was exhausting. Sure, the Jazz finished the regular season at 37-13, but they had little juice left for the playoffs and were bounced in the second round by Portland. Since then, Utah's decline has been inexorable -- from 55 wins in 1999-2000, to 53 wins in 2000-01, and down to 44 last year.
When the Jazz came into New York on Nov. 12, their record was a discordant 2-5. Malone is now a hoary 39, and Stockton will be 41 next March.
Obviously, the Jazz are more than just Stockton and Malone -- they've got the usual coach, three other starters, a bench, etc. (See box, below, for analysis of the supporting cast.) But it's Stockton and Malone who will make the difference -- either way -- so let's look at the scouting report on the feisty but aging partners in give-and-go:
Karl Malone, 6-foot-9, 256. Despite his impressive career numbers, I've always thought he had an overstuffed rep. For me, Malone is the main reason why the Jazz are so often out of tune. Here's a pair of stories that reveal what kind of a guy Malone really is:
1. One day a few years back, Malone suddenly charged into the office of his agent, Bill Berkeley, tore open his shirt to show his chest, and said, "Look at me. I've got a better physique than Michael Jordan. I'm more handsome than Michael Jordan. And I'm a better player than Michael Jordan. So why isn't my picture on a box of cereal?" Then he pounded his fist on Berkeley's desk and stormed off.
2. Malone was a member of a USA team that was playing Panama as part of the qualifying procedure for the 1992 Olympic Games. International protocol has the competing teams meet on-court prior to the game to exchange symbolic gifts. After the USA routed Panama by some 60 points, Malone expressed his displeasure: "We gave them nice T-shirts and they only gave us tiny little pins." This, even though Malone's annual salary was three times Panama's GNP.
These days, the lift is gone from Malone's legs, so he has difficulty creating sufficient separation from his defender when unloosing his favorite shot, a fadeaway jumper in the low post.
Matched up against Kurt Thomas in the Knicks game, Malone's first five shots are fadeaways from the pivot. Thomas gets an outstretched hand close enough to the release point to distract Malone and all five misfire.
If an NBA championship now seems out of his reach, Malone is determined to overtake Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and become the NBA's leading career scorer. (Kareem finished with 38,387, whereas including the Knicks game, Malone has 34,831.) To set the record, Malone needs to average more than 45 points per game this season, or 22.5 for two seasons. The result of Malone's mania is that he's become shot-happy.
Utah leads 103-83 with 1:25 left in the game. Jarron Collins reports to the scorer's table, under coach's orders to replace Malone. Well aware of the imminent substitution, Malone receives a pass at the high-post, waves the ball about as the cutters do their thing, then, totally ignoring at least three wide-open teammates, tosses up (and hits) a long jumper.
BUZZT! COLLINS FOR MALONE!
John Stockton, 6-1, 175. The best pure point-guard ever. (Magic Johnson was a miraculous freak who excelled at all five positions.)
Back in 1984, when Stockton was a scrawny rookie fresh out of Gonzaga, Sloan was an assistant coach under Frank Layden. "We knew right away that John had the goods," Sloan recalls. "The only thing we worried about was his durability."
Nineteen years later, Stockton is still the Jazz's serendipitous floor leader, still playing aggressively and unafraid. As part of Utah's offense, Stockton was once required to set back picks on opposing centers, a task he relished. To save some wear and tear, however, Stockton's back-picks have been removed from the playbook. Even so, the feisty Stockton never backs down from a challenge.
Clarence Weatherspoon, six inches taller and 100 pounds heavier, sets a pick on Stockton. The little man digs an elbow into the big man's ribs, throws a shoulder into Weatherspoon's chest, then falls to the floor. The ref whistles the foul against a confused Weatherspoon.
Tales of Stockton's courage are legendary: Not letting a temporarily locked knee or a 17-stitch gash in his shooting hand prevent him from playing in preseason games! Maybe he's lost two steps, perhaps his free-throw percentage is down, his trigger a bit slower, his passes occasionally off-target -- but Stockton remains the most important player on the team.
As per his regular rotation, Stockton plays the game's initial eight minutes. He would normally play another six to eight minutes to conclude the half, but with the Jazz in control of the game, Sloan forgoes his 40-year-old guard's second rotation.
Stockton then plays the entire third quarter and the first minute of the fourth. Utah leads by 30, and the game appears to be done and won -- so Sloan aims to sit Stockton for the duration. But with Mark Jackson (no kid himself) running the team -- here a turnover, there a missed shot -- the Jazz's lead quickly shrinks to 17. Quick as a wish, Stockton re-enters the game to restore the team's harmony.
With starting point guard Charlie Ward injured and backup Harold Eisley in foul trouble, the Knicks are reduced to playing rookie Frank Williams at the point. By coach Don Chaney's admission, Williams is not ready for NBA prime time -- and he's worried that if the youngster is unduly abused, his already fragile confidence will be shattered. But with Ward out, Chaney can't afford to pick relatively unthreatening spots to play Williams.
No surprise, then, when Stockton immediately clears a side, faces the rookie eye-to-eye, and easily beats him to the basket. On the next possession, a slick pass finds Malone alone underneath. Another assist for Stockton as Matt Harpring curls off a pick. Stockton is finally relieved for good with 2:24 remaining and Utah up 20.
What, then, is the secret of Stockton's longevity? Hard work, certainly. But also the secret ministrations of Dr. Craig Buhter, a chiropractor who has routinely traveled with the team for the past dozen or so seasons. Using chiropractic adjustments, various muscle activation techniques, applied kinesiology diagnostics, nutritional counseling and homeopathic remedies, Dr. Buhter has been instrumental in keeping Stockton's motor running at such peak efficiency.
So, how good can the Jazz be in the here-and-now? At best, it says here, a first-round playoff team, a particularly stubborn opponent in Salt Lake City's rarified altitude.
And if the Utah Jazz's best days are behind them, the same holds true for coach Jerry Sloan. "I don't smoke and I don't drink anymore," he says. "And you know something? I felt better when I did."
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."