When they first offered to make Karl Malone a hero, he was
hesitant, because if there is one thing Malone has learned, it's
that heroes are not easily made. But then the illustrator sent
him artwork, and the writer sent him story lines, and Malone
finally approved of the concept for a comic-book superhero
called the Mailman, a futuristic (is there any other kind?)
crime fighter who would battle the robots and aliens threatening
the world. When the prospective creators of the Mailman met with
Malone in April, he had a couple of requests. Make that demands.
"I don't want to get shot, and I don't want to get scratched
up," Malone told them. "If you're a superhero, you're not
supposed to get killed or scratched or shot. You're supposed to
defy the odds."
Malone wishes those rules held true in real life, where at
week's end he was facing odds much longer than any his
comic-book counterpart will ever encounter. Single-handedly
saving mankind from an alien invasion is a minor undertaking
compared to wresting a championship from the Chicago Bulls. At
least that's the way it seemed on Sunday night after the Bulls
had administered a history-making, 96-54 thrashing to Malone's
Utah Jazz, giving Chicago a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven NBA
Finals. Utah's point total was the lowest in any NBA game since
the introduction of the shot clock in 1954, and the Jazz's
offensive futility was so mind-boggling that its coach, Jerry
Sloan, stopped in mid-sentence during his postgame press
conference when he glanced at the final statistics. "Was that
the score?" he said. "Was that really the final score?"
Utah took some small comfort in the knowledge that it had two
more chances, on Wednesday in Game 4 and on Friday in Game 5, to
get the one victory that would send the series back to Salt Lake
City, but there was no escaping the feeling that Chicago had not
just beaten the Jazz but also had solved the Jazz. The Bulls'
defenders attacked so ferociously that Utah couldn't run its
intricately patterned offense. Chicago forced the Jazz out of
its plays and into one-on-one basketball, which is a little like
making the Royal Philharmonic improvise its way through Good
Golly Miss Molly. "I think we have a good feel for their
offense," Michael Jordan said after Game 3. There are no more
ominous words for a Bulls opponent. They are usually Jordan's
kiss of death, his way of saying, We have located this team's
heart and are capable of removing it whenever we choose.
After the first two games of the series, the heart most in
question was Malone's. The Mailman comic book calls for Malone
to be revived after years of being frozen in Arctic ice, which
might have explained his frigid touch in the early going against
Chicago. He struggled through two horrid performances, making 9
of 25 shots in Game 1, and 5 of 16 in Game 2, and even though
Utah split the games, it was obvious that the Bulls would make
short work of the Jazz unless Malone returned to the form that
has made him an 11-time All-Star and the 1996-97 league MVP. "If
I don't play better," he said after Utah's 93-88 loss in Game 2,
"we don't win this series."
June 14, 1998
The rest of the Jazz players knew that as well, which is why
they took pains to make sure Malone didn't dwell on his shooting
problems. The night before Game 3, Stockton, Adam Keefe and
guard Jeff Hornacek had dinner with Malone in Chicago, where
they engaged in their usual good-natured exchange of insults.
The Mailman's shooting was one of the featured topics. "We got a
smile out of him," said Hornacek, "but I don't know if I'd say
he actually laughed."
If Malone was a bit grim, it was understandable. He doesn't seem
to hunger for the hero's role so much as he wants to avoid
disappointing his fans and teammates. Everywhere he turns in
Utah he's reminded of how badly the entire state wants a
championship. Every time he drives home, he sees a sign posted
in front of his neighbor's house bearing the numbers from 15 to
one, representing the 15 wins the Jazz needed at the start of
the playoffs to become champions for the first time in its
history. With each victory, another number is crossed out.
"Sometimes all the support can almost turn into a negative, if
you try so hard not to disappoint people," Hornacek says. "At
home, when you're struggling with your shot and you miss, you
hear that 'oooh' from the crowd, and maybe you start to press a
It wasn't a big surprise, then, that Malone finally regained his
touch when the series moved to Chicago. He made his first six
shots in Game 3, but it quickly became clear that he was the
only Jazz player not completely entangled in the Bulls'
defensive web. Malone ended up making 8 of 11 shots, but his
teammates were only 13 of 59 (22%), and Utah could not just
chalk that up to an off night. The Jazz made so few shots
because it was able to take so few good ones. Chicago shut down
Utah's famed pick-and-roll and just about anything else the Jazz
tried to run.
The Bulls' primary objective was to force Utah's short point
guards, the 6'1" Stockton and the 6'2" Howard Eisley, away from
the middle of the floor; stopping their penetration into the
lane severely limited the Jazz's options. Chicago added a
wrinkle by sending 6'7" Scottie Pippen, who again proved himself
to be the league's most versatile defender, out to help 6'6" Ron
Harper double-team Utah's point guard, making it difficult for
him to pass over, under or around their long arms. Pippen's two
steals and one blocked shot (he also drew three charging fouls)
didn't begin to indicate how disruptive he had been to the Jazz
offense. "Scottie was a one-man wrecking crew tonight," said
Bulls coach Phil Jackson.
Chicago was able to deploy this defense because it had Pippen
guarding 7'2" center Greg Ostertag. When Pippen went to
double-team the point, Ostertag was the man left unguarded. The
Bulls deemed this a worthwhile gamble because 1) Ostertag is a
weak offensive player, and 2) Pippen and Harper were pushing the
Utah guards so far from the basket that they often had to throw
lobs or long passes to get Ostertag the ball. This gave the
quick Chicago defenders time to rotate back into position and
challenge Ostertag's shots. Ostertag missed six of his seven
attempts, but he wasn't the only Jazz player who had a hard time
scoring inside. The long-limbed Bulls made what should have been
easy shots hard. Asked how Utah could combat Chicago's defensive
approach, Ostertag said, "Make some layups."
The Bulls' strategy of attacking Stockton and Eisley (they shot
a combined 1 for 10, and Stockton had five turnovers) wasn't
entirely new. The Jazz had faced similar defenses from other
teams, but other teams don't have Harper and Pippen. "Their
defensive pressure was great," Malone said after Game 3. "But
our plays will work if we run them and give them time."
Sunday's performance was a smothering defensive show. The Jazz
scored only nine points in the fourth quarter, even though
Jordan spent most of it on the bench icing his knees, and the
42-point margin of victory was the largest in Finals history.
The game was such a laugher that as the starters watched the
final minutes, Harper needled a Chicago columnist sitting nearby
who had picked Utah to win the series in six.
The win completed a remarkable turnaround for the Bulls, who had
seemed in great peril after Game 1. Not only had Utah won that
game, 88-85 in overtime, but the Jazz had also beaten Chicago
despite not playing particularly well--something that never
happened to the Bulls in their prime. Particularly troubling was
Dennis Rodman's lack of emotion on the court. Rodman, who hasn't
been thrilled about coming off the bench during the Bulls' last
two series, was strangely unenthusiastic and ineffective in Game
1, grabbing just 10 rebounds in 40 minutes. Before the game he
claimed to have torn ligaments in his right thumb, an injury
that Chicago's medical staff later said was just a sprain.
Rodman, who played with a heavily taped right hand, said after
the game that the injury hindered his ability to grab rebounds,
but it apparently didn't affect his ability to roll dice. He
bolted for Las Vegas almost immediately after Game 1 and was
spotted at six the next morning, still casino crawling.
One place Rodman wasn't spotted was on the bench early in the
third quarter of Game 2, when Jackson wanted to put him in the
game. Rodman was still in the locker room, warming up. It was
another example of the unprofessionalism Rodman has shown
throughout his Bulls career, the type of behavior that's easier
to ignore when he's grabbing 18 rebounds and Chicago is winning.
After the Game 1 loss, Jackson was less forgiving. "I think
Dennis has put himself out on a rail, and he has to perform
better for us," he said.
The Bulls' dynasty was also on that rail, in danger of falling,
but Rodman and his mates rescued themselves in Game 2. Rodman
had only nine rebounds, but five were offensive boards, and he
gave Chicago the burst of energy it desperately needed in the
fourth quarter. Rodman had done it again. Just when it seemed
time to dismiss him as nothing but a sideshow, a walking
publicity stunt, he demonstrated his value as a player.
And just when it seemed time to begin writing the Bulls'
obituary, they proved they were full of life. Jordan, who
averaged 31.3 points in the first three games of the series, was
aware of the many prognosticators who picked against him, and he
seemed amused--maybe even annoyed that there were still
doubters. "A lot of people were talking about our age, about how
many minutes I've been playing, whatever," he said after Game 2,
"but we're here, and we beat some good teams to get here. So if
that's what they consider dead, then I don't mind being dead for
a little while longer. I believe in what we can accomplish, no
matter what disadvantages people think we have."
At close of business on Sunday night, Utah was the team with
most of the disadvantages. The Jazz hadn't played well in any of
the three games, Sloan had questioned his players' competitive
spirit after two of them, and Utah was facing a team that had
regained its champion's stride. "Michael said something at
halftime," said guard Steve Kerr after Game 3. "He said, 'Let's
bury these guys and make them think about it.'"
Utah had a great deal to think about. It had three days to get
over Sunday's embarrassment and devise a way to counteract
Chicago's new defense. Otherwise, Jordan would claim a sixth
championship ring and prove again what everyone, even Malone,
should know by now--that there is one superhero no comic-book
creation can match, and he wears number 23 for the Bulls.
At halftime, Jordan said, "Let's bury these guys and make them
think about it."