Never mind that they've combined for almost 56,000 points and
21,000 assists and made 24 All-Star Game appearances: The essence
of Karl Malone and John Stockton was evident last Thursday in a
tangle of bodies on the floor of Portland's Rose Garden. With
1:30 remaining and the Utah Jazz ahead 85-84, Stockton was
dribbling in the frontcourt when he stumbled and lost the ball.
Instantly, he hit the deck, lunging in vain to retrieve it. As
Trail Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace bent over to pick it up
like a dollar off a sidewalk, Malone, charging from the wing,
dived headfirst. He snatched the ball and fired it ahead to
center Greg Ostertag, who slammed home the crucial basket in Utah's
93-88 victory. "When I came over to the bench after the play, the
guys were acting like I'd just broken the alltime scoring record,"
says Malone. "That play's going to be one I will always remember."
It wasn't a hang-from-the-rim dunk; it wasn't a three-pointer at
the buzzer. It was simply 80 years, eight months and 18 days'
worth of Hall of Fame bodies sprawled across the floor in
reckless pursuit of a loose ball. So if you relish that sort of
determination, pay close heed these next few weeks, because the
end of the Jazz's star-driven run--including a 20th straight
postseason berth this month--is drawing nigh. Though Utah has
surprised many around the NBA with its strong regular-season
performance (45-32 at week's end, seventh in the Western
Conference), the Jazz will be a huge underdog in the first round
of the playoffs if it faces, as seems likely, the San Antonio
Spurs or the Sacramento Kings. Malone, 39, is on a quest for a
ring that could well have him suiting up in the purple-and-gold
of the Los Angeles Lakers next season. Indications are stronger
than ever that Stockton, 41, will retire after enduring what
colleagues describe as the most trying season of his 19-year
career. And according to two team insiders, the 61-year-old Jazz
coach Jerry Sloan is planning to call it quits this summer too,
even though he has a year remaining on his contract.
Malone says he would like to stay in Salt Lake City "so long as
the Jazz feel I can still help them win." But, he adds, "I don't
think they really, truly have the nerve to come to me and say,
'We'd like you to move on so we can rebuild without you.' I think
they feel they would be disrespecting me, but I'm telling you, I
wouldn't take it that way. I understand it's a business." The
Mailman views the team's $8 million state-of-the-art practice
facility, which opened last month, as a tool to recruit his
replacement. "I've been here 18 years, and they build it now,
just when Stockton's and my contracts are up," he says. "Do you
really think a practice facility is going to help them recruit
professional basketball players to Salt Lake City? A practice
facility means hard work. How many players really want to work?"
For now, Malone and his wife, Kay, are evaluating the merits of a
move. In mid-June--two weeks before Malone himself would be
allowed to visit other clubs--Kay and their six children will
visit the cities of various Western Conference contenders,
spending four days in each place to research schools,
neighborhoods and the franchises themselves. "I'll talk to other
players and their wives," says Kay, whose itinerary is likely to
include San Antonio (where she graduated from high school),
Dallas and Los Angeles. "Some wives will tell you the truth and
some won't, so I'll compare what they have to say."
While the Spurs have the most salary-cap room and the Mavericks
have tried to acquire him in the past, Malone would fit in best
with the Lakers, who have been seeking a power forward since
Horace Grant's departure, after their 2000-01 championship
season. Malone understands that L.A., like most of his other
potential suitors this summer, will only be able to offer him its
mid-level exception, which starts at about $4.6 million--quite a
step down from the $19.3 million salary he currently earns.
"People are used to seeing athletes make these kinds of decisions
based on money, but we're going to do it as a family," says
Malone, who has committed to play for the U.S. at the 2004
Olympics, when he will be 41. "I'm telling you, money is not
going to be the deciding factor."
Such a move might damage Malone's chances of breaking the NBA
career scoring record of 38,387 points, held by Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar. At week's end Malone had reached 36,296 points, and
at his current clip of 21.0 per game he would surpass
Abdul-Jabbar early in the 2004-05 season. In Utah he is the
featured scorer in a system that is built around his strengths;
with the Lakers he would be the third option, behind Shaquille
O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. But Malone swears he would be content
scoring 14 a game, which would position him to break the record
late in his second season while contending for the game's
ultimate prize. "There's going to be sacrifice no matter what
happens," says Malone, who believes he can play until he's 45 so
long as he remains motivated. "If I stay with the Jazz, I
sacrifice winning a championship; if I leave, I sacrifice scoring
points and making more money. I'd be happy averaging 15 with the
Jazz if we were still winning."
Though the two stars have begun discussing their plans for next
season, Stockton says that he will make his decision
independently. While Stockton is glad that the eldest of his six
children, 15-year-old Houston, is now mature enough to appreciate
his career, he also dreads being away from home during the
seven-month NBA season. "At my age the hard part is getting up
for the games," says Stockton, the league leader in assists per
48 minutes (13.2 at week's end). "With kids and all the other
activities around the house, I'm finding it harder to give my
full attention to basketball."
The NBA's alltime assist leader may be getting a push out the
door by his new backup this season and the No. 2 man on the
career assist list, 38-year-old Mark Jackson. Three members of
the Jazz organization now understand why Jackson has been traded
seven times in his 16-year career: They say that over a period of
weeks, he succeeded in turning several teammates against Stockton
by repeatedly remarking that those players would be better off if
Jackson were the Jazz's floor leader. Other players rallied
around Stockton, who, because of his quiet nature, was vulnerable
to the locker room politicking. The rift on the Jazz was mended,
though not before Stockton's pride had been wounded. "There was
no question it hurt John, because you could see him withdraw,"
says a high-ranking team official. "But he'll never talk about
it, just as he won't talk about injuries, because then he feels
like he's making excuses for himself."
Jackson says his actions were in no way aimed at Stockton. "I'm a
born leader, and if people take that as manipulation, then maybe
they haven't been around leaders," he says. "I make no apologies
for embracing people and talking to people and making them feel
like they're important. Maybe in the past those stray dogs have
been left on the side, but that's not the way I treat people."
Sloan reached a breaking point in mid-January, when he lost his
temper over the divisiveness on his team and stormed out of the
gym during practice. He was threatening to retire then and there,
only to be dissuaded at an emergency meeting called by team owner
Larry Miller, president Dennis Haslam, general manager Kevin
O'Connor and Sloan's wife, Bobbye. "That had the real potential
of Jerry saying, 'To heck with it,' and walking away," says
Miller, who believes that Sloan's seven-game suspension for
shoving referee Courtney Kirkland on Jan. 28 was the result of
his built-up frustrations. Sloan's 15 seasons with the Jazz are
the longest stretch with the same team by any coach currently in
pro sports, and he maintains that he isn't thinking ahead to next
year. "I talk in terms of days," he says half-jokingly, "because
any day in this business they can fire you."
If Malone and Stockton don't return, the Jazz would be about $18
million under the salary cap, enough to land a top free agent
(below). But Miller wants his stars to come back--as long as it's
at a price more reasonable than their current salaries. (Stockton
makes $7.9 million.) "For example, let's say we paid them each $5
million: That would leave us with $8 million to sign an impact
free agent," says Miller. "I've always said that I want Karl to
retire in a Jazz uniform, happy and healthy and with the alltime
scoring record. I've also told Karl that my Number 1
responsibility is the economic and competitive viability of the
team. It's going to be an interesting balancing act between them
and the team."
By no means is this going to be a routine summer for the league's
most stable roster, which has had Stockton and Malone since 1985.
"I said to Karl, 'If we help you make the decision to leave and
you don't win a championship, are you going to be mad at me?'"
says Kay. "He said no, he wouldn't be mad. I said, 'Come on now,
pinky swear on it.' Then I made him triple pinky swear, just to
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AGENTS OF CHANGE
One of Malone's potential suitors--the Spurs--will be key to where
the talent flows
If Karl Malone is planning a free-agent tour of San Antonio, he'd
better book his reservations in advance. Because they can offer
potential signees not only the maximum salary but also the chance
to join a Tim Duncan-led title contender, the Spurs could be
this summer's hottest attraction. While they have long coveted
Nets point guard Jason Kidd, the precocious play of 20-year-old
Tony Parker may alter their wish list. "We keep hearing that
Duncan wants to play with a big guy," says a Western Conference
executive, "so they could use some of the money to sign a center
like [the Timberwolves'] Rasho Nesterovic or [the Clippers']
Michael Olowokandi to replace David Robinson, then add a wing
player like [the Clippers'] Corey Maggette with the rest. But
it's all going to depend on how well they do in the playoffs." If
Parker plays poorly, Kidd may become the higher priority.
Last week Kidd said he was "100 percent" sure that he'd re-sign
with New Jersey, but would-be suitors aren't so certain. The
decisions made by San Antonio and Kidd will be the key ones when
the free-agent market opens on July 16--unless the Timberwolves
lose again in the first round of the playoffs and put Kevin
Garnett in play. Here's an early look at the pivotal teams in the
marketplace, their potential salary-cap space and what they're
CLIPPERS ($28 million). Eight of their players will be free
agents this summer, but rival G.M.'s believe Los Angeles is
mainly interested in re-signing Elton Brand, Maggette and Lamar
Odom (who may come cheap because of his two violations of the
NBA's drug policy in his four-year career).
NUGGETS ($18 million). They want point guard Gilbert Arenas, who
can earn no more than $4.6 million if he re-signs with the
Warriors. How they spend the rest of their money will depend on
the draft lottery; by getting the rights to LeBron James, Denver
could suddenly become attractive to top players.
JAZZ ($18 million). If Malone leaves and John Stockton retires,
look for the Jazz to make a raid on the Clippers, with point
guard Andre Miller and Maggette as primary targets.
HEAT ($7 million). The conventional thinking is that Miami will
try to sign Olowokandi to replace Alonzo Mourning (who's also a
free agent and is planning to come back next season, provided
that he continues to recover from his kidney ailment). But Pat
Riley is intrigued by Odom and Gary Payton.
BUCKS (over the cap). With the team for sale, owner Herb Kohl is
unlikely to add to his payroll by re-signing Payton. In that case
Payton's best offer may be a $4.6 million exception, which,
coming from Portland, could fit the Glove.
PACERS (over the cap). Indiana is expected to pay whatever it
takes to re-sign Jermaine O'Neal. But can the Pacers also afford
to keep 37-year-old Reggie Miller, who earns $12 million?
LAKERS (over the cap). They could spend their $4.6 million
exception on Malone or Scottie Pippen--or try to persuade both to
split that dough for the high life in Beverly Hills and a run at
a title. --I.T.
be the deciding factor."