Of all the ring-related scourges that have bedeviled mankind
through the ages (ringworm, ring around the collar), none is more
unsightly than ring fever, in whose grip an aging athlete,
desperate for a championship, will forsake his franchise to join
a dynastic rival. When Karl Malone signed last week with the
Lakers, at a deeply discounted salary, he was praised for prizing
wins over money, ring over bling. But such praise is at once
malarkey and baloney--let's call it Maloney--for it reinforces a
bogus new maxim in sports. Which is to say that building a
winner, through years of toil, has become, at best, a last
resort: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.
And so Malone will join 'em, and in turn be joined in L.A. by
Gary Payton, the All-Star point guard, late of Milwaukee, who
looks forward to putting the assist back in narcissist. Payton,
who has sons named Gary II and Gary Jr., wore his new Lakers
jersey to the ESPYs, a display of cartoon vanity exceeded that
night only by Nuggets rookie Carmelo Anthony, who said, in a
brief acceptance speech, that he'd like to thank himself for all
Payton, like Malone, signed for well under his market value,
though he acknowledged having already made more money than one
man could spend in a lifetime. Thus he can infinitely afford to
choose the charms of California (Monterey, Jack) over those of
Wisconsin (Monterey Jack).
If these ring-seekers put you in mind of old men with metal
detectors sweeping the beach for jewelry, that's essentially what
they are, right down to the garish shorts and kneesocks. Hence
Heat center Alonzo Mourning, rather than challenge intradivision
bully New Jersey next season, has become a Net himself and, in
doing so, was even congratulated by Miami coach Pat Riley, who
professed to speak for Heat management when he said, "We totally
understand the decision." The implication appeared to be that
there are precisely three teams--the Lakers, the Nets and the
Spurs--worth playing for next season.
But at least one Miami executive disagreed. "He should have
stayed for the minimum," a Heat part owner, speaking anonymously
of Mourning, told the Palm Beach Post, "and we would have added
two good players, and he would have had just as much of a chance
of going to the Finals as New Jersey." Similar sentiments were
echoed in Utah, where some Jazz fans thought that the Mailman--if
he really wanted to take a pay cut--could have done so in Salt
Lake City, his home for 18 noble seasons.
This ring mania nearly reached an absurd apotheosis with Nets
guard Jason Kidd, who this summer flirted with joining San
Antonio, the one team more successful than Kidd's this past
postseason. Were it not for the trading deadline, we might soon
see players, trailing in a Game 7 of the Finals, seeking to suit
up for their vanquishers midway through the fourth quarter.
What might we call these players? Let us take a cue from the
snack cake industry, maker of Ring Dings and Ho Hos, and call
these athletes Ring Hos, for their willingness to escort--or
rather, be escorted by--any team to the Finals, and asking, in
return, only for a lurid bauble (and any attendant publicity).
The phenomenon is hardly confined to hoops. Roger Clemens and
Jason Giambi are Ring Hos with the Yankees. Deion Sanders nearly
became Lord of the Ring Hos last winter, when he thought about
joining--for the postseason alone--the Super Bowl-bound Raiders.
Until the Franklin Mint begins mass-marketing them, this is
surely the shortest possible route to a championship ring.
Free agents, if not quite free, are getting cheaper by the day.
In hockey Paul Kariya, who made $10 million last year with the
Stanley Cup runner-up Mighty Ducks, will earn $1.2 million with
perennial power Colorado next season. Teamwise, this is--at
best--an incremental trade-up for Kariya, like leaving the Stones
for the Beatles. Kariya will be joined in Colorado (at a mere
$700,000 pay cut) by ex-Shark Teemu Selanne. Et tu, Teemu? (This
is, to be fair to Selanne, like leaving the Monkees for the
Beatles.) Ray Bourque, who asked the Bruins to trade him, won a
ring playing one full season with the Avalanche. And Dominik
Hasek (whom the Sabres were virtually forced to trade) won a ring
playing one season in Detroit.
Ordinarily, barnacles adhere themselves to hulls. Except in
hockey, where Hull, barnaclelike, adheres himself to Stanley Cup
contenders. Brett Hull has flitted from St. Louis to Dallas to
Detroit in prospecting for rings, succeeding at the latter two
stops. Like Malone and Mourning, Kariya and Selanne, Clemens and
Giambi, Hull is integral to his team's success. But rather than
helping to build a champion from the ground up, he is, like the
others, adding an aerial antenna to the top of the Petronas
There's nothing wrong with this, except that it stifles
competition, makes suckers of men like Kevin Garnett (futilely
attempting to get a ring on his own with the only team he has
played for, the Timberwolves) and--most damaging of all--implies
that an athlete is not a winner until he's won a world
Wanna tell Ted Williams when he thaws out?
their vanquishers in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Finals.