Both Karl Malone, the 13th pick of the 1985 draft, and Reggie Miller, picked 11th in '87, turned out to be a lot better than they were supposed to be. What I was thinking when each announced his retirement last week--Malone (right) after failing to recover from off-season knee surgery; Miller (below) because of a diminished role in the Pacers' offense and wear and tear on his skinny body--was that they were also a lot more fun than anyone thought they'd be.
They were different personalities but equally delightful, full of jive, fueled by ego. Malone, convinced he never got his due as a player (he came to prominence with the Jazz during the era of Michael, Magic and Bird), became the NBA's second alltime leading scorer, averaging 25 points a game over 19 seasons. He had no weakness as an offensive player and stands right now as the best power forward ever. Miller, firmly convinced there was no shot he could not make (or should not take), became the NBA's alltime leader in three-pointers made. He had no peer in converting the dagger, that three-ball that cuts an opponent apart at a key point in the game; he took particular delight in slicing up the Knicks and Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden.
Just as important (especially to the people who covered them) was their approachability and friendliness. Before the '94 season I sat with Miller as he enthusiastically went through--shot by shot--the 25 points (including five treys) he had dropped on the Knicks in the fourth quarter of a legendary Garden playoff performance four months earlier. In the summer of '03 I flew with Malone from his off-season home in rural Arkansas to Los Angeles and watched him shed tears of joy in anticipation of joining the Lakers, presumably to march directly to a championship. What he found was a team poisoned by jealousy and rivalry, leaving him in the role of spokesman-diplomat, publicly deconstructing his situation, privately shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.
Both made the Finals (Malone twice with Utah as well as last season with the Lakers, Miller once with the Pacers), but neither won it all, a shortcoming that surely weighs on them. They should take comfort in knowing that's not what they'll be remembered for.