SALT LAKE CITY – Nine years after they last played together, Karl Malone and John Stockton appeared Tuesday night at EnergySolutions Arena in game shape. That's no exaggeration.
Malone's biceps were threatening to split his suit sleeves, yet his stomach was as flat as his game-day glare. Stockton arrived looking cool and lean in a dark suit, the same size he wore when he retired.
"Same weight," Stockton said. "My goal is not to change that."
Both appeared fit enough, if not quick enough, to again play for the Jazz. Talk about a plan: Retire rich, keep your health and skip the game day shoot-arounds.
"If my life depended on it — which it don't — but if it did, I could play a little bit," Malone said. "But there'd be a lot of fouls. And I'm gonna foul you hard, by the way."
The occasion was the annual Utah Sports Hall of Fame banquet, held at the venue most familiar to Stockton and Malone. They were part of a five-member induction class that included NFL and BYU tight end Chad Lewis, BYU distance runner Doug Padilla and BYU javelin-thrower Richard George.
While Lewis, Padilla and George are deserving athletes, the night clearly was a Stockton-to-Malone event. When you honor the two most famous basketball players in the state's history, it's a spectacle. On a national scale, the Utah hall is a small deal. Stockton and Malone were NBA All-Stars a combined 24 times. Both are in the Basketball Hall of Fame and on the list of the 50 greatest players in league history.
So it's hard to imagine Tuesday's affair was their career highlight. Yet both acted as though it were their first award, saying they were honored and humbled.
Their return brought to mind the current Jazz, a talented but starless amalgam. There are no Hall of Famers on this year's team; at least not yet. That doesn't mean they'll be awful, but illustrates they're two superstars shy of contention. That wasn't the case for most of an 18-year span.
Year after year, game after game, Stockton and Malone were as reliable and relentless as the calendar.
What made them stars, though, wasn't just their talent, but their approach. They came to training camp each year ready to roll, no assembly required. While other players tried to play their way into condition, the two superstars had passed that hurdle the previous August.
Their body fat was four percent when the season ended and four percent on Oct. 1.
"He would leave me a message that said, 'Hey, you up yet?' We competed, even when weren't together," Malone said. "Our training, I think, is legendary. No matter what, no matter how tired, if I called him in summertime and said we need a 30-minute pickup game, he was in shape to play."
Malone knew that whatever the hour, whenever the day, Stockton would have the engine warming.
"So he drove me to train because of the way he looked," Malone said.
Malone said he doesn't make the early morning or late-night training calls to Stockton that he once did.
"I know what he'll look like," Malone said on Tuesday, glancing at the door before Stockton arrived. "He'll come in at fighting weight."
Stockton's rejoinder: "I (still) think about him when I'm in the weight room."
Today there are things that could intervene, if allowed. Both say family obligations are their top priority and both have numerous business interests. Stockton is typically guarded about those, beyond his car dealership. Malone, too, has car dealerships to augment a timber operation, commercial developments and a Texaco/Arby's. Yet they still act as though any minute they'll get the call from Jerry Sloan.
Malone works out several times a week, two hours at a time.
"I train because I get edgy if I go a couple of days and don't work out," he said.
"Mostly I go in the weight room and visit," Stockton said.
Appropriately, Tuesday's ceremony was on the floor of ESA. It's uncertain whether they passed on dessert. But it's safe to assume that by this morning, they were running treadmills, lifting weights and putting in the work, just as they did for the last 27 years and counting.
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