Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.
You could see them a hundred times, standing side by side in street clothes, and never put them together. But see them once on the same basketball floor and you would have a hard time telling where one ends and the other begins.For purposes of identification, Karl Malone is Mr. Inside, the tall, gregarious black man, and John Stockton is Mr. Outside, the short, slow-to-smile white one. Both play for the NBA's Utah Jazz and both are Western Conference All-Stars. And after watching each work the respective crowd of reporters clustered around him early Saturday morning on this All-Star weekend, the temptation still is to think that everything they have in common ends with the uniform.
But that would be wrong.
Malone and Stockton share a basketball, certainly, but they have
pooled friendship, purpose and a work ethic to forge a union that is greater than the sum of their individual talents and the equal of any of the great inside-outside tandems of the past.
Three decades ago, the standard was Guy Rodgers setting the table in San Francisco for Wilt Chamberlain. Then it was Ernie DiGregorio feeding Bob McAdoo in Buffalo through much of the 1970s, and just a few short years ago, it was the Los Angeles connection of Magic Johnson to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Today there is Malone as the train rumbling down the lane and Stockton as the switchman. And with the former in his sixth season and the latter in his seventh, the communication thing is still evolving.
"We seem to be changing a little every year," Stockton said, "maybe because we get to know each other a little better every year.
"It's like any other relationship, I
suppose. You go out with somebody on the first date and you're sitting in a car and you want to say something, but you don't because you're afraid to be embarrassed.
"But if you wind up marrying the same person, then you can drive somewhere for 12 hours, not say a word and still be in touch," he said. "That's because you know enough about that person to be comfortable in lots of different situations."
Malone wasn't quite as earnest in making his appraisal.
"If anything has improved, it's that we're not using as much energy as we used to and still getting the job done," he said. "It might be because we've got a better appreciation of each other.
"Of course," Malone added, flashing a grin, "it might just be because we're getting older."
The two first met - Malone, raised in rural Louisiana and already the prototypical power forward at a muscular 6-foot-9; Stockton, from Spokane, Wash., the perennial Catholic League point guard at a scrawny 6-1 - when Bob Knight was putting together the 1984 Olympic team. The only thing they had in common then was that both were cut.
But they hooked up in Utah at the start of the 1985-86 season, became fast friends and soulmates, even, and the synthesis was an instant hit. With Malone sweeping the board, firing the outlet pass to Stockton and then finishing one uncanny pass after another with thundering dunks, the Jazz victory total has climbed every season since then, a feat unmatched by any other NBA team during that span.
And each, relying on the other, has racheted his scoring average and his overall game up a notch at a time ever since.
There have been just five 1,000-assist seasons recorded in NBA history; Stockton now has strung together three of them and is almost certainly headed for a fourth. Malone broke the 10,000-point barrier in just five seasons and has been a consistent threat to pull off a league-best scoring-rebounding double.
In the 1989 All-Star contest, Malone scored 28 points, many of them coming on Stockton's 17 assists, and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. At the time, Malone said he was considering cracking the trophy in half to share it with Stockton.
That would have come as no surprise to Portland's Rick Adelman, who is coaching the West for this year's go-round and will have the two on his side for a change.
"The thing they do together is constantly find ways to hurt you," Adelman said. "Stockton has a way of consistently delivering the ball to the right spot ... and even when you close that off, they will find another way to get it to the basket.
"Plenty of people can do that for a few plays in a game or a few times over a season. But for two guys to be able to improvise all the time like that tells me that they know a lot about each other."