Last Wednesday night in the Salt Palace, Jazz forward Karl Malone went down and didn't get back up. A hush fell over the crowd. There were low voices and raised eyebrows. Maybe this time he was going to stay down.
Eventually Malone returned to the game, the victim of a slight ankle sprain. Once again he had cheated fate and bypassed his worst nightmare - a serious injury.Injuries are a reality in the NBA. In an 82-game league they are a fact of life, and usually go a long way toward deciding which teams have great seasons. Portland, which leads the Pacific Division, has exceptional talent. But the Blazers have also had exceptional luck with injuries. They have only missed 25 player games due to injuries or illness all year. Of that 25, 11 were missed by the team's eighth man, Mark Bryant.
Two of the more fortunate teams in the NBA will meet Friday at 7:30 in the Salt Palace - Portland and Utah. The Jazz, tied for the lead in the Midwest, have also been relatively lucky. Anchors Malone and John Stockton have not missed a game between them. All totaled, the team has missed just 27 player games this year (13 by Jeff Malone, 12 by Blue Edwards, two by Mark Eaton).
However, Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan is pragmatic about the possibility of a serious injury. "It's part of this game. You can't worry about it, you just accept it. It's something everyone has to deal with," said Sloan.
By comparison with other teams the Jazz are a picture of health, despite having Edwards out with a severely sprained ankle and Jeff Malone struggling with a series of injuries that have included a sore elbow, a groin pull and a strained back.
Some teams have been hit like a tidal wave. The Dallas Mavericks, picked by some in the preseason to win the Midwest Division, have lost 146 player games due to injuries. Fat Lever went down in Game 5 and Roy Tarpley in Game 6. Herb Williams has missed 22 games this year and Derek Harper five.
The list goes on. Cleveland, expected to be right behind Detroit and Chicago in the Central Division, is thinking of opening its own hospital wing. The Cavs missed a whopping 154 player games last year. Already this season they've missed 166. All-Star guard Mark Price has been out 46 games since hitting his knee on a sign along the scorer's table. Teammate Milos Babic has passed on another 26 games, Winston Bennett 45 and multi-millionaire John Williams has missed 37 games.
Injuries are no respecter of teams or persons. The two-time World Champion Detroit Pistons have been missing guard Isiah Thomas since Jan. 23 when he broke his hand. The result? The Pistons are 7 1/2 games behind the Chicago Bulls in the division race.
In rare cases, there are exceptions to the rule. When Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon went on the injured list Jan. 4 through Feb. 27, the Rockets produced a shockingly good 15-10 record. Houston has since been bringing Olajuwon off the bench. The Rockets are 11-3 since the All-Star break and 6-1 since the return of Olajuwon. Overall, Houston has lost 177 player games due to illness and injury.
With or without injuries, the Jazz have had predictable results against the Blazers, losing twice in Oregon and winning the only game played in Salt Lake. Portland, which has seen its lead whittled to 1 1/2 games in the Pacific Division, is coming off a Wednesday night 116-108 loss to Phoenix.
The Portland game continues a frightful Jazz schedule that has gone on for three weeks and included nine road games. Once home, the Jazz met Boston on Wednesday and now the Blazers, followed by a Saturday night game at Seattle.
However, the Jazz should be relatively healthy for Friday's game. Karl Malone is expected to be ready to start against the Blazers with no serious effects to his sprained ankle. The only missing player will be Edwards, who expects to be out another week or more.
GAME NOTES: Malone remains among the league leaders in scoring (fourth) and rebounding (third) . . . Stockton, the league leader in assists and No. 2 in steals, is 28 assists away from becoming the 14th player in NBA history to reach the 6,000-assist mark . . . After playing just 16 minutes in four games last week, Darrell Griffith played 16 minutes against San Antonio and 10 against the Celtics.