SALT LAKE CITY — The phone kept ringing, no one picking up, not even an answering machine. John Stockton was out of the country, or at his cabin, or working out, or sitting on the couch, letting it ring.
Karl Malone’s phone didn’t produce much, either. Just a computer generated voice, imploring me to leave a message. Texting was a poor alternative. The only response I got from the Mailman was, “Really serious Brad,” which I have to admit made me laugh. I took it to mean, “You must be kidding.”
I wanted to know if, 15 years after the Jazz’s dream of winning the NBA championship died, Malone felt his strong performance had been overlooked: 31 points, 11 rebounds in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. By some he has been characterized as a big game no-show, and it’s true he missed key free throws in the 1997 Finals. But his shortcomings are more perception than reality. With the Jazz down 3-1 going into Game 5 at the United Center in 1998, he amassed 39 points to go with nine rebounds and five assists, keeping the Jazz alive.
Fifteen years to the day since Game 6 occurred, many still consider the dream-ending loss Malone’s fault, second only to referee Dick Bavetta. With the Jazz ahead by two, and a half-minute remaining, Malone was on the post as Dennis Rodman leaned against him. Michael Jordan slipped in from the backside and slapped away the ball, recovering it before Malone could react.
The rest became one of the most replayed shots in NBA history. Jordan slid with the dribble, tangled arms with Bryon Russell, brushed him back with a soft push and nailed the jumper.
But if there was a choke job by the officials, it wasn’t on the Jordan play. It was when they missed on two 3-point calls.
So there was Jordan’s steal, his shot, and controversial officiating. Yet the most overlooked play was one that came later. Russell in-bounded to Stockton, who dribbled twice to the top of the key and launched a shot as time expired. The try that would have won the game was short.
It wasn’t like Stockton was unguarded, but the shot wasn’t impossible, either. Ron Harper had a hand up, but it was late. There was nothing wrong with Stockton taking the shot, except that he missed.
Still, it’s strange to imagine Malone taking heavy blame for losing the ball. It wasn’t as though he was holding it far out from his body.
The numbers are surprising in retrospect. Malone made 11 of 19 field goals and 9 of 11 free throws. Five of his rebounds were on offense. Stockton made a so-so four of 10 shots and scored 10 points. Also, he had an uncharacteristically low five assists, half his career average.
Even a casual fan would say if it came down to one shot, especially from the perimeter, they’d take Stockton. But both are Hall of Famers and both nailed clutch shots. Why did Malone shoulder so much blame?
Maybe it’s because he actually lost the ball, while Stockton merely missed. Or because Stockton’s buzzer try might not have been necessary, had Malone kept the ball.
More likely it’s because the often-controversial Malone was always the more polarizing figure. He was the one making news for bickering with the owner or delivering colorful quotes.
“I think sometimes people remember stuff simply because of the person who does it, not necessarily the outcome,” said Keith Henschen, who was the Jazz team psychologist in 1998. “Karl was vocal. Karl was a lightning rod.”
Henschen called Malone a great clutch player who performed better on the road than at home.
“He fed off the opposing crowds,” Henschen said.
He fed off the Jazz crowd, too, that game. Which makes it strange indeed that, in some ways, it’s perceived as the night Chicago ate the Mailman alive.
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