Originally created 06/02/04

Malone four wins away from first championship



LOS ANGELES -- Ankle-deep in a bucket of cold water and ice strapped to his aging knees, Karl Malone finally had a chance to sit back and relax.

Not that he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity. Not yet, anyway.

Malone established himself as the best power forward ever during 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz. But he joined the Los Angeles Lakers last summer to try to win the one prize he lacked - a championship.

So pardon Malone if he's hesitant to get too comfortable even though he helped put the Lakers back in the NBA Finals.

"I've been there twice and I've had to go home with a bad taste in my mouth," Malone said after the Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 96-90 on Monday night to win the Western Conference finals. "I've been here before. I haven't done anything yet."

The Jazz reached the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, but they lost to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls both times.

At 40, Malone wanted so much to be on a championship team that he took an $18 million pay cut to sign with the Lakers for $1.5 million.

Was it worth it?

"Absolutely," he replied.

Malone changed his game when he joined the Lakers, going from big-time scorer with a career average of over 25 points to all-around player who concentrates on defense and rebounding.

With Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant among his teammates, that was clearly the wise move. And Malone did so without complaining.

So while others get the glory, Malone does the dirty work. He's averaging 13 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and nearly 40 minutes during the playoffs.

"He's such a great example. Here's a guy who's 40 years old and he's not going to let anyone outhustle him. The players see that," assistant coach Tex Winter said. "He's good for them because he's been around, he's had a lot of experience. In Kobe and Shaq's mind, he's got a lot of credibility. He's earned that."

In the conference semifinals, Malone guarded two-time MVP Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. In the conference finals, the assignment was current MVP Kevin Garnett.

They're both 28 and in the prime of their careers. But Malone more than held his own, despite a sore right knee.

"I will do whatever it takes to be out there on the floor every day, and if it's meant to happen, it will happen," he said. "I will not walk off the floor. Someone will have to drag me off the floor."

Malone, a two-time MVP and the NBA's second-leading scorer behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, missed 10 games in his 18 seasons with the Jazz - six because of injury and four due to suspension. He was sidelined for 40 games this season after tearing a ligament in his right knee in December, and the same knee has been bothering him during the playoffs.

So, Malone and the rest of the Lakers welcomed the time off before beginning the NBA Finals on Sunday.

A devoted family man with six children, Malone had to do a lot of fast talking to change teams.

"They made a big sacrifice for me," he said. "I basically went to them and outwitted them."

That was last summer, when Malone decided he wanted to leave the Jazz to play for the Lakers or San Antonio Spurs to give him one last legitimate shot at a championship.

"We came here, we went to the beach, and it was done," he said. "They said, 'We would love to do this for you, Dad."'

Malone's best-known teammate during his time with the Jazz was John Stockton, who retired after last season as the NBA's all-time leader in assists with Malone being the main beneficiary.

"I think I know what he might do if we get to the finals," Malone said.

Show up?

"Yeah," Malone replied.