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Questions awaiting Jazz playing without Stockton

NOW THAT THE SHOCK has died down, and it's been proven John Stockton really isn't the Bionic Man, the Utah Jazz are in a position they haven't been in in a decade. They're opening a season without Stockton starting at point guard.

That development has brought out the usual we-have-confidence-in-our-people rhetoric. Even so, the Jazz admit they will be playing at least a quarter of the season without one of the greatest point guards in history."You do not replace John Stockton," said Jazz vice president for basketball operations Scott Layden. "He's an immortal."

So now what do they do?

What do they do now that the guy who missed just four games in 13 seasons is out for up to 12 weeks? Call for a mulligan? Miss the plane to L.A. for the opener? Tell the commissioner the dog ate their schedule?

This is the last thing they could have expected. Stockton is a guy who just never calls in sick. He played in 609 straight games and 1062 out of a possible 1066. ESPN recently ran a report on Chicago's Scottie Pippen, noting that he had missed only 31 games in 10 years. That is almost eight times as many as Stockton has missed in 13 years.

Stockton's absence, however, doesn't mean this won't be an intriguing season. The separation of Karl Malone and Stockton, perhaps the most consistent duo in basketball history, is a mystery waiting to be read. Malone could end up looking like one-half of the Smothers Brothers, now that his alter-ego is on the sidelines. Whose hair is he supposed to tousle now? Who's he supposed to embrace when they win a big game? Take one away and what do you have? You have half the World Trade Center, that's what. You have Hall but not Oates, Jan but not Dean, Siegfried but not Roy. It's like Johnson without Johnson, Rodgers without Hammerstein.

You have one-half of the best pick-and-roll in history.

That doesn't mean this year won't be interesting. On the contrary, it could be the most interesting year in Jazz history. Here is a team that has lived off Stockton-to-Malone for more than a decade; now it must learn to adapt.

Greg Ostertag and Bryon Russell, who spent the summer talking about being the future of the franchise, can start the future - beginning now. They no longer have the luxury of sitting back and waiting to become stars. Now they get to show whether they're as ready for stardom as they think.

Then there's the question of how Malone will handle his newfound independence. For years, experts have wondered whether either Stockton or Malone would have been so successful playing alongside anyone else. Now they will find out. Will Malone still be a raging bull in the low post, without Stockton there to drop in the perfect pass at the perfect time? Will the finger roll or the perimeter jumper be as easy if the ball isn't there right in his stride, exactly where he likes it?

"I've just got to be patient," said Malone. "It've got to let the guys do their own thing. I'll have to try to adjust to them, instead of them adjusting to me."

This year will also be a good chance to determine if Stockton, too, deserved MVP consideration last year.

How Stockton handles the down time is a story in itself. This is a man the coaches practically have to kidnap, just to get him to sit out a few minutes. He has shown he can handle pressure, now he gets to show how he does against his most feared enemy of all - idleness. Patience isn't Stockton's greatest attribute.

How the Jazz adapt while they're waiting for Mr. Goodpass is anyone's guess. They could put Howard Eisely in a uniform with No. 12 on the back. They could have Eisley play with a bag over his head so no one will know the difference. They could even play the "Rocky" theme, hoping Stockton will charge off the bench, just as he always did, and say he's ready to go.

But that won't happen. The season will start and Stockton will be on the sidelines, eating his heart out, wishing he were on the court. Malone, who always had a tendency to try to put the team on his shoulders will have an even bigger tendency.

And because of that, this season will have more intrigue than any other. By mid-January, basketball fans in Utah should have answers to questions they've always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.