THEY HAVE BECOME regarded - and right in front of our very eyes - as senior citizens . . . warhorses . . . veterans. They are described as seasoned. Their careers described as lengthy. The stage they're in now is described as twilight. It's like they're Bob Hope and Milton Berle.
Personally, I don't see it. To me, Karl Malone is still picking up the phone back home in Louisiana to talk to Hot Rod Hundley on draft day; and John Stockton is still walking into training camp from Gonzaga, every single Jazz play already memorized in his rookie head.They sure don't look their age to me. They still weigh the same, they're still the same height, they both still have the same haircut. Malone still looks like a bouncer hoping you'll give him a reason. Stockton still looks like he ran away from a choir. They have changed about as much as the Volkswagen bug.
Still, chronological facts are chronological facts. And the facts are these: John Stockton has already zipped past his 35th birthday like it was standing still, and Karl Malone will shortly be 34. They have already played in more than 2,000 games together, and that's not counting the playoffs. In basketball years, they are approaching geezer status. Heck, by this age, Cousy and DeBusschere and Russell and Oscar and Reed and Walton and Bird and Magic (the first time) were already cashing pension checks and getting cold calls from financial planners. Isiah Thomas is only 11 months older than Stockton and he's an owner. James Worthy is just two years older than Malone and he's heading into his third year of "which golf course do I play today?"
The fact is, they are old enough to be Kobe Bryant's dad.
The fact is, their days are numbered.
Oh, they could do an Abdul-Jabbar and play till they're 41. Or they could at least buck the average superstar retirement age of 34.9 years and do like Dr. J and Unseld and Baylor and Wilt and Havlicek and at least make it to 36 or 37. They could be the Dick Clarks of basketball. And the way they're going, they just might be. Larry Miller could be giving Malone memberships well into the next century.
But in the meantime, they have become NBA classics, and they are being accorded the appropriate deference.
Stockton & Malone have become sentimental favorites.
Not just in Salt Lake City. Everywhere.
Like John Wayne in the "True Grit" days. Like Joe Torre in last year's World Series.
For 12 straight years together, Stockton & Malone have towed the Jazz into the playoffs, and there was no great outporing of sentiment - until now.
Now, theirs has become a common cause. If they were to go their entire careers without an NBA title - or even a trip to the Finals - what kind of justice is that?
They have been around long enough. They have paid their dues. They have taken their lumps. Houston, Portland, Oakland, L.A. Seattle. Dallas. You name it, they've been derailed there. If they don't have it coming, who does?
On an individual basis, their status as all-time greats has already been well established. On the NBA's certified list of its best 50 players of its first 50 years released this past regular season, both made it with absolutely no argument. Stockton could retire yesterday and still be the all-time career leader in steals and assists. Malone has already surpassed 25,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, something only he, Wilt, Moses Malone and Elvin Hayes have done.
Teamwise, however, it's a different story. Only five players on that list of 50 all-time greats never played in an NBA Final. One is Dave Bing, who had a habit of playing on awful teams and still averaging 20.3 points over his career (and people are still wondering which member of the selection committee was his brother-in-law). Another is George Gervin, who for years tried to single-handedly shoot the San Antonio Spurs into the Finals - first in the ABA, then the NBA - and never quite succeeded. Another is David Robinson, currently trying to do the same thing in San Antonio.
The other two are Stockton & Malone.
The only members of the Top 50 club who have failed to make an NBA Finals appearance while playing together in their prime.
So isn't it their turn? Don't they have one coming? After a combined quarter of a century trying, isn't it about time while there's still time? No matter how much they don't look the part.