It's a rematch befitting Commissioner David Stern's vision of the NBA - an epic Finals clash between two teams without peer - led by two peerless players. One year ago, Karl Malone was the best basketball player on the face of the earth during the 1996-97 regular season. He has Maurice Podoloff Trophy, given each year to the NBA's Most Valuable Player, displayed in his Salt Lake City dream home to prove it.
But it was Michael Jordan, the narrow runner-up in the MVP race, who performed when it counted most during the MVP race, who performed when it counted during the NBA Finals. Jordan showed why he is considered the best of all time, leading the Chicago Bulls to the world championship over Malone's Utah Jazz and collecting the Finals MVP award in the process.
Jordan and Malone are once again the best players for the top two teams on Sternworld this season. Jordan, with voters no doubt remembering his dominance in last year's Finals, walked off with the Podoloff Trophy with room to spare last month.
Malone only shrugged his massive shoulders.
MVP of the regular season? Who cares? Being the MVP of the Finals would mean much more to the Mailman this year. Being selected Finals MVP would mean an NBA Championship for himself, his coaches and teammates and the state.
It's a championship - not an individual trophy - that has been the driving force in this driven man.
Sure, the personal acclaim is nice. Everyone wants to be recognized for hard work. But a chance to be a champion after 13 years with the same franchise would be the ultimate prize.
Malone says he's not greedy. He doesn't want an NBA championship ring for six different fingers, which is what Jordan will be gunning for over the next two weeks beginning Wednesday night in the Delta Center.
Malone wants one ring. He wants to - just one time during his long, distinguished career - be able to hold his index finger up high to indicate that he and the Jazz are No. 1 - and for it to be true, no questions asked.
John Elway finally got his chance earlier this year. Why not Malone? "It's all about winning a championship," said Malone on numerous occasions since the playoffs started six weeks ago.
Malone knows his place in basketball. He knows Jordan will get - and deserves - more acclaim. When Malone won his MVP trophy, in fact, he thanked Jordan for letting him borrow it for one year.
Now Malone wants to beg, steal or borrow a championship.
It's never looked more promising for the Jazz, either. Utah has homecourt advantage, has Finals experience, has won 10 of 11 in the playoffs , is healthy and rested. If they can't win the title under these conditions, they may never win it.
"It's all right there for us," said center Greg Foster. "Now we just need to go out and get the job done."
Standing in the way of Malone and the Jazz is one of the all-time great basketball teams. The Bulls have won the title five consecutive times, if you don't count the two years Jordan spent in vain trying to hit a curveball.
While Jordan is always impressive, it's during the Finals when he seems to be at his best. He's been the Finals MVP in all five of Chicago's championship runs.
Last year he averaged 32.3 points, seven rebounds and six assists to lead the Bulls over the Jazz. He had the game-winning jumper at the buzzer in the series opener, scored 38 points while sick in the pivotal Game 5 when the Jazz were threatening to take a 3-2 series lead and completed the deal with his assist to Steve Kerr in Game 6.
"You know you're not going to stop him," said Jeff Hornacek, who will draw the start at shooting guard against Jordan. "He's proven by all his scoring championships over the years that he can score on anybody. All we can hope is that after putting a bunch of different guys on him and making him work all game that he'll be tired at the end so we might have a chance to win."
Jordan will get his, but the Bulls may not have an answer for Malone, either. The Mailman didn't have a great Finals last year, shooting only 44 percent from the field and averaging 23.8 points. But he had a painful floor burn on his shooting hand which caused some problems and he was also guarded much of the time by Brian Williams, who is no longer with the Bulls.
Chicago couldn't stop Malone during the regular season. He averaged 32.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and shot better than 60 percent from the field in Utah's two victories.
Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc have a hard time guarding Malone. Luc Longley will likely take him much of the time, which could limit Malone's inside game seeing as Longley is 7-2 and mobile for his size. But Malone should get plenty of open outside jumpers over Longley.
In reality, the series is not about who is better, individually, between Malone and Jordan. They are different types of player who won't go up against each other. If it were a one-on-one, Jordan would win.
The series is between the Jazz and the Bulls, not Malone and Jordan.
Still, the glory or the blame, no doubt, will be given to each team's superstar.
1997 MVP Malone vs. 1998 MVP Jordan
Utah vs. Houston
Game 1: Houston 103, Utah 90 - Karl Malone: 25 points, 11 rebounds.
Game 2: Utah 105, Houston 90 - Karl Malone: 29 points, 10 rebounds.
Game 3: Houston 89, Utah 85 - Karl Malone: 19 points, 14 rebounds.
Game 4: Utah 93, Houston 71 - Karl Malone: 29 points, 13 rebounds.
Game 5: Utah 84, Houston 70 - Karl Malone: 31 points, 8 rebounds.
Chicago vs. New Jersey
Game 1: Chicago 96, New Jersey 93 - Michael Jordan: 39 points, 7 rebounds.
Game 2: Chicago 96, New Jersey 91 - Michael Jordan: 32 points, 4 rebounds.
Game 3: Chicago 116, New Jersey 101 - Michael Jordan: 38 points, 4 rebounds.
Utah vs. San Antonio
Game 1: Utah 83, San Antonio 82 - Karl Malone: 25 points, 8 rebounds.
Game 2: Utah 109, San Antonio 106 - Karl Malone: 22 points, 12 rebounds.
Game 3: San Antonio 86, Utah 64 - Karl Malone: 18 points, 5 rebounds.
Game 4: Utah 82, San Antonio 73 - Karl Malone: 34 points, 12 rebounds.
Game 5: Utah 87, San Antonio 77 - Karl Malone: 24 points, 13 rebounds.
Chicago vs. Charlotte
Game 1: Chicago 83, Charlotte 70 - Michael Jordan: 35 points, 11 rebounds.
Game 2: Charlotte 78, Chicago 76 - Michael Jordan: 22 points, 5 rebounds.
Game 3: Chicago 103, Charlotte 89 - Michael Jordan: 27 points, 5 rebounds.
Game 4: Chicago 94, Charlotte 80 - Michael Jordan: 31 points, 3 rebounds.
Game 5: Chicago 93, Charlotte 84 - Michael Jordan: 33 points, 4 rebounds.
Utah vs. Los Angeles
Game 1: Utah 112, Los Angeles 77 - Karl Malone: 29 points, 10 rebounds.
Game 2: Utah 99, Los Angeles 95 - Karl Malone: 33 points, 7 rebounds.
Game 3: Utah 109, Los Angeles 98 - Karl Malone: 26 points, 10 rebounds.
Game 4: Utah 96, Los Angeles 92 - Karl Malone: 32 points, 14 rebounds.
Chicago vs. Indiana
Game 1: Chicago 85, Indiana 79 - Michael Jordan: 31 points, 6 rebounds.
Game 2: Chicago 104, Indiana 98 - Michael Jordan: 41 points, 4 rebounds.
Game 3: Indiana 107, Chicago 105 - Michael Jordan: 30 points, 4 rebounds.
Game 4: Indiana 96, Indiana 94 - Michael Jordan: 28 points, 5 rebounds.
Game 5: Chicago 106, Indiana 87 - Michael Jordan: 29 points, 7 rebounds.
Game 6: Indiana 92, Chicago 89 - Michael Jordan: 35 points, 5 rebounds.
Game 7: Chicago 88, Indiana 83 - Michael Jordan: 28 points, 9 rebounds.