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Familiar ring calling them

Malone, Payton want NBA title so badly that they’re willing to take back seat to Shaq, Kobe

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LOS ANGELES — Karl Malone arrived at Staples Center in a gray tank top and sandals Thursday morning, held up a uniform number he has chosen not to wear and did a grave Shaquille O'Neal impersonation.

He lowered his eyes and summoned a bit more bass and recounted a telephone conversation he had with O'Neal two weeks ago.

"You need me, I need you," he said with Shaquillian depth. "You come to L.A., we rule the world."

Several feet away, Gary Payton laughed, and an organization was alive again.

In a second-floor room at Staples Center, Payton and Malone were introduced as Lakers, Payton with a white No. 20, Malone with a purple 32. Then Malone sat down and, with Magic Johnson standing nearby, explained that his jersey would not do.

"After doing some thinking about things, and I'm honored to wear Magic's 32, I also feel that out of the utmost respect [for Johnson], I don't think 32 should be taken out of the rafters," he said. "Magic's jersey should be in the rafters. For all he's done for the city, there will never be another Magic Johnson. Out of respect, I would like for his jersey to stay in the rafters."

He turned to Johnson and said, "And to tell you that you're the man. It's fun to be a part of this."

A smile drifting across his face, Malone snatched the uniform top from the table before him.

"This is my jersey, though," he said, laughing. "Thanks for the jersey. You gotta sign this one."

Johnson unfolded his arms and laughed with him. When the free-agent negotiating period began on July 1, Malone had raised the question of the golden 32, a number he had worn for 18 seasons with the Utah Jazz, a number that had been raised in Johnson's honor in two arenas, on two sides of town.

"I thought a little while about it," Malone said.

Johnson nodded. Malone said the jersey would not have changed the negotiations. But, he said, Johnson's willingness to share it touched him, confirming his belief that Los Angeles, with the Lakers, was his proper place after nearly two decades in Salt Lake City.

Going on 11 years since the two were as connected to the same story, it would hardly have seemed possible. In the fall of 1992, Magic, diagnosed as HIV positive less than a year before, was attempting a comeback. Malone, among others, wondered if it was safe, and Magic, in time, decided not to return.

Malone's quotes received the biggest play, and a couple of days later he called Magic's agent, Lon Rosen, and Rosen recalled a remorseful Malone.

"I made a big mistake," Malone told him. "I don't even know how to apologize to him. I was wrong, and now I'm afraid I've hurt a guy who is my hero."

Magic forgave him, and invited him into his town, and even into his uniform.

Instead, Malone will wear 35, the number worn by his daughter, Cheryl Ford, a center for the WNBA's Detroit Shock, or 11, which he wore at Summerfield High in Louisiana and in the Olympics of 1992 and '96.

So began the era within the era, as both join a lineup thick with O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, and likely will leave it the same way. Malone and Payton came with great fanfare, having made financial sacrifices at the ends of careers that had made them rich anyway. But, at a time when many athletes talk about championships and then chase every nickel, Payton took what the Lakers had, Malone took the rest and General Manager Mitch Kupchak had completed the most promising summer since O'Neal and Bryant arrived in the same week seven years ago.

Thursday's news conference, therefore, became a celebration of that. Kupchak read a statement, Malone and Payton answered questions, and at the end Johnson literally grabbed the microphone and praised Kupchak. Though thoughts of Bryant have gripped employees of the organization — he was arrested in Colorado two weeks ago and today could learn if he will be charged with felony sexual assault — they eased for a moment, as Malone pushed a yellow cap back on his head and Payton held his young son's shoulder during interviews.

During the season, on Payton's last trip through Utah, when both were very close to free agency, Payton said he looked at Malone.

"What are you going to do?" Payton asked him.

"What are you going to do?" Malone asked.

They smiled.

Sitting beside each other Thursday, they answered finally.

"I always wanted to play with a dominant center," Malone said.

"I always wanted to play with a dominant center," Payton agreed. "Now I'm playing with a dominant center, a dominant power forward, a dominant two-guard.

"I'm going to be little John Stockton Jr., just giving him the ball."

As he made his decision to pass up millions and leave Utah, Malone said he gathered his children. He and his wife, Kay, have four.

He asked them if it was OK with them, "If your daddy chased a dream."

They demanded details.

Soon, they were near the beach in Santa Monica, where they stayed three days while Malone went in and out of meetings with his agent, Dwight Manley, and the Lakers. When it was time to go home, Malone said, his children pleaded, "Can we stay? Or do we have to go back?"

It was, then, a day for generosity. Malone and Payton, offensive forces for their careers, said they would gladly leave the offense to O'Neal and Bryant.

Just one thing.

"I hope Shaq's got his running shoes on, because we ain't going to wait on the break," Malone said.

Malone will be 40 next week, a day after Payton turns 35. They don't have time to wait. Malone said that from the first possession of the first exhibition game, "We want to crush people."

Payton nodded his agreement.

"We've done a lot of things in our careers," he said. "A ring is better."