In the end there was nothing to say. When Karl Malone and John Stockton walked into the Utah locker room after Sunday's heartbreaking loss to the Bulls, each simply took a seat in front of his dressing stalls and stared in disbelief. "Coach [Jerry] Sloan came in and congratulated us on a fine season," rookie guard Jacque Vaughn said. "But Karl and John were quiet."
For the second year in a row, Malone and Stockton had come within hailing distance of the NBA title that has eluded them during their Hall of Fame careers. The count is now a record 147 career playoff games without a ring for Stockton, 137 for Malone. As they sat there in their sweat-soaked uniforms, eyes glazed, it was as if they could sense the window of opportunity closing further. "We've been through a lot with this group, and it would be fun to do it again and see if we can get over the top next time," Stockton said later. "But realistically we all realize that some changes are always made, and that's the nature of this business."
Any changes, however, will probably be minimal. On paper the same cast could contend for the championship again next season. Stockton and Malone each has a year left on his contract, and the Jazz has only two free-agents-to-be, reserve forwards Antoine Carr and Chris Morris. In addition Utah has a $1 million salary-cap exemption with which to sign one mid-level free agent, and the Jazz is said to be high on the wish list of Los Angeles Clippers center Isaac Austin, a top-tier free agent who is a close friend of Malone's. But Austin reportedly is seeking a multiyear deal worth some $8 million per season, making it doubtful that Utah will be able to clear enough room under the cap to make a competitive offer.
The Jazz also is showing signs of age: Malone will be 35 on July 24, and Stockton, 36, and backcourt mate Jeff Hornacek, 35, struggled with injuries this season. "I've got one more year in me," Hornacek said after Sunday's loss. "We've been close the last two years. We want to come back and take one more chance at it."
Malone, however, might not want to stick around for that. Unhappy during the season with Utah owner Larry Miller's refusal to extend Sloan's contract (Sloan is expected to sign a new pact in the off-season) and with the $39 million contract given to inconsistent backup center Greg Ostertag, the Mailman began dropping hints that he would like to end his career playing for a team with a dominant center, such as the Los Angeles Lakers, who have Shaquille O'Neal. "Everybody's making a lot of speculation, but I just need time to think right now," a moist-eyed Malone said on Sunday night. "I'm not a quitter. I've started something in this league as a professional athlete, and I want to finish it. And I just need to see right now.... It'll be interesting."
As Malone stopped to chat with a well-wisher near a Delta Center exit after Sunday's game, he looked back to see a phalanx of TV minicams and breathless reporters rapidly approaching. In the center of the mob was Chicago forward Scottie Pippen, wearing a black Bulls championship cap and smiling ear to ear while holding a cigar in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other.
Malone quickly made his goodbyes and walked out the door before Pippen and his entourage could reach him. After all, there was nothing to say.