Hot New Jazz Duo
In Donyell Marshall, Karl Malone has found an unlikely partner in his quest for a title
After UTAH'S second consecutive second-round loss in the playoffs, Karl Malone almost believed that his Jazz had reached the end of the line as a title contender. That didn't last long. I know I can play better, Malone told himself last summer, and he returned to his El Dorado, Ark., summer home, determined to work his body harder than ever—quite a task for one of the best-conditioned athletes ever to play the game. Predictably, Malone was in the finest shape of his 16-year career when he and John Stockton met last September in Salt Lake City for an informal training session with their supporting cast.
Among the newcomers was Donyell Marshall, a 27-year-old small forward who arrived from the Warriors over the summer in the four-team, nine-player trade that sent Jazz guard Howard Eisley to Dallas. Marshall had developed a reputation as an under-achiever in his six years in the league, all with losing teams. As the players paired off for weight training, Malone announced in the tone of a drill sergeant, "Donyell, you're with me!"
"If you're not lifting with perfect technique, Karl says, 'You're not doing it right; you've got to do it all over again,' " Marshall says. "Afterward we had a scrimmage, and Bryon Russell was laughing about letting me take every jump shot I wanted, because he knew I wouldn't be able to lift my arms over my head."
Marshall has turned out to be a quick study. Not only has he revitalized his career, but he's also given Malone new hope that all the Mailman's hard work will at last bring him a championship ring. At week's end the ever-competitive Jazz (40-18) was in second place in the West, a game behind the Trail Blazers. "This team has better talent than our teams that went to the Finals [in 1997 and '98]," he says.
Through Sunday the Jazz had gone 20-5 since the 6'9" Marshall became a starter in place of Russell, who was out with an ankle injury. Marshall averaged 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in that stretch, taking a massive burden off Malone. "I don't feel, going in, like I have to get 30 [points] and 10 [rebounds]," Malone says. "I've never played with a guy who can do so much, offensively and defensively, every night."
Marshall's production should not surprise anyone: He averaged 14.2 points and 10.0 boards last year with Golden State. The revelation is that he could fit in with a winner so quickly after years of unrelieved losing. "People labeled me as a bust because I started with a year and a half of bad basketball, but I always felt I was a team player," says Marshall, whom the Timber-wolves made the fourth pick in the 1994 draft, then traded to the Warriors midway through his rookie year for Tom Gugliotta. "At Golden State we played a lot of one-on-one, but on this team we play a system." With Stockton's pinpoint passing and the double teams commanded by Malone, Marshall has shot 49.0% this year, a huge upgrade from his career 40.5% mark.
Marshall is surprised that they have hit it off so well. Since Malone drove the lane with his knee high and broke Marshall's rib in a game in 1998, Marshall had considered him a dirty player. He didn't realize how much their relationship had changed until he hugged Malone during an important victory at Portland on Feb. 22. "My mom saw that and said she wanted to send Karl a card to thank him for getting me into the good situation I'm in now," Marshall says.
With a collection of senior citizens—Stockton, 38; Malone, 37; Olden Polynice, 36; John Starks, 35; and Danny Manning, 34—playing unselfish basketball, the Jazz could become the people's choice in the West. Malone, who is making a conscious effort to enjoy his final years, hopes he is entering what he calls the Nolan Ryan phase of his career. "He wasn't popular either," Malone says, "but then in the last four or five years, everybody pulled for him."
Malone sounds optimistic about signing another contract when his four-year, $66.5 million deal expires after the 2002-03 season. At week's end he was 6,016 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's alltime scoring record of 38,387. He would need at least three seasons after this one to break the mark. "I think about it a lot," Malone admits, "but I want to do it the way I'm playing now. I will not stick around and play 10 or 12 minutes coming off the bench."