Never mind that they've combined for almost 56,000 points and 21,000 assists and made 24 All-Star Game appearances: The essence of Karl Malone and John Stockton was evident last Thursday in a tangle of bodies on the floor of Portland's Rose Garden. With 1:30 remaining and the Utah Jazz ahead 85-84, Stockton was dribbling in the frontcourt when he stumbled and lost the ball. Instantly, he hit the deck, lunging in vain to retrieve it. As Trail Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace bent over to pick it up like a dollar off a sidewalk, Malone, charging from the wing, dived headfirst. He snatched the ball and fired it ahead to center Greg Ostertag, who slammed home the crucial basket in Utah's 93-88 victory. "When I came over to the bench after the play, the guys were acting like I'd just broken the alltime scoring record," says Malone. "That play's going to be one I will always remember."
It wasn't a hang-from-the-rim dunk; it wasn't a three-pointer at the buzzer. It was simply 80 years, eight months and 18 days' worth of Hall of Fame bodies sprawled across the floor in reckless pursuit of a loose ball. So if you relish that sort of determination, pay close heed these next few weeks, because the end of the Jazz's star-driven run—including a 20th straight postseason berth this month—is drawing nigh. Though Utah has surprised many around the NBA with its strong regular-season performance (45-32 at week's end, seventh in the Western Conference), the Jazz will be a huge underdog in the first round of the playoffs if it faces, as seems likely, the San Antonio Spurs or the Sacramento Kings. Malone, 39, is on a quest for a ring that could well have him suiting up in the purple-and-gold of the Los Angeles Lakers next season. Indications are stronger than ever that Stockton, 41, will retire after enduring what colleagues describe as the most trying season of his 19-year career. And according to two team insiders, the 61-year-old Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is planning to call it quits this summer too, even though he has a year remaining on his contract.
Malone says he would like to stay in Salt Lake City "so long as the Jazz feel I can still help them win." But, he adds, "I don't think they really, truly have the nerve to come to me and say, 'We'd like you to move on so we can rebuild without you.' I think they feel they would be disrespecting me, but I'm telling you, I wouldn't take it that way. I understand it's a business." The Mailman views the team's $8 million state-of-the-art practice facility, which opened last month, as a tool to recruit his replacement. "I've been here 18 years, and they build it now, just when Stockton's and my contracts are up," he says. "Do you really think a practice facility is going to help them recruit professional basketball players to Salt Lake City? A practice facility means hard work. How many players really want to work?"
For now, Malone and his wife, Kay, are evaluating the merits of a move. In mid-June—two weeks before Malone himself would be allowed to visit other clubs—Kay and their six children will visit the cities of various Western Conference contenders, spending four days in each place to research schools, neighborhoods and the franchises themselves. "I'll talk to other players and their wives," says Kay, whose itinerary is likely to include San Antonio (where she graduated from high school), Dallas and Los Angeles. "Some wives will tell you the truth and some won't, so I'll compare what they have to say."
While the Spurs have the most salary-cap room and the Mavericks have tried to acquire him in the past, Malone would fit in best with the Lakers, who have been seeking a power forward since Horace Grant's departure, after their 2000-01 championship season. Malone understands that L.A., like most of his other potential suitors this summer, will only be able to offer him its mid-level exception, which starts at about $4.6 million—quite a step down from the $19-3 million salary he currently earns. "People are used to seeing athletes make these kinds of decisions based on money, but we're going to do it as a family," says Malone, who has committed to play for the U.S. at the 2004 Olympics, when he will be 41. "I'm telling you, money is not going to be the deciding factor."
Such a move might damage Malone's chances of breaking the NBA career scoring record of 38,387 points, held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At week's end Malone had reached 36,296 points, and at his current clip of 21.0 per game he would surpass Abdul-Jabbar early in the 2004-05 season. In Utah he is the featured scorer in a system that is built around his strengths; with the Lakers he would be the third option, behind Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. But Malone swears he would be content scoring 14 a game, which would position him to break the record late in his second season while contending for the game's ultimate prize. "There's going to be sacrifice no matter what happens," says Malone, who believes he can play until he's 45 so long as he remains motivated. "If I stay with the Jazz, I sacrifice winning a championship; if I leave, I sacrifice scoring points and making more money. I'd be happy averaging 15 with the Jazz if we were still winning."
Though the two stars have begun discussing their plans for next season, Stockton says that he will make his decision independently. While Stockton is glad that the eldest of his six children, 15-year-old Houston, is now mature enough to appreciate his career, he also dreads being away from home during the seven-month NBA season. "At my age the hard part is getting up for the games," says Stockton, the league leader in assists per 48 minutes (13.2 at week's end). "With kids and all the other activities around the house, I'm finding it harder to give my full attention to basketball."
The NBA's alltime assist leader may be getting a push out the door by his new backup this season and the No. 2 man on the career assist list, 38-year-old Mark Jackson. Three members of the Jazz organization now understand why Jackson has been traded seven times in his 16-year career: They say that over a period of weeks, he succeeded in turning several teammates against Stockton by repeatedly remarking that those players would be better off if Jackson were the Jazz's floor leader. Other players rallied around Stockton, who, because of his quiet nature, was vulnerable to the locker room politicking. The rift on the Jazz was mended, though not before Stockton's pride had been wounded. "There was no question it hurt John, because you could see him withdraw," says a high-ranking team official. "But he'll never talk about it, just as he won't talk about injuries, because then he feels like he's making excuses for himself."
Jackson says his actions were in no way aimed at Stockton. "I'm a born leader, and if people take that as manipulation, then maybe they haven't been around leaders," he says. "I make no apologies for embracing people and talking to people and making them feel like they're important. Maybe in the past those stray dogs have been left on the side, but that's not the way I treat people."
Sloan reached a breaking point in mid-January, when he lost his temper over the divisiveness on his team and stormed out of the gym during practice. He was threatening to retire then and there, only to be dissuaded at an emergency meeting called by team owner Larry Miller, president Dennis Haslam, general manager Kevin O'Connor and Sloan's wife, Bobbye. "That had the real potential of Jerry saying, 'To heck with it,' and walking away," says Miller, who believes that Sloan's seven-game suspension for shoving referee Courtney Kirkland on Jan. 28 was the result of his built-up frustrations. Sloan's 15 seasons with the Jazz are the longest stretch with the same team by any coach currently in pro sports, and he maintains that he isn't thinking ahead to next year. "I talk in terms of days," he says half-jokingly, "because any day in this business they can fire you."