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Of all the ring-related scourges that have bedeviled mankind through the ages (ringworm, ring around the collar), none is more unsightly than ring fever, in whose grip an aging athlete, desperate for a championship, will forsake his franchise to join a dynastic rival. When Karl Malone signed last week with the Lakers, at a deeply discounted salary, he was praised for prizing wins over money, ring over bling. But such praise is at once malarkey and baloney—let's call it Maloney—for it reinforces a bogus new maxim in sports. Which is to say that building a winner, through years of toil, has become, at best, a last resort: If you can't join 'em, beat 'em.
And so Malone will join 'em, and in turn be joined in L.A. by Gary Payton, the All-Star point guard, late of Milwaukee, who looks forward to putting the assist back in narcissist. Payton, who has sons named Gary II and Gary Jr., wore his new Lakers jersey to the ESPYs, a display of cartoon vanity exceeded that night only by Nuggets rookie Carmelo Anthony, who said, in a brief acceptance speech, that he'd like to thank himself for all his success.
Payton, like Malone, signed for well under his market value, though he acknowledged having already made more money than one man could spend in a lifetime. Thus he can infinitely afford to choose the charms of California ( Monterey, Jack) over those of Wisconsin (Monterey Jack).
If these ring-seekers put you in mind of old men with metal detectors sweeping the beach for jewelry, that's essentially what they are, right down to the garish shorts and kneesocks. Hence Heat center Alonzo Mourning, rather than challenge intradivision bully New Jersey next season, has become a Net himself and, in doing so, was even congratulated by Miami coach Pat Riley, who professed to speak for Heat management when he said, "We totally understand the decision." The implication appeared to be that there are precisely three teams—the Lakers, the Nets and the Spurs—worth playing for next season.
But at least one Miami executive disagreed. "He should have stayed for the minimum," a Heat part owner, speaking anonymously of Mourning, told the Palm Beach Post, "and we would have added two good players, and he would have had just as much of a chance of going to the Finals as New Jersey." Similar sentiments were echoed in Utah, where some Jazz fans thought that the Mailman—if he really wanted to take a pay cut—could have done so in Salt Lake City, his home for 18 noble seasons.
This ring mania nearly reached an absurd apotheosis with Nets guard Jason Kidd, who this summer flirted with joining San Antonio, the one team more successful than Kidd's this past postseason. Were it not for the trading deadline, we might soon see players, trailing in a Game 7 of the Finals, seeking to suit up for their vanquishers midway through the fourth quarter.
What might we call these players? Let us take a cue from the snack cake industry, maker of Ring Dings and Ho Hos, and call these athletes Ring Hos, for their willingness to escort—or rather, be escorted by—any team to the Finals, and asking, in return, only for a lurid bauble (and any attendant publicity).
The phenomenon is hardly confined to hoops. Roger Clemens and Jason Giambi are Ring Hos with the Yankees. Deion Sanders nearly became Lord of the Ring Hos last winter, when he thought about joining—for the postseason alone—the Super Bowl-bound Raiders. Until the Franklin Mint begins mass-marketing them, this is surely the shortest possible route to a championship ring.
Free agents, if not quite free, are getting cheaper by the day. In hockey Paul Kariya, who made $10 million last year with the Stanley Cup runner-up Mighty Ducks, will earn $1.2 million with perennial power Colorado next season. Teamwise, this is—at best—an incremental trade-up for Kariya, like leaving the Stones for the Beatles. Kariya will be joined in Colorado (at a mere $700,000 pay cut) by ex-Shark Teemu Selanne. Et tu, Teemu? (This is, to be fair to Selanne, like leaving the Monkees for the Beatles.) Ray Bourque, who asked the Bruins to trade him, won a ring playing one full season with the Avalanche. And Dominik Hasek (whom the Sabres were virtually forced to trade) won a ring playing one season in Detroit.
Ordinarily, barnacles adhere themselves to hulls. Except in hockey, where Hull, barnaclelike, adheres himself to Stanley Cup contenders. Brett Hull has flitted from St. Louis to Dallas to Detroit in prospecting for rings, succeeding at the latter two stops. Like Malone and Mourning, Kariya and Selanne, Clemens and Giambi, Hull is integral to his team's success. But rather than helping to build a champion from the ground up, he is, like the others, adding an aerial antenna to the top of the Petronas Towers.