Lost in Lakermania, amid the madness of winning four straight games against the defending champions, another milestone from the Mailman: one hundred eighty-three playoff games for Karl Malone — and counting.
Malone is not particularly proud of the record, because it expounds on his frustrating, 19-year journey through the NBA playoffs. He topped his partner in time on Saturday night, eclipsing John Stockton's record of playing 182 postseason games without winning a championship.
"I hope he's okay with it, but I don't think I'll call Stock to tell him," Malone said, half-smiling.
An hour had passed since Malone had put his 40-year-old bones on Tim Duncan, holding the most complete big man in pro basketball to 7-of-18 shooting in the deciding sixth game. Malone used his forearms, his rump and his grit the past week. He used everything he had left to ensure another 20-something did not raise the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy before Malone could at least daydream again.
When Duncan put the ball on the floor from Game 3 on in the series, Malone's massive right arm came down like a steel pallet dropped in a wrecking yard. Sometimes, he knocked the ball away. Sometimes he raked Duncan's forearms. Either way, San Antonio hurt.
"I wanted to keep Tim from averaging 30 points," he said. "That was my goal, along with making him work for everything he got.
"I went into the series not even thinking about scoring," the second-leading scorer in league history added.
The spectacle of watching the Lakers nearly collapse beneath their own drama last week was almost as riveting as watching them pick themselves up and beat a great team that had not lost since March. How Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal and their teammates flipped the switch and managed to advance to the Western Conference finals still has this town in disbelief. In a way, the Lakers discovered they loved the prospect of competing for another championship more than they loathed each other.
One big, very un-Brady family — feuding for months until they decided to have each other's backs when it mattered.
Malone embodied their turnaround. When the Lakers were down 0-2 and were in a deep rut, he was the one who said he was stubborn enough to believe they could pull themselves out. "I just thought — and I said this to everyone — the stuff we went through all year, this is nothing," Malone said. "And when I say something, I mean it."
He convinced O'Neal to dedicate himself defensively, to actually guard that vaunted pick-and-roll that Tony Parker and Duncan were using to pick-and-roll the Lakers toward the offseason. O'Neal got motivated and started sliding his feet on the perimeter. Duncan and Parker could no longer work their two-man magic in a half-court offense.
Malone found some kind of poetic symmetry to this, because that was the play that defined his career — one player helping another, setting a screen to free him up, to make life better for his team.
When Utah met Chicago in the 1997 and 1998 finals, it was essentially Pick-and-Roll State against Triangle U. Stockton and Malone would run the game's oldest play against the three-sided motion offense perfected by Phil Jackson's assistant, Tex Winter.
The story of the 1998 All-Star Game in New York was Bryant waving off Malone in the middle of then game when Malone tried to set a pick for him. Malone took it as a major slight, this 19-year-old uppity kid, letting the perennial all-star know he didn't need his help.
More symmetry: Bryant welcomed that screen in Game 5 against the Spurs, using Malone to free himself up for a 20-footer with 11.5 seconds left in a game the Lakers would win miraculously at the buzzer.
Karl Malone, Mr. Playoff Heartbreak, was closer — even if he no longer recognized the game he learned to play as a boy in Summerfield, La.
"I don't even let my kids watch those And1 tapes and that ESPN Streetball junk," he said. "It's bad for them. It shows them how not to use your teammates, how to just be about yourself and humiliating others on the court. Come on, that's basketball?"
He still puts the "old" in old-school, no?
Dusk at the park, that last run, is coming for Malone. He knows, having been two wins from a title twice — including the time Michael Jordan swiped that ball from him and made that shot in Utah six years ago.
"It's a feeling that I can't really describe," Malone said. "I was devastated.
"But you know, I always went back to try to work harder, with the mind-set, 'I can do more this summer than I did the last.' That's something I try to instill in my children."
These fellowship-of-the-ring tales grow old quick in sports. Malone understands there are greater travesties than not winning a championship. He has three homes, six Harleys, three car dealerships, a logging company, 5,000 acres of timberland. Oh, and he married a Miss Idaho, who wakes up with him and looks out at the Pacific Ocean from their Newport Beach dwelling.
Going from $19.3 million in salary in Utah to $1.5 million this season — what the Lakers could afford to pay him — is not some great sacrifice in the real world. Not like the sacrifice his mother, Shirley Turner, made to raise 11 children by herself. Malone's father died of cancer when he was 3 and Shirley died of a heart attack last August.
But a title would make him more a part of his own family, complete the circle.
His daughter from a previous relationship, Cheryl Ford, won a title with the WNBA's Detroit Shock last season. Estranged for much of their lives, she leapt into his arms after the final game.
Kadee, 12, sidled up to her famous father on Saturday night. She is one of his six children with his wife, Kay.
"Hey, baby, congratulations," he said, cradling her head next to his midsection. Earlier in the afternoon, Kadee had led her softball team to a title, her first championship.
"She won hers today," Malone said. "Hopefully it's my time."