Welcome To Paradise Lost
Here at lake level, where championship basketball is assumed and long-suffering is a baseball condition, sympathy will not be wasted on the desperate longing of Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Having finally managed over a dozen years not to lose in the NBA semifinals, they have earned the right to lose in the NBA Finals, a proper name and a whole different kind of pain.
Why, they might wonder, should the Bulls have four rings and no real room for a fifth save in one of Dennis Rodman’s unoccupied nooks, when they have none?
Have they not worked just as hard, dreamed just as large, been on just as many Dream Teams? Are they not as thoroughly honorable and decent as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen?
Is their coach, the familiar Jerry Sloan, not as solid and grim as Phil Jackson at his most impenetrable?
Of course. All of it is true and all of it is the sort of stuff that plucks at the strings of the heart, if only the game of basketball were played with violins.
Anyone who has withstood the amplified growl of Gary Glitter or the frantic semaphores of the Village People - “Y-M-C-A, Y-M-C-A” - knows that the NBA is tone-deaf and dignity-poor.
No, this is about as good as it is going to get for the Utah folks, the distinction of being the next-to-last team standing.
And then it is back to being the team that has made what image it has out of winning 50 games a year and surrendering before being asked. Which brings me to the miracle of Stockton’s buzzer-beater against Houston.
Who knew he could shoot with both hands around his own throat?
My guess is six games, conceding the Jazz some benefit for altitude, as dependable a friend as it has, never mind that Jazz has as much to do with Utah as opera does with horseshoes.
Otherwise, were the playing field level and not sloped, it would be a sweep.
Malone and Stockton are merely the latest in a line of applicants who have had the misfortune, as Pat Riley meekly admitted, to have played during the same time as Jordan.
“We are born when we are born,” said Jordan.
Patrick Ewing will go to his pension cursing the coincidence. Magic Johnson got his titles in before Jordan got his first, but Charles Barkley, now aged and achy, will never get any nearer than when he steered Phoenix to a sixth-game disappointment against the Bulls.
Clyde Drexler recovered from Portland’s dismissal by the Bulls by sneaking into Houston while Jordan was on his baseball sabbatical.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp may never again get nearer than last year’s Finals, and probably never again on the same team. Shaquille O’Neal may have time, but he also has the touch of a cow catcher.
But all of this does define the series in a tidy fashion. Will the greedy and overjeweled Jordan deny the modest and unadorned Malone and Stockton, the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern of the hardwood, inevitably gone long before the last act?
And what of the real MVP? While Jordan graciously conceded that it was Malone’s turn for his first, Jordan did not allow Malone to choose any of the abundance he has in storage.
The world on this side of the Wasatch seemed a lot more upset about the injustice than did Jordan at the time, though now it may become useful.
“No animosity,” said Jordan. “But a motivational factor for me.”
The difference between the Bulls and the Jazz is that the Bulls still have to invent incentives while the Jazz has to ask directions.
No team so slow in the arriving can be expected to loiter long among the vested occupants.
For the Jazz, this is a reward; for the Bulls, a destination.
“This is where we wanted to be eight months ago,” said Jackson.
Where Utah has wanted to be forever.
Enjoy the stay, however brief.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Bernie Lincicome Chicago Tribune