Karl Malone has discovered the nature of success. The more you get, it seems, the more you need.
The NBA’s reigning MVP is a bundle of tension as he gears up for what could be his toughest season.
“I mean, realistically, what can we do this year that’ll be acceptable? Winning a championship is the only thing,” said the Utah Jazz’s only power forward for the last 12 years. “If we don’t do that, all we’re going to hear is, ‘Well, they was good in their day, but they never achieved their potential.’ And there’s nothing I can do about that.”
The lineup will look almost exactly the same, but the Utah Jazz - and Malone - are forever changed.
When the Jazz won their first Western Conference title and ascended to the NBA Finals last season, this perennially underachieving franchise suddenly went from underdog to favorite heading into the 1997-98 season. It’s a position with which no one in Utah is familiar, least of all Malone.
“There’s pressure to succeed this year, that’s for real,” he said. “Myself, I feel it. I feel it every day.”
Some thought the pressure got to Malone during the Finals, where he was roundly criticized for a subpar performance. He enters this season more determined than ever to silence his doubters.
“I’ve got everything I want in life,” he said. “You can’t care what other people say, but I still want to show everybody what I’m all about.”
He was the eighth of nine children born poor in Summerfield, La. He left Louisiana Tech a year early, and then slipped to 13th in the NBA draft. He ended up in Utah, where he became the NBA’s unknown superstar.
For years the Jazz were a footnote in the NBA, a convenient also-ran that faded in the playoffs and never threatened the established powers. Now, after a conference championship and an MVP award, the Jazz and Malone have become the powers.
“All of a sudden this year, people are saying that we got to win a championship or they should just break up this team and sell the spare parts,” Malone said. “I even heard the other day that we were - what did they say? - a dynasty on the decline. How can we be declining if we were in the Finals last year?
“It just goes to show - people want you to fail.”
Just at the point in his career when Malone should have nothing left to prove, he has been given another challenge. The MVP award, the All-Star selections, the gold medals, the adulation of an entire state - they may not be enough.
For at least the first eight weeks of this season, Malone is on his own.
“Karl’s going to feel a pressure this year that he hasn’t had before, just because he’s going to be the focus for most teams in the first part of the year,” Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. “Usually, teams have to focus on him and John (Stockton). For the first couple of months, it’ll be just him.”
Stockton severely damaged cartilage in his knee and will be on crutches for two to three months. Malone and Stockton have only missed four regular-season games each in their NBA careers. The adjustment Malone will have to make is profound.
“All of our games will have to change, but Karl might have to make more adjustments than most,” guard Jeff Hornacek said. “They have that timing together, and now we’ll have to learn to play without it.”
“It’s a different game with John out of the lineup,” Malone said. “I have to go about my business differently. I might have to pass more, I might have to take even more leadership on the court. Just doing what I normally do isn’t going to cut it.”