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Stockton-to-Malone Week: The Night Stockton Returned

August 7, 2010

Days from now, Karl Malone will join John Stockton and Jerry Sloan in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Let’s fete and honor the greatest duo in NBA history with Stockton-to-Malone Week. S2M Week is brought to you by my digital pack ratting, est. circa 1995.

You think that ref is fearing for his life right about now?

[Excerpts from “To the Brink” by Michael C. Lewis]

Background:
The news arrived like a punch in the stomach. Stockton had undergone knee surgery, and would be lost to the Jazz for as much as three months.

“I’m in disbelief,” said Malone. So was the whole state. …

“It’s fair to say he’s lower than a snake’s belly,” [Jazz orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lyle] Mason told reporters the morning after the surgery…”I couldn’t get two words out of him at first. Yes. No. One-word answers.”

The Return (eight weeks and an 11-7 record later):
Stockton could not help but feel a little edgy, sitting on the bench wearing his Jazz uniform for the first time in months. He was about to be introduced to a capacity crowd at the Delta Center that was rocking the rafters in anticipation of witnessing his return from knee surgery against the Indiana Pacers. Stockton kept telling himself to stay calm; he’d done this hundreds of times before. But really, he hadn’t. …

Yet even as the public address announcer introduced the rest of the Jazz players and the fans turned up the volume on their cheers, the expression on Stockton’s face never changed. His mouth sat in a flat line across his face, and his eyes seemed to be focused not on anything in particular…And when his name finally came across the sound system at nearly 100 decibels and the crowd went out of its mind with adoration, Stockton simply blocked out the anxiety and the emotion, slapped the proper hands on his way through the gauntlet of his teammates, and ran to the center of the first pregame huddle of the rest of his surgically repaired life.

First Play of the Game:
The Jazz won the opening tip, and not ten seconds had ticked off the clock before Stockton got the ball in his hands and passed to Hornacek on the right wing. At the same time, Malone ran from the low post to the free throw line, and set his hard body directly in the path of Indiana point guard Mark Jackassson.

As if he’d never been away, Stockton took the cue and squeezed past Malone, leaving Jackson to thump against Malone’s expansive chest while dashing unsupervised toward the basket. The Pacers’ defense rotated, but it was too late; Hornacek zipped the ball in to Stockton, Stockton flipped it up off the glass and in, and even picked up the foul when Jackson finally caught up enough to crash into him. …

Stockton made his free throw, and that play alone probably would have qualified Stockton’s return as a success, but Stockton was far from finished.

Drama:
[The Pacers’ 6’11” Dale Davis was in a pissy, tantrummy mood because he had to guard Malone while also dealing with Stockton’s screens.]

By the second half, Davis was plenty frustrated at having Malone pushing on him from one side and Stockton giving him the business on the other. So when Stockton came charging into the lane with his elbows up, ready to lay another one on Davis midway through the third quarter, Davis simply threw out his enormous right arm and plowed Stockton to the floor. None of the referees blew their whistles, and Stockton was red-faced and furious. …

So, like the cantankerous player he was, Stockton charged right back into the key on the Jazz’s very next possession to set another hard pick on Davis. This time, Davis clobbered him even harder, sending Stockton sprawling to the floor between Davis’s legs.

Whistles went off like crazy this time, and as Stockton scrambled around trying to get out from the tangle of size 17s, Davis appeared to kick at him. The place erupted. Fans jumped to their feet in anger as Malone shoved Davis and Jackson pushed Malone, and Sloan leapt from the bench and raced to the other end of the floor in a frenzied search for some Pacer ass to kick.

[Sloan yells at the refs for Davis to be thrown out, and then gets confirmation from Hot Rod, who has a view of the replay monitor, that Davis did indeed kick Stockton.]

Sloan, his righteous outrage now reinforced, turned back toward the refs. “He kicked him!” he screamed again.

[The refs give Davis a technical, and the Jazz make the free throw and get the ball back.]

With Davis guarding him, Malone called for the ball, got it, and ran right over Davis on his way to the basket. The refs made no call, and the layup scored. That inspired Indiana’s Reggie Miller, on the Pacers’ next possession, to show a little solidarity and try laying a hard pick on Malone, which is about like a palm frond deciding to set a screen on a fire hydrant.

[Miller and Malone crash to the floor, Miller goes “beserk” when he mistakenly thinks he got called for an offensive foul (the call is actually a 3-second violation on Davis), and gets himself thrown out. Horny makes the two technical FTs, Karl dunks on the next posession, Foster makes two FTs, the Jazz have a 10-point lead–“all because of Stockton, who was headed to the bench for an ovation and a rest.”]

The Jazz end up winning the game, 106-97.

Post-Game:
Stockton declined to speak specifically about his rehabilitation schedule, answered most of the questions in his typically vague and standoffish way, and even shot a reproachful glance at one reporter who had the teremity to ask Stockton’s wife if Stockton had been difficult to live with during his recuperation.

Yeah, it was the same guy, all right.

Same old Stockton.

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