Karl Malone is back in the news again, this time making waves by saying if he had the choice he would build an NBA team around Scottie Pippen, not Michael Jordan.
As a Lakers fan, seeing Karl Malone back in the headlines made me nostalgic for the unforgettable 2004 season when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson to chase an elusive championship.
In fact, it was eight years ago today - June 15th, 2004 - when Karl Malone's personal quest for a title ended with the Los Angeles Lakers in a 4-1 NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons.
While Karl Malone is receiving well-deserved scorn for his Pippen-over-MJ remarks, the Mailman also deserves some overdue praise for his 2004 season with the Lakers. Here is why:
For Once, It Wasn't About the Money
When NBA players throw out the cliché "it's not about the money," fans like me roll our eyes. With NBA players, it is always about the money. Always.
But in 2004, Karl Malone potentially left tens of millions of dollars on the table to give himself the best shot at winning his first NBA championship. Rather than pursuing big money, Malone signed a one-year deal with the Lakers for the veteran's minimum of $1.5 million.
To put Malone's $1.5 million in context, the Mailman was coming off a contract with the Jazz that had paid him $66.5 million over his last four years in Utah (including $19 million in 2003.) At 39 years old Karl Malone was still one of the league's elite power forwards in 2003, averaging 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 steals.
Karl Malone could have realistically signed a 2-year, $20 million-plus deal elsewhere. Instead, Malone took the least amount of money possible in order to join the Lakers and pursue a title.
Malone's 2004 contract with the Lakers is one of the most meaningful examples in professional sports history of a player putting winning above money. Karl Malone deserves praise for this.
The 2004 Lakers Domination
With Malone in the lineup the 2004 Lakers jumped out to an 18-3 record. After winning titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002, the Lakers seemed poised the win their fourth championship in five years. Early on, the Lakers looked dominant.
And so did Karl Malone.
In his first game as a Laker, Karl Malone missed a triple-double by one assist. Through the first 21 games as a Laker he averaged 14.7 points on 51% shooting, 10.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.2 steals.
At age 40, it seemed almost inevitable Karl Malone would finally get his title. His Hall of Fame career appeared destined to end hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.
But as with most fairytales, Malone's storybook ending took an unexpected turn.
Playing Through Injury
The unexpected turn for Karl Malone happened on December 21, 2003 when he bumped knees with Scott Williams of the Phoenix Suns (video here) and fell to the floor in pain. As a result of the knee injury, Karl Malone missed the next 39 games and played hurt for the remainder of the year.
After Malone returned to the Lakers lineup the team went on to win their next 11 games and once again looked poised for a title. But Malone's knee continued to bother him throughout the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
By the time the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, Malone's knee was hurting so badly that he managed to score just 4, 9, 5, and 2 points in the first four games in the Finals as the Lakers fell behind 3-1.
Karl Malone had given everything he had.
Malone spent Game 5 of the Finals in street clothes on the bench as the Pistons and their fans celebrated the championship Malone had sacrificed so much to win.
Karl Malone's Lakers Legacy
As a Lakers fan I still look back at 2004 as one of the great "What If?" Lakers seasons, still regretting not winning a championship that at times seemed inevitable.
Eight years later I still appreciate Karl Malone putting his body and his paycheck on the line, giving everything he had to win an NBA title with the Lakers.
While Malone fell just short of his ultimate goal he succeeded in reminding even the most jaded sports fans of one surprising truth:
At least with some players, it really isn't all about the money.
Andrew Sweat is a die-hard Lakers fan. For more from this author, visit Andrew's archive or check these out articles: