Malone, Miller close curtain on NBA era

Pro Basketball

February 15, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

KARL MALONE retired Sunday. Reggie Miller will follow at the end of the season. It must say something about generational affinity when fortysomething hearts (like this one) grow wistful at this twin bit of NBA news.

Whoever thought we'd be lamenting the NBA's loss of these two characters?

Two old-timers riding off into the sunset: Malone, 41, in his cowboy hat and Miller, 39, with his hands around his throat, taunting in perpetuity Spike Lee and the Knicks as choking dogs.

With their departures, Malone and Miller sever the cord between then and now, between the NBA past and present. This shift - in attitude and landscape - is more than symbolic. It's the end of an era.

More than any other professional sports league during my three decades of serious sports-watching, the NBA has changed the most. Out of all pro athletes, NBA players seemed to have "outgrown" the dimensions and rules of their game more blatantly than their counterparts in the NFL, NHL or major league baseball.

The rims are too low, the courts too small, the strategy and intricacies once utilized by smaller, lesser athletes to create shots are no longer necessary for these swifter, stronger giants.

The art of jump-shooting, sharing the ball, player and ball movement seem (for the most part) lost. The basic premise of creating air and space, by passing and cutting, has been replaced by an offensive scheme called "Iso," as in isolation.

If that term doesn't tell the story of five mini-corporations maximizing their sneaker contracts in prime time, what does?

Too many players these days don't create shots. They just take them.

This is a crabby, old-timer's lament, for sure. It overreaches, too, because scoring in the NBA is slightly up this season. But the NBA has taken a step back since its best era. The retirement of Malone only amplifies that.

Malone wasn't just The Mailman. He was a lifeline. He held the present together with the past.

Along with Miller, Malone was among the last connections to the NBA's glory years: From Dr. J to Magic and Bird, then Michael Jordan. This was the NBA's renaissance, and as long as Malone was playing, he kept us hooked into a time when the NBA was a revelation - a league that married amazing talent to team structure, all under the glittery umbrella of commissioner David Stern's global marketing juggernaut.

Those heady days of the NBA are mostly gone, a point articulated in a New York Times Magazine essay Sunday by Michael Sokolove: "Clang! Pro Basketball doesn't have a drug problem or a thug problem. It has a basketball problem."

"The addiction to the dunk is emblematic of the direction in which basketball - like all major pro sports, really - has been heading: less nuance, more explosive force," Sokolove writes.

In a nutshell ... bingo.

Coincidentally or not, the article ran the same day Malone officially announced his retirement from the NBA.

If there was a dunk in Malone's arsenal, it came courtesy of a well-executed pick-and-roll. By the time he was under the basket, Malone was usually so free, there was little reason to do more than lay the ball off the glass or flush gently into the cylinder.

That NBA legacy (John Stockton-to-Malone) made Malone's decision to hold his news conference at the Delta Center totally fitting. The L.A. experiment last season was a forgettable coda to Malone's Hall of Fame caliber career, as Malone chased the dream of a ring to La-La Land, winning only fool's gold in the Shaq/Kobe/Phil meltdown.

By then, Malone's career was already done, his legacy secure. Together, Stockton and Malone turned the unlikely NBA outpost of Salt Lake City into a repository of basketball played "the right way."

That Malone was among some of Jordan's most demoralized victims only adds to the legend of Malone. Like Patrick Ewing of the Knicks and Charles Barkley of the Sixers and Suns and Miller of the Pacers, Malone served ultimately as a helpless foil for Jordan, whose NBA supremacy always seemed to come at some other player or players' expense.

Malone's lament about never winning a title defines him as much as his 36,928 career points, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It almost elevates his place and meaning in the pantheon of NBA greats. The battles were classic, royal, epic.

Now Malone's quest is officially over. Miller, too, has seen his chance to win a title crushed. His career ended the moment Ron Artest ran into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills to fight with fans, saddling the Pacers with crushing suspensions.

This weekend, the NBA will hold its annual All-Star party in Denver. If anyone can name the starters for both the Eastern and Western conferences, please e-mail them along.

This is not meant to demean the work ethic and talent of the NBA players left to defend the fort and carry on.

LeBron James is the real deal. Ray Allen has Seattle re-energized. Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas have given the Wizards a surge. Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Steve Nash, Richard Hamilton and Dwyane Wade are more than worthy of respect, not to mention All-Star and MVP votes.

But the NBA's past just slipped a little farther behind the horizon, its heyday fading in the sunset behind the silhouette of Malone and Miller, on their way out of town.

This is not your father's or mother's league anymore.

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