- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

Here is the short pants’ version of the Fab Four: Shaq, Kobe, the Mailman and the Glove.

The NBA’s championship hardware is expected to follow next June.

The rush to toast the next champion is understandable. No team has appeared this formidable since the Lakers-Celtics contingents of the ‘80s.

This is the one time that it is not about the money, the oft-repeated lie among contract-seeking players.

Karl Malone and Gary Payton have elected to join the Lakers, and chase a championship, for what amounts to walking-around money by NBA standards.

Malone, in accepting the $1.5 million veteran’s minimum, is taking an almost $18 million hit to his annual paycheck in pursuit of the only item missing from his otherwise impeccable portfolio.

The same consideration led Payton to accept the $4.9 million mid-level exception of the Lakers.

The team’s $6.4 million outlay is certain to please the tight-fisted Jerry Buss, the owner who has kept Mitch Kupchak around to be an easy target of the depth-obsessed critics.

One of the challenges before the Lakers is to work up a vague interest in the 82-game regular season, no small challenge if last season is a guide.

The detached manner is set by the Zen master, who usually labors between yawns and naps on the bench.

Shaquille O’Neal, the most imposing of the NBA’s leading men, took this as a sign to eat, drink and be weary last season, which led to the team’s premature exit in the playoffs and a vow by the massive one to push away the second and third helping of mashed potatoes.

The burden is a whole lot less pronounced on O’Neal now and the person who is guarding the door to his refrigerator. His indifference is not as worrisome in the presence of Malone and Payton, both of whom will be eager to pick their spots. One spot is after O’Neal seeks a rest on the bench.

Kobe Bryant often took O’Neal’s absence last season as a cue to play one-on-five basketball and relegate the principles of the triangle offense to the chalkboard. He had good cause, considering the accidental natures of Samaki Walker and Mark Madsen.

Bryant still may find Malone and Payton to be an imposition to his Michael Jordan-inspired fantasy. That will be for him to decide. He won’t have the cover of nonexistent support.

The Lakers have a history of overstated personnel, going back to the 1968 trade that resulted in Wilt Chamberlain joining forces with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. That, too, was considered a done deal, Bill Russell and the Celtics deemed too old to be up to the task.

The showdown led to two memorable developments in Game7 of the 1969 NBA Finals: balloons and knee pain.

The balloons, the idea of then Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, were supposed to be released from their netting below the ceiling after the Lakers dispatched the Celtics before the home crowd.

The knee pain was Chamberlain’s. He asked to come out of the game with more than five minutes left, and never returned, despite asking to be reinserted into the game minutes later. The request was denied by coach Bill van Breda Kolff, the Lakers lost by two points, and the balloons stayed where they were at the beginning of the game.

Cooke eventually donated the unused balloons to a children’s hospital, and Chamberlain and the Lakers did not claim what initially seemed theirs, a championship, until 1972.

The Zen master undoubtedly will be inclined to remind the present-day Lakers of the potential pitfalls ahead. He has a thorough background in handling egos, sometimes with incense.

Both Malone and Payton are free-speech advocates in the locker room, even if it hurts those closest to them. They profess to know their place in the team’s hierarchy, as supporting parts to Shaq and Kobe, which sounds just perfect in July. It is hard to predict if their pleasant mood will persist following a bump in the 82-game procession.

Malone’s pursuit of Chamberlain’s all-time scoring record is not apt to be a tricky element in the assimilation process. He needs to average only 12 points a game the next two seasons to pass Chamberlain, which is an almost laughable output for someone with a 25.4 career scoring average.

All this is assuming the 39-year-old Malone stays in good health. His record in this regard is as unthinkable as the rest of his numbers. He has missed only 10 games in 18 NBA seasons, four because of league suspensions.

Malone is betting about $18 million on this move.

That is a fairly compelling reason to make it work.

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