- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

To the notion of a diminished championship ring, Karl Malone and Gary Payton are not guilty.

The Lakers would not be in the NBA Finals if not for the significant contributions of Malone and Payton.

If you recall, the Lakers were a team in decline last season, stuffed with aging role players and a nonproductive bench. As dominant as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant are, they could not do it alone.

Malone and Payton, two future Hall of Fame members, are no longer what they once were. But they are hardly the shell that Mitch Richmond was in the 2002 season, when Richmond merely was along for the championship ride of the Lakers.

Malone and Payton remain highly effective players, Malone in particular, both packing enough grit to absorb the hard knocks of the playoffs. Malone, more than Payton, has been smart enough to accept his place in the Shaq/Kobe universe.

The uneasy pact is forever fraught with bumps, as it was last night in Los Angeles, where the Pistons upset the Lakers 87-75, in an offensively challenged game that breathed life into what was expected to be a one-sided series.

The 40-year-old Malone is, as always, an impressive physical specimen who employs a zillion defensive tricks, even a few that cross the line of good taste. He is not against delivering a well-aimed elbow or kick, which should be beneath him, especially at this point in his career.

Otherwise, Malone is the consummate professional who has been the perfect complement to O’Neal and Bryant. He is content to rebound, play defense and take the occasional open jumper.

Given his unselfishness during the regular season, you hardly would have known he is chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. It appeared to be almost an afterthought to him, if that.

Malone signed with the Lakers to win the first championship of his career and never forgot that. He meant what he said. Payton was motivated by the same consideration but could not resist reverting to his petulant nature. Not that being resistant to a new hierarchy trivializes his sacrifice.

Malone and Payton did not just talk the championship talk, as all athletes do. They saw a genuine opportunity in Los Angeles and paid a steep price to grab it.

Malone earned $19million in his last season with the Jazz and took the $1.5million veteran’s exception to play with the Lakers this season. Payton saw his salary slide from $12million to $4.9million.

They accepted what amounts to chump change in the NBA, reduced playing roles and, in Malone’s case, a compromised ability to overtake Abdul-Jabbar.

They are rarities in today’s sports marketplace. The average athlete today is inclined to push for every million possible and then, before the ink is dry on his contract, announce, “It was not about the money. It was about respect.”

That contention is especially amusing in the NBA, considering the staggering contracts awarded to the leading players. You sometimes wonder how contract negotiations ever stall in the NBA, how a player’s agent can push for another $5million from a team that already is offering $90million.

Malone and Payton have earned a qualifier in recent weeks as the Lakers near the championship, which goes “Yeah, but only because of Shaq and Kobe.”

By that flimsy logic, Malone should have taken another fat contract from the Jazz and been content with a 45-win season and a first-round exit in the playoffs.

That, in fact, is the prevailing mind-set of most players still capable of averaging 20 points a game, as Malone and Payton both did last season.

Instead, Malone and Payton evaluated their situations in Utah and Milwaukee, respectively, and asked: “Just how much am I willing to sacrifice to get my first ring?”

Charles Barkley asked himself a similar question after Scottie Pippen became available going into the 1999 season. Barkley deferred part of his salary to make the deal happen, only to regret it after he and Pippen came to detest one another.

Unlike Barkley, Malone and Payton are on the cusp of their first championship, despite all the drama and grumbling that has gone with the undertaking.

Here’s to their worthy endeavor and a feel-good ending.

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