For every championship-caliber team in every professional sport, the window of opportunity eventually slams shut.
For John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz of the 1990s, the inevitable moment occurred during the most recent NBA season impacted by a lockout.
In 1998-99, a labor war between owners and players turned the first three months of the regular season into rubble.
Instead of playing 82 games over six months, the league jammed 50 games into an unforgiving 89-day span that started in February and ended in early May.
"People who haven't gone through it will probably never understand how difficult something like that is," said then-Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
Former assistant Gordon Chiesa said, "It was surreal."
Unfortunately for Stockton, Malone and the Jazz, it was the beginning of the end of championship contention.
In the five seasons before the lockout, Utah averaged 59 wins, reached consecutive NBA Finals and played in two other Western Conference finals.
In the four years after the lockout, the Jazz averaged 49 wins, never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs and lost in the first round three times.
"From 1996 through 1999," Chiesa said, "we thought we were going to be champions. We were an elite team. Unfortunately, the basketball gods upstairs didn't quite agree."
The '98-99 season, in particular, was filled with expectations.
After losing to Chicago in the Finals for the second time, the Jazz roster remained virtually intact.
Antoine Carr and Chris Morris did not return, but their minutes were given to improving youngsters Greg Ostertag and Shandon Anderson.
Veteran Thurl Bailey was signed to provide additional depth.
Nemesis Michael Jordan, who scored 84 points in Chicago's clinching wins over Utah in the '97 and '98 Finals, had retired.
"We were an elite team," said Chiesa.
The league-imposed lockout lasted through the summer and into the season.
"It was the most frustrating year of my career to be so helpless because we were so good," said Stockton.
"We were trying to get back [to the Finals]. We were an older team. We had a million guys at the end of their careers. ... All we wanted to do was play, and it was completely out of our hands."
By the time an labor agreement was reached in January, there was only time for a 50-game season that Sloan knew would be troublesome for his veteran team.
"From the beginning, I thought it was going to benefit younger teams," Sloan said. "Maybe I was guessing, I don't know. But I just thought younger guys would get through it better."
Still, the Jazz won their first six games and were 19-4 before back-to-back overtime losses at Charlotte and Detroit.
But the fallout from the lockout lingered.
"From the outset everything seemed tarnished," Bailey said. "You knew the asterisks would be there.
"Night in and night out, you wanted to win. But you always knew it didn't feel normal that something had been taken away."
Said Chiesa: "We hardly ever practiced and, in Jazz basketball, that was critical. ... That set us back."
The Jazz played 18 games in the final 28 nights of the season, including two stretches of three games in three nights.
Utah went 5-5 in its last 10 games and dropped into a tie with San Antonio for the best record in the league. But thanks to a 2-1 edge in the series two of the games were played in the Alamodome the Spurs received the No. 1 seed.
"I thought we played about as well as we could," Sloan said.
Thirteen years later, Stockton can't hide his frustration with the turn of events.
"I remember it was not the best environment for us and still had the best record in the league," he said. "I remember the unfairness of it all the unfortunate nature of it."
The Jazz found enough fuel to edge up-and-coming Sacramento in the first round of the playoffs, but they were beaten in the second round by Portland.
Meanwhile, San Antonio breezed past Minnesota and the yet-to-emerge Lakers en route to its first title. The Spurs beat the East's No. 8 seed, New York, in the Finals.
The lockout season was, in fact, Utah's last legitimate chance at a championship.
In 1999-2000, the Jazz won 55 games, but they had been passed by a handful of teams, including the 67-win Lakers.
Stockton retired in 2003, after the Jazz had won 47 games and lost in the first round for the third straight year.
"There was a helpless feeling surrounding that whole [50-game] season," Stockton said. "It was like, 'I can't control anything that's happening.' "
A telling tally
How the Jazz fared in the 10 years before John Stockton retired and Karl Malone signed with the L.A. Lakers, including the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99:
Season Wins Losses Pct. Playoffs
1993-94 53 29 .646 Lost in conference finals
1994-95 60 22 .732 Lost in the first round
1995-96 55 27 .671 Lost in conference finals
1996-97 64 18 .780 Lost in the NBA Finals
1997-98 62 20 .732 Lost in the NBA Finals
1998-99 37 13 .740 Lost in the second round
1999-00 55 27 .671 Lost in the second round
2000-01 53 29 .646 Lost in the first round
2001-02 44 38 .537 Lost in the first round
2002-03 47 35 .573 Lost in the first round
Malone and Stockton
The statistics of Karl Malone and John Stockton before, during and after the 1998-99 lockout, which clearly impacted their production:
Player Games Pts. Rebs. Asts. FG%
Karl Malone 81 27.0 10.3 3.9 .530
John Stockton 64 12.0 2.6 8.5 .528
Karl Malone 49 23.8 9.4 4.1 .493
John Stockton 50 11.1 2.9 7.5 .488
Karl Malone 82 25.5 9.5 3.7 .509
John Stockton 82 12.1 2.6 8.6 .501