Kragthorpe: Jazz’s Stockton-Malone void remains, 10 years later

Who will the next retired Utah jersey in ESA rafters belong to?

First Published May 01 2013 08:44 am
Last Updated May 02 2013 12:23 am

The morning after their fathers walked off the court together for the last time as Jazz teammates, David Stockton went to school as a sixth-grader and Karl Malone Jr. reported to his second-grade class.

Now that David is about to become a fifth-year senior guard for Gonzaga University and K.J. is preparing to enroll as an LSU lineman, their childhoods measure the 10 years that have passed since John Stockton and Karl Malone last played for the Jazz at Sacramento on April 30, 2003.

So do other evolutions and milestones, including the 25 players who subsequently have started for the Jazz at their positions. Greg Willard, a referee that night — although not the one who ejected Jazz center Greg Ostertag within the first six minutes — recently died of cancer. The Jazz’s roster included Andrei Kirilenko, now playing for then-Kings coach Rick Adelman in Minnesota; Mark Jackson, now Golden State’s coach; and John Amaechi, who later publicly declared that he is gay.

In many respects, these past 10 seasons have treated the Jazz surprisingly well, after the legends departed and doom was forecast for the franchise. Their record is 433-371 (.539). It’s even possible to pick out a four-year period when the team topped the Jazz’s performance of the final four seasons of Stockton and Malone.

Yet in the rafters of EnergySolutions Arena, the presence of Stockton’s No. 12 and Malone’s No. 32 retired jerseys is a continual reminder of the players’ absence. Who’s next, up there? Certainly not Deron Williams or Carlos Boozer, who left via free agency or trade long before they could approach such distinction, and not Kirilenko, the last remaining teammate of Stockton and Malone.

A spot in the rafters is attainable, at least compared with a statue on the ESA plaza. But only when someone becomes worthy of jersey retirement will the franchise have begun to replace Stockton and Malone and moved beyond that glorious era.

Not that it ended well.

With a 111-91 loss to Sacramento in Game 5 of a best-of-seven series, the No. 7-seeded Jazz were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for a third consecutive season. Coach Jerry Sloan sent in Carlos Arroyo and Scott Padgett for Stockton and Malone with 5:01 remaining, triggering a standing ovation at Arco Arena. Following his 19th season at age 41, Stockton made a brief, informal announcement at the team’s lockout-cleanout session two days later: "It is time to move on."

In July, shortly before turning 40, Malone signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in one last pursuit of a championship — which he may have won, if not for his knee injury during the NBA Finals.

The Jazz went 199-129 (.606) during the last four seasons of the Stockton-Malone era, winning just one playoff series. In the last four seasons of the Williams-Boozer partnership, the Jazz were 206-122 (.628) with four series victories and a trip to the 2007 Western Conference finals.

Yet those teams never came close to matching a four-year stretch when the Jazz averaged 60.5 regular-season wins and advanced to the West finals three times and the NBA Finals twice, losing to Chicago in 1997 and ’98. Stockton and Malone were cursed to have played in the Michael Jordan era. Even so, their impact is indelible.

Think about this: To match the longevity of the Stockton-Malone pairing, current Jazz players Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors would have to stick together until 2028. In terms of impact, they would have to be named among the 100 Greatest Players in NBA History in 2046, during the league’s 100th season.

When they were inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame Foundation last October, the thought of their 18-year mutual history struck Malone and Stockton.

"I never say never, but I don’t think it’ll happen again, for two guys to stay together that long in the same place and build something pretty special," Malone said.

"We had a great situation," Stockton said. "Absolutely great city, great organization, and we had wonderful teammates. So there was no reason to look anywhere else."

They played in a stable era of the NBA. The current generation is more mobile, less likely to stay long enough to earn a permanent home in the rafters.

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