Finally reaching the NBA Finals after an 11-year pursuit, Karl Malone had the unfortunate luck of meeting the most unstoppable player in NBA history on the games biggest stage.
The reward for Malone and his Utah Jazz for finally claiming the Western Conference crown was facing the Chicago Bulls in the midst of their dominance over the league.
Making matters worse, Malone had to deal with an even more vengeful Michael Jordan, as the greatest player ever to step onto the court was determined to embarrass Malone for winning his MVP award in 1997.
In the second meeting in the Finals, Jordan literally snatched Malone’s chance of glory away from him.
A regular season record of 62-20 secured Utah home court advantage throughout the post season and needing to win both games at the Delta Center to claim the first championship in franchise history wasn’t too much of a reach.
Even against the legendary Bulls.
The Jazz won 12-straight games at home to close out the regular season, finishing with a record of 36-5 when hosting an opponent. It was able to advance larglely because of its 8-1 record at home during first three rounds of the 1998 NBA playoffs.
Malone single-handedly ensured the series would return to Utah by scoring 39 points on 17-of-27 shooting during an 83-81 victory in Game 5 of the Finals to avoid elimination. No other Jazz player totaled more than 12 in the contest.
Tied at 83, a double-teamed Malone delivered a perfect cross-court pass to a wide open John Stockton and he buried a three from the wing with 41.9 seconds remaining.
Following a timeout, Jordan received the inbound pass at half court and he quickly blew past his defender, Byron Russell, for an easy layup to slice the lead back down to one.
Jordan’s drive took just four seconds off the clock.
Utah slowly walked the ball up court, Malone sets up on the weak-side of the court. Jeff Hornacek originally was trying to post up Jordan, but switched position with Malone.
As Stockton’s pass went down to Malone in the post, Jordan abandoned Hornacek and double-teamed Malone. An instant after receiving the pass, Jordan strips the ball out of Malone’s hands and races up court.
Jordan maintained possession the entire time, setting up the offense from the left side of the rim. As Dennis Rodman ran across the foul line, Malone pursued him, leaving Russell in single coverage.
Jordan raced to center court, famously crosses Russell, setting up a wide open look that he swishes through the net.
Chicago took an 87-86 lead with 5.2 seconds remaing.
Stockton took the inbound pass, ran to the top of the arc, Malone tried to set a screen on Ron Harper, as Stockton squared up, Harper tipped the shot, the ball hit the left side of the rim and bounced out.
No one was able to secure the long rebound and time expired.
Jordan once again claimed victory while Malone came up empty handed.
He walked off the court, just seconds away from forcing a Game 7 and one more opportunity to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy as his own.
Instead of being measured for a championship ring, Malone’s ability to come through under pressure was constantly being sized up.
While with the Jazz he averaged 24.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, along with three 30-point efforts in 12 appearances in the Finals.
The only two-time victim in the Finals during Chicago’s pair of three-peats during the decade was the Jazz.
After claiming the 1997 MVP, with relatively mundane averages of 27.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, compared to 28.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game for Jordan as he led his team to a 69-win season.
Strangely, both of Malone’s MVP awards came in a season where he failed to average a double-double, a feat he accomplished 10 times during his 18-year career.
Jordan quickly exacted his revenge once meeting Malone in the Finals, scoring 31 points and dishing eight assists as he led Chicago to an 84-82 victory in Game 1 of the Finals.
Three of Chicago’s victories came by less than four points in the 1997 NBA Finals, but Jordan always found a way to torture the Jazz.
It was culminated as Jordan drew three defenders, only to kick it out to a wide open Steve Kerr at the free throw line. Kerr’s shot clinched the Bulls the 1997 title.
In 12 career games against the Jazz in the Finals, Jordan averaged 32.9 points per game.
Like many superstars during the 1990s, Malone simply couldn’t find a way to overcome Jordan and the Bulls.
Although Malone’s career famously lacks a championship paraded, he finished with career averages of 25 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and inducted to the Hall-0f-Fame in 2010.
He was selected to 14 All-Star Games, won two MVP awards in All-Star play, is one of just 12 players in league history to win multiple MVP awards.
For the rest of the NBA’s history, Malone will always be relevant. He ranks second all-time in points scored (36,928) and defensive rebounds (11,406). No player has attempted (13,188) or made (9,787) more free throws than Malone.
For eight consecutive seasons, Malone was named to the All-NBA First-Team.
No player was designed to become a power forward better than Malone. During the first 17-years of his career, Malone never missed more than two games in a season.
He could post up, shoot with accuracy from 20-feet away from the rim, defend centers and power forwards with ease, was among the strongest players in the league and routinely dished out punishment when necessary.
Desperate for one more opportunity at a championship, Malone left Utah and joined the star-studded Lakers, a year after winning their third-straight championship.
The 40-year-old Malone missed nearly half the season with various injuries but became a focal point for Los Angeles once post season play began. Malone led all scorers with 30 points to secure a 92-88 victory in Game 4 victory over Houston in the opening round of the playoffs.
A devastating knee injury, which he played through, during the 2004 NBA Finals cost the Lakers a title.
The Lakers fell to Detroit in five games and Malone walked away from basketball.
Malone had the championship trophy within his grasp, too bad Jordan was there to rip it away from him.