When Gary Payton committed to Los Angeles and the Lakers, it was partly Karl Malone's dream to which he was committing.
It was Malone who first took Mitch Kupchak's breath away, proposing to take the lesser salary-cap exception if the greater one went to Payton. It was Malone who assured Payton that all those years driving semis hadn't left him with sign-on-the-dotted-line fever.
Then Payton did the zaniest thing: He said he'd do it. He'd take half his worth to play beside Malone as a Laker.
At his ranch in Arkansas, a week before players could sign officially, Malone poked a button on his answering machine and heard a familiar voice.
"Hey, man, I did what I did. It's on you now."
Months later, Malone said, the truth can be told.
"I had no idea," he said, "in my wildest dreams, that Gary Payton would play for what he's playing for."
He said he sat down on his porch and thought, "OK, breathe now. Breathe now. He did what he said he was going to do, and I'm a man of my word."
Malone laughed. He never considered backing out. Not for a moment. The reality of it, however, momentarily dazzled him.
"Meantime, Mitch is sitting there and couldn't believe all this was happening," Malone said. "You know what, though? In life, I don't care how many contracts you sign. If your word is no good, you're no good. I don't care who you are. In the Old West, a handshake was it."
The new West has a somewhat hazier code.
"The new West, I look right at you and tell you a lie and shake your hand and when I turn that corner I'm making another deal behind your back," he said. "That's the new West."
Malone often will go padding out of his Newport Beach estate, off to some event or another, and one of his children invariably will ask, aghast, "Dad, you wearing that today?"
Malone's taste in clothing runs toward jeans, flannel and tank tops. It's a button-down day when his shirt is hemmed where the sleeves have been ripped off.
"Yeah, I am," he'll say.
And his son will look away, "O-kayyy."
In the summer, Malone had predicted he'd settle into Los Angeles eventually, going city where he had to -- he drives a Hummer -- and staying country in all the other places.
"Hey, look, I'm a nature lover," he said. "Consider me a coyote. Coyotes fit in anywhere. Go to the house, in your backyard, they're eating out of your trash can.... So, is there a doubt in my mind? Nope. Just because I move to Hollywood, I don't have to act Hollywood. Do I have to get the driving part down? Yeah. But I'll just drive a big truck. All of this was in my decision."
In the season's early weeks, Malone has abandoned his game-day plan of returning to Newport Beach between the team's shoot-around at El Segundo and the game at Staples Center. That means less time at home and minimal attendance at his children's functions. So far, everyone's OK with it.
"It's been tough because I haven't seen my family as much as I did in Utah," he said. "It was easier to get around there. But they're troupers. I've told them they control our destiny. If I went home one day and they had a poll and wanted me to hang 'em up, I'd do that. I'd go either way. So, they control it. I tell them all the time, 'The minute you guys say, "Dad, that's it," I'll say "OK, that's it." '
"They realized when we made this decision the sacrifices that go along with it. Basically, they're the reason I'm here. They've made the sacrifice.... If they stay happy, I'll stay happy."
Shaquille O'Neal has been wearing a sleeve on his left knee, which has caused him pain in recent games.
He said he is not suffering from tendinitis, however, and Phil Jackson called the soreness "correctable" with therapy and rest.
O'Neal said he did not expect the knee to bother him through the season, as other ailments in recent years have.
A win in Detroit tonight would be Jackson's 785th, which would pass Gene Shue for 11th on the NBA's all-time list. Cotton Fitzsimmons, who won 832 games, is next.... Brian Cook, Jannero Pargo, Kareem Rush and Luke Walton will take part in the Lakers' annual Thanksgiving food giveaway from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Saturday at PATH, 340 N. Madison Ave., Los Angeles.
at Detroit, 4:30 PST
Channel 9 (delayed, 5:30)
Site -- The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Radio -- KLAC (570), KWKW (1330).
Records -- Lakers 8-2, Pistons 6-4.
Record vs. Pistons -- 1-0.
Update -- The Lakers play the Pistons for the second time in five days, having won, 94-89, Friday at Staples Center. Chauncey Billups, who scored 29 points in the loss, has averaged 14.5 points in 17 career games against the Lakers, above his 12.3 career average. Conversely, Richard Hamilton, whose career scoring average is 16.7 points, has averaged 12.7 in nine games against the Lakers, primarily because Kobe Bryant appears to take great pleasure in defending him. Ben Wallace trails only Terry Tyler, Bob Lanier and Bill Laimbeer among all-time Piston shot blockers.