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Malone Plays Through Pain

Veteran reinjures knee but still contributes any way he can. His status for Game 3 is uncertain.

June 09, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Would this journey of 19 seasons, of 18 unsatisfactory finishes, of more points than anybody in NBA history other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and fewer titles than anybody who has ever worn a championship ring end in the isolation and despair of a trainer's room?

That certainly seemed to be a possibility for Laker power forward Karl Malone after the first quarter of the second game of the NBA Finals in what turned out to be a 99-91 overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons.

Malone, who has been plagued by an injury to his right knee since December, reinjured that knee in the first quarter, again straining the medial collateral ligament. When he first suffered the injury, Malone was forced to go on the injured list for the first time in his career.

His return delayed when he tried to come back too quickly, Malone, after sitting out 39 games, returned in March. But the knee wasn't the same. The lift wasn't there. The charge to the basket had been replaced by a hop, step and a sometimes feeble jump.

As the playoffs progressed, Malone had fluid build up in the knee.

Then came a new strain on Tuesday night. When Malone was removed in the first period, Laker trainer Gary Vitti wasn't ready to advise him to return. The majority of his teammates were more emphatic: Stay out, they told him.

Fat chance.

Malone had come too far to finish as a spectator.

"I jumped on Gary, our trainer," Malone said. "I apologized [later]. It was the heat of the moment. I took a little bit of frustration out on him."

And then, once he had convinced Coach Phil Jackson to put him back in, Malone took out his frustration on the Pistons.

Looking at the final stats, it's hard to detect there was even a problem.

Malone played 39 minutes. Only the big two -- Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant -- played more for the Lakers.

Malone scored nine points. Only O'Neal and Bryant scored more for the Lakers.

Malone took nine shots. Only O'Neal and Bryant took more.

Malone had nine rebounds. Nobody on the Lakers had more.

And in the last seconds of regulation, while the Staples Center crowd was still buzzing about Bryant's score-tying jump shot, who was it juggling the ball on the baseline keeping it out of the Pistons' hands until time had expired?

Malone, of course.

When the game was over, Malone dragged his aching right leg into the locker room, plopped his weary 40-year-old body down on a chair at his locker, and put his sore legs into a red bucket of ice.

And then, he tried to convince the surrounding media mob that his season was not over, while really trying to convince himself.

"It's going to be all right," Malone said. "It's got to be. I'm not trying to show no one how tough I am. I just realize I'm not going to be in this position again so I have to do what I can do.... I had to go back in.... I didn't think about the rest of the series. I just thought about this game right here. It will be all right.... I knew it wasn't going to be easy. It's just one of those things you have to deal with."

Would he be able to deal with it well enough to return to the court for Game 3 Thursday in Detroit?

"I don't know right now," Malone said. "I'm used to playing and playing through injuries and whatever. I just tried to do what I could do.... I had to stop worrying about trying to score anything and just make sure I was doing other things like being in the right spot to set picks and do what I can do.

"I expect a lot of myself when I'm on the floor."

Malone is listed as day to day. That means the Lakers aren't sure he'll play Thursday. Malone, however, is determined to make it back onto the court.

No matter what Gary Vitti tells him.


Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.

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