He’s no bigger than one of Fagin’s pickpockets, and just as cunning, as the unsuspecting Lakers learned when John Stockton and his gang of Utah Jazz nearly stole away a playoff series last spring.
“Seems like just yesterday, doesn’t it?” the Jazz guard said as he laced up his sneakers before Wednesday night’s exhibition, the Lakers’ first appearance at the Forum since winning their second straight National Basketball Assn. championship.
It was 13 days in May when the Lakers eliminated the Jazz in 7 games to advance to the Western Conference finals, and though the Lakers still had to beat Dallas and Detroit before winning the title, they won’t soon forget the gantlet they had to run to get through Utah. The Jazz certainly won’t.
“The intensity level was out of this world for both teams,” Stockton said. “I know for a fact that the Lakers gave everything they had, and they had to. We gave everything we had, too.”
Naturally, no one expected that kind of intensity to carry over Wednesday, not in an exhibition when a good portion of the crowd of 15,577 was distracted by the World Series. The Lakers won this game, 129-96, in their only home exhibition appearance.
Someone must have forgotten to tell the players, however, at least in a first quarter that had some riveting moments. Byron Scott, for example, didn’t even flinch while taking a charge from Karl (the Mailman) Malone on a Jazz fast break, even though he spotted the Mailman more than 60 pounds.
Moments later, Scott threw in a thunderous one-handed jam over Malone on the end of a Laker fast break, a resounding exclamation point to an 8-0 Laker run.
Malone, however, had 15 points and 5 rebounds in the first quarter alone, and also blocked a reverse layup attempt by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fulfilling a pledge he’d made before the game.
“I don’t know exactly how much (the starters) will play,” Malone said, “but when we do play we’ll go at it hard. I am, and I know everybody else will, too.
“I don’t think we’ll need introductions tonight.”
The Jazz won’t need introductions anywhere this season, not after the exposure they received in taking the Lakers to the limit last season.
“I hope they forget about us and let us go quietly about our business,” said Stockton, who out-Magiced Magic Johnson in much of the series, setting a playoff record with 115 assists, including a record-tying 24 in Game 5.
That’s the game, a 111-109 Laker win, that remained in Stockton’s memory long after it ended. Michael Cooper, who hadn’t scored a basket all night, made the game-winning shot after Stockton just missed stealing Magic Johnson’s pass. It gave the Lakers a 3-2 edge in the series, and though Utah won Game 6 easily back in Salt Lake City, it enabled the Lakers to return home for the clinching win.
“I definitely knocked it loose,” Stockton said. “The ball was down here (between his knees) when (Johnson) flipped it.”
Thurl Bailey, who had made a tough baseline jumper with 12 seconds left just before Cooper’s shot, said that Game 5 is permanently etched in his memory as well.
“But what I remember most about the series is being here in L.A., looking at the fans sitting on the baseline and seeing the familiar faces of so many stars,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘God, they’re here to watch you, not just because they’re Laker fans, but because it’s you, the Utah Jazz.’
“A Jazz-Laker game had become the top of entertainment, and that was a great compliment.
“I think the series, even in losing, helped us a great deal across the country, in terms of recognition and in terms of other teams looking at us with a different perspective.”
It also changed the way the Jazz looked at themselves, Bailey said.
“Before we never talked of NBA rings,” he said. “We talked about making the playoffs, getting good playoff position. Now we say, ‘Boy, it would be kind of nice to wear a ring.”’
Malone, who averaged just under 30 points in 11 playoff games last season, appears primed to use the Laker playoff series as a springboard to major national exposure. Coach Frank Layden said that Sports Illustrated is intending to use Malone on a future cover, and Magic Johnson invited Malone to play in his summer All-Star game.
“Everywhere we went, not only here but back in Salt Lake City, people got excited about the series,” Malone said. “I’ve never seen so much media, everywhere you turned. It made me feel good.
“It made me feel really good. People knew who I was this summer--even pilots and flight attendants. I think it did a lot for the Utah Jazz organization.”
One thing it did, Layden said, was to make people expect more of the same this season.
“We grew a little bit in that series, but no doubt about it, there’s more pressure on us,” Layden said. “Expectations at home are very great. They want us right back there again.
“It was exciting, and our guys liked it, but if they like it, they got to work hard to get back there.”
And somewhere along the line, Layden figures, the Lakers will be waiting.
“The Lakers will be tough--they’re going to be murder,” Layden said. “Everybody thinks they’re old, but they’re not. They’ve got one guy who’s old, and he’s unique.
“And they don’t have any pressure this season. Winning two in a row was pressure.”
Byron Scott, who led the Lakers with 20 points, on taking Karl Malone’s charge in the first quarter: "(Pat) Riley said he wanted us to do more things like blocking shots, playing more physical, take charges. I saw Malone coming. It was one of those things where you say, ‘Well, I can’t move, I might as well just cover my vital parts and take the hit.’ When Karl fills the lane, he’s coming at you full speed. He’s not going to go around you, he’s going to come through you. On a pain scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate it about a 7, which means I’ll probably do it again.” . . . Scott, on Utah expectations after the playoffs last spring: “At the time we played them , they were playing extremely well. But it’s a 100-and-something game season, and to win a championship you have to play well at least 70% of the time. We don’t know if they have that capability yet.” . . . Orlando Woolridge, in his first appearance here as a Laker, had 15 points and 3 rebounds in 19 minutes. Rookie David Rivers had 6 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in his Forum debut. The Lakers are 3-1 in exhibition play and leave Friday for a 4-game exhibition swing that includes games against Washington Saturday, New Jersey next Monday in Buffalo, the Knicks next Tuesday in New York, and the Jazz next Thursday in Utah.