Almost 25 years ago to the day, a perturbed Karl Malone nursing hurt feelings and a bruised ego stepped onto the Salt Palace court as the Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. What ensued was something akin to a pissed off Andre the Giant going off script at a Royal Rumble and tossing all comers out of the ring so quick that the pay-per-view ends two hours early and no one is quite certain what just happened. The game itself was a bloodbath and Malone scored a career-high 61 points on 21-26 shooting while snatching 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes of game play.
The only reason I found this game was thanks to modern-day efficiency king Stephen Curry’s precision in Washington D.C. less than a week ago when he scored 51 in 36 minutes in a road victory over the Wizards while shooting 19-28 from the field and 11-16 from deep. It was peak Curry and peak Warriors in that the reigning MVP needed just 36 minutes to fill it up. In the nationally televised game, he opened the bidding with a 25-point first quarter on 7-8 from three and playing all 12 minutes. In what (as of this writing) Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl refers to as a “California cool” style, Golden State relaxed, turned the ball 15 times through the following three quarters and was outscored over that same period. But the game was close enough that Curry put up his second most shot attempts of the season, tied his most three-point attempts, and exceeded his average minutes/game.
Wizards point guard John Wall described the performance:
It’s like Kobe (Bryant) when he had 81. He couldn’t miss. You keep defending the best way you can. We challenged some shots. He didn’t have too many open looks. He just made them.
Scoring 51 in 36 or less has been accomplished just 12 times since the 1983-84 season with Curry now owning the two most recent occasions. The only other player to appear on the list more than once is Kobe Bryant at four times. What’s unique and I guess predictable is that in all 12 games, the team with the +51-point scorer won. The big scorers are hyper efficient from the field (except Tracy McGrady in 2003) and get to the at least 10 times (except Curry last week who made it to the line just three times).
For me, the most memorable on this list was Kobe’s 62 points on Dallas during his Chamberlain-esque scoring binge of 2005-06 when he had single handedly outscored Dallas through three quarters (62-61). (As a side note, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported then-Dallas Assistant Coach Del Harris was the primary motivator for Kobe’s 62-point outburst as Harris had been Kobe’s coach as a rookie and he still held a desire for revenge for Harris “driving him crazy” as a rookie. The unlucky coincidence (for Harris at least) is that Harris was present as the Bucks head coach the night Malone scored his 61. To my knowledge, Del Harris was in no way affiliated with the Wizards during Curry’s performance.)
The anatomy of 51 in 36 is one thing whereas motivation is something altogether different and in some cases less discernible.
After his single-handed destruction of Washington, Curry described what we most frequently refer to as the zone. There was no other apparent motivation, no driving force, just “some of the shots that you’re like ‘Oh that’s off,’ they end up going in. It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride that until you can’t anymore.”
But for other players, the motivations are clearer for various reasons:
Kobe, by contrast, has often appeared to tap into anger or feelings of being slighted, as he did during his 62-point game where, in addition to retroactively pointing to Harris as a source of motivation, at the time of the 62 in three quarters, it was a recent loss that fueled him: “I was very angry, I felt like I wanted to come out and send a message, that we’re going to dominate at home. We’re going to hit you, we’re going to bring it to you. I wanted to send that message.”
Kobe’s first-such game was again fueled by anger and emotion when he lit up the Grizzlies for 56 in 34 minutes in 2002: “It was a combination of emotions. I was upset because we lost in Chicago, and two in a row. I was upset that Shaq was suspended.”
A 22-year-old Shaquille O’Neal went for 53 and 18 in 36 minutes back in 1994 as he (and his Magic teammates) went all in trying to get him the scoring title which would ultimately land with David Robinson who scored 71 points in a season finale. Shaq, in his most Shaqness, was also partly inspired by visit from Michael Jackson.
(Note: For a thorough reading on athletes and vengeance, Bill Simmons’ Vengeance Scale from ~2004 (?) still holds up pretty well with an exceptionally robust rating scale.)
But no one on this list can reach the grating disrespect the Mailman felt back in 1990 after the results of the All-Star Game fan vote (hat-tip to Danny Hazan for putting me onto this storyline). It was January 26th, 1990 when Malone, the defending ASG MVP, found out the fans had selected the Lakers’ A.C. Green to start the game. Green edged him out by all of 1,226 votes – less than 1% of the total votes Malone received. At the time, the Mailman was an MVP candidate putting up 30.5ppg on 58% with nearly 11 rebounds and three assists/game. His lividity was so great that Kurt Kragthorpe of The Deseret News wrote: “Before the game, Karl Malone called the NBA office to complain about the voting results and told teammates he would boycott the All-Star Game.”
Teammate John Stockton and the aforementioned fan-selected starter Green were less confounded, both offering more contextual responses. Stockton said,
I don’t know that being selected this way (by fan vote) is any better than being selected the other way (by coaches). It’s tough to be thrilled about a selection process when an absolute shoo-in doesn’t make it. That amazes me.
I’m surprised to be on the team. I never knew my position in the balloting, and it’s really out of the players’ control who the fans vote for. Neither one of us did any campaigning. On paper, you’d think (Malone) would be on the team. I mean, he does it night in, night out. That’s what you have to do to be an All-Star.
But on a first glance that didn’t matter to Malone. And so the following day on the 27th of January, he came out with bad intentions, powered forth by the conviction that he had been wronged in the most egregious fashion. He scorched and burned the Bucks big men in the paint and around the rim. All of his points have been wrapped nicely into a single 12-minute Youtube post (below) and a couple things are powerfully evident: of his 21 made field goals, just two came outside the paint and the topic of the All-Star snubbery was hot all night evidenced by the condensed clips where the announcers mention it three separate times including references to “that message was sent airmail, special delivery!”
The way this drama unfolded is fascinating in the sense that Malone was enraged by the fan vote which is something we’ve come to accept 25 years later as a completely uninformed popularity contest. Stockton and Green seemed to grasp that from different perspectives and maybe it’s all the Yao voting or some of the oddities we’ve seen over the years have reinforced the notion that it’s all about popularity, but clearly players in 1990 understood that. And on some level Malone did too, which I’ll explore, but the announcers repeatedly stating that he was “sending a message to voters” is revealing of the most MJ manner of allowing a slight (however significant) to become an all-consuming obsession and that obsession isn’t just accepted by the community, it becomes a rallying point.
Malone’s approach to this game – constant post-ups on the right block, relentlessness on the offensive glass (he had nine offensive boards), and tearing up the court like a demonic man-tank on amphetamines – are indicative of a sustained fixation. All that anger not just harnessed by Malone, but reinforced by who? Reinforced by the local media, teammates, coaches? In The Deseret News the day after the 61-point game, there was a paragraph and anecdote from Stockton that provides some of the insight into the kind of mind that propelled Malone forward:
So who said Malone was overrated this time? In Charlotte last month, teammate John Stockton planted a fake story that the Hornets’ Armon Gilliam had downgraded Malone in a TV interview and the Mailman went out and scored 52. Stockton claimed innocence Saturday, smiling and saying, “Who knows what can lurk in his mind?”
Reviewing the story from the Gilliam game in December of 1989, it sounds like Stockton definitely planted the seed that got Malone going and speaks to the power of security and insecurity, respect and disrespect, succeeding and failure, and fiction versus reality in addition to Stockton’s ability to know which buttons to push and how hard to push them. For the Mailman, just the suggestion that Armon Gilliam or some fans misunderstood his proper place as one of, if not the preeminent power forward in the NBA simultaneously sent him off the rails and pushed him to new heights.
On the one hand, being overlooked by the fan vote feels insignificant. Malone was so obviously at the peak of the game that it seems like it shouldn’t have mattered. The other angle to take is that having achieved so much already (ASG MVP, All-NBA first team, playoffs, top power forward status) and being accepted by his peers, the only audience left to convert was the fans. Where Jordan had his Nike contract and Magic his smile and Larry the faithful of the Boston Garden, Malone was still – at least based on the voting – an unknown. What more did he need to do? What more could he do? Losing out to a clearly lesser player in Green had to be discouragingly Sisyphean and unfair. It had to hurt.
Within this intrusive exploration into the mind of Karl Malone is a glimpse into how that mind works which is what I find so intriguing. If we look at the drama of early 1990 linearly, there’s a nice a smooth narrative arc: the release of the ASG voting which shakes Malone and results in him going as far as reportedly calling the league office. Then there’s the response, the attempt to “send a message to the voters” as if they were a singular mind, as if the vote was indicative of his standing relative to Green’s even though Malone at his most rational had to know how little it implied. The 61 points was intentionally symbolic, but most likely sent to an audience the majority of whom weren’t even listening and the people who were listening already knew Malone’s standing. Even before the eruption, his tone was somewhat more revealing:
“The first couple of days, it hurts, but after a while you have to take a little time and think about things.”
From the AP via Seattle Times: `When you get put into the situation that I’m in, it’s hard. You get hurt. Everyone has a sense of pride, but I’ve had time to think about it and I think I will go if I’m asked.’
They’re both variations of the same quote and the same theme of having his pride and feelings hurt. Most of us can relate to being stung – whether it’s being disrespected, not being appreciated, being rejected – and responding first with anger expressed through lashing out – or calling the NBA’s front office and saying we’re not going to participate in the ASG. But what we do next is where people’s individual processes vary. Sometimes when I’m angry, I have an immediate outlet and it’s rarely competitive sports. Maybe I dive into work or writing or I’m unfairly being a jackass to my wife. But whether I channel that anger with or without intention, it doesn’t result in anything resembling 61-point games. Other times I’m able to easily identify that what I’m feeling isn’t even anger, but hurt or sadness and I can skip the anger-manifested-as-fill-in-the-blank step and resolve the damn thing in the immediate.
Where it would seem our species can walk fine lines is in how much these real or imagined slights grow and fester. For the pro basketball community, Michael Jordan is the standard bearer who leveraged slights and insults as well as any basketball player in history. For anyone who saw Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, there was a sad bitterness at how MJ articulated his motivations dating back his high school years (sorry Leroy Smith) and carrying through his entire career. I don’t have any desire or intent to judge MJ’s vindictiveness or the benefits or risks of using that mentality as a value principle for succeeding in life other than to observe that it looks fucking exhausting.
What followed Malone’s seeming acceptance and resolution was no less interesting. On January 31st he was chosen as a reserve for the ASG, but awkwardly stated: “Maybe somebody would say, ‘He doesn’t really want to go.’ After all the attention, I don’t think it would have been a big disappointment not to be selected by the coaches.”
He still wasn’t comfortable with having missed out on the fan vote (again, by a ridiculously narrow margin) and it’s not crazy to at least ask if that frustration factored into his comments on February 6th when he said he would retire in five years – after the 1994-95 season when he’d still be 31.
I won’t go deep on the retirement comment other than to say the timing raises an eyebrow if nothing else. The last piece of this particular Malone-driven drama is what actually ended up happening at the All-Star Game in Miami. Malone didn’t end up playing and cited an injury as the reason. This would be one of two games Malone missed between 1989 and 1997 including regular season, playoffs and ASGs. I have no issue with players sitting out the mid-season games, but sitting this game coupled with the retirement talk are at least anecdotal evidence that this enormous chip that helped him achieve so much (like an insane 61-point game) had the power to impede progress.
These two weeks in the winter of 1990 serve as a dramatic microcosm of Malone’s psyche. Always well-respected, but long labeled a choker, Malone was truly a great player, but a great player who on occasion struggled with the mental aspects of the game. In this way, he’s infinitely relatable. Who among us hasn’t struggled with some mental hurdle that seems pre-loaded into our psyches? And who hasn’t accomplished some thing by some inborn flame which is as old as our individual history? Malone in greatness and bitterness is still just a man – who happens to be 6’9”, 270lbs capable of scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in 33 minutes of a pro basketball game.