Get on with it already

2/11/2005 - San Antonio Spurs

And now this message from the Questionable Timing Investigative Unit of the NBA's comeback police: Make that decision, Karl Malone, before there is nobody left to care.

The latest word is that Malone will decide soon, perhaps by the end of this week, whether to attempt another comeback in an acknowledged effort to grab a championship ring for himself at the far end of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. And on the face of things, the inclination, way back when Malone first had this idea, was to raise a glass and shout huzzahs to the man, and hope he grabbed it and rode happily off into the sunset.

But, shoot, that was two seasons and at least five minidramas ago. Now Malone stands to one side of the action, watching it flash by, fiddling with the notion of jumping back in, contemplating whether his knee and the rest of his 41-year-old body can withstand the pounding of another ... well, you wouldn't really call it another season, would you?

Nope, what is left to Malone -- and the San Antonio Spurs, should these two parties finally come to mutual agreement -- is less than 30 games on the schedule of a Spurs team that already has the winningest record in the NBA. It is, at the very best, a quick few laps with the car that's already leading the Indy 500.

Maybe, for a variety of reasons, that really is all that there is for Malone to pursue.

It doesn't answer the question of whether there will be anybody around to cheer him while he pursues it.

This is no referendum on the State of Malone. The man suffered a serious knee injury, and by most accounts (and certainly by those of his agent, Dwight Manley) these past several months really have been spent in determining whether he could play at the NBA level to which Malone is accustomed -- which is to say, an elite level even among accomplished professionals.

Beyond that, there is Malone's work with the Lakers last season, which is enough to convince anyone that he's serious about wanting a ring. Malone took an industrial-strength pay cut to join the team, only to watch Kobe Bryant descend into the thirteen legal circles of hell and the rest of the franchise slowly disintegrate before him. Malone responded by doing what he could to hold the center -- fascinating, considering he was the outsider coming in to the situation -- and help the team stagger into the NBA Finals, where it got punked by Detroit and promptly burst into flames.

Given all of this, it isn't so unreasonable to wish for Malone that happy ending he didn't get. Problem is, time goes by.

The reality for San Antonio is that it can take Malone or not. Oh, sure, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would love to have the assurance along the frontcourt, where recent injuries to Rasho Nesterovic, Tim Duncan and Robert Horry served to underline the idea that no team is ever completely safe from harm; and the fact that Phoenix keeps adding players, as the Suns did this week with Walter McCarty, is motivation aplenty to re-stock arms. But it isn't as though the Spurs are bereft; they stood at 39-11 midweek with the roster they've got, occasional injury and all.

Signing Malone certainly eliminates the chance that he'll wind up on some other roster come playoff time, and there is something to be said for that if you're a Spurs team intent on getting back to the NBA Finals after being taken out last year. The question, even considering Malone would come at minimal salary cost, is this: How much is to be said for it?

Nobody really knows what Karl Malone has left in the tank. It's instructive that we are here in February and Malone himself is still in the process of figuring out what he wants to do. It was a long, difficult rehab on that knee, and although Malone is said to be looking extremely fit, it's not the same as saying he is in NBA game shape, which only playing in NBA games can actually produce.

Popovich and the Spurs are probably willing to sign Malone on the no-harm, no-foul principle, which is that if Malone is anything close to the guy he used to be, he'll be nothing but a boon to the team -- and if he isn't, the coach simply directs minutes away from him and toward his producing players. Of course, seasons are rarely actually played in such clean-cut fashion.

It's hard to imagine Malone as a distraction to any team, at least on the court. He really was the most solid thing going for the Lakers for whole chunks of the season last time around, and there is every reason to want to believe he would be the same type of player -- understanding of his role with the Spurs and willing to accept it -- in San Antonio.

But this isn't October, and it isn't November, and Karl Malone is no everyday pickup. He isn't Walter McCarty added to a roster past the halfway point in a season. He is Malone, coming to a team that is a bona fide championship contender without him, and likely not aboard before the All-Star break.

He brings the aura of basketball greatness everywhere he goes, which is not at all the same as saying he's still a Hall of Fame-level player. He brings the expectation of significant playing time, which is not at all the same as saying that Popovich needs or would even want him front and center every night.

Most of all, he brings Karl Malone's glittering resume to the kind of part-time work that seems, at first glance, to be so far beneath it. There was a time, and not very long ago, when people who followed the NBA still claimed an active stake in wanting to see whether Malone could find his happy ending. Now he's a guy who needs to make a decision, for no more compelling reason than to simply get on with it.

May he find that ending -- for himself. But above all, may it end soon. Because at some point, it's no longer suspenseful, just a story crying out for a finish.

Mark Kreidler is a Sacramento Bee columnist and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.