Stars seeking glory give rise to superteams

By the often-twisted measure of modern sports, Karl Malone and Gary Payton are about to do something extraordinary.

Wednesday, the two future basketball Hall of Famers are set to sign cut-rate contracts with the Los Angeles Lakers, each forgoing more than $5 million this year solely for the chance to win a championship. In a time when sports salaries are larger than the annual budget of Samoa, that might not seem such a sacrifice - except for the fact that, before this month, nothing like that had never happened.

Indeed, the Lakers' good fortune seems only a hardcourt echo of the recent deal that brought two of hockey's highest-paid superstars to the Stanley Cup-contending Colorado Avalanche for yard-sale prices.

The confluence hints at more than coincidence. With elite athletes making more money in a year than most Americans could spend in a lifetime, many are financially secure enough to put their greed for green behind their greed for glory - at least temporarily.

To some, it is an intriguing new story line that promises excellence in place of mediocrity. To others, it is a sham that undercuts a sense of fair competition among teams. And while no one expects such championship-over-cash deals to become an every-year occurrence, Malone, Payton, and their hockey colleagues have cracked open a door that - if they are successful - could beckon more in the future.

"Especially in the NBA, I could see this as the start of a trend," says Bob Hille, executive editor of The Sporting News. "Players are starting to look beyond where they can grab the most money."

For Payton and Malone, the story is the same. They are of that generation of great players who have not won a championship largely because Michael Jordan wouldn't let them. Jordan's Chicago Bulls topped Payton's Seattle Sonics once and Malone's Utah Jazz twice in the NBA Finals.

Yet their credentials are impeccable. Payton as one of only six players to average more than 18 points and seven assists per game over his career - and the only player other than Jordan to be named to the NBA all-defensive team nine times. For his part, Malone is the second all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

Not in it for the money

All they lack is a championship, and now they believe Los Angeles is the place they will get it. As winners of three of the past four titles and home to perhaps the two best players in basketball - Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant - the Lakers would indeed seem a wise choice.

Some pundits have already ceded the title to Los Angeles. With four future Hall of Famers in the lineup, the only suspense will be if the Lakers set a record for the most wins in a season or if Malone breaks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, they say.

Yet this is not a story of billionaire owners and bottomless checkbooks. The Lakers are not the New York Yankees. To the contrary, the NBA salary cap and the combined $35.8 million salary of O'Neal and Bryant left the Lakers with little money to spend. In fact, they were the lowest bidders for Payton and Malone, who were valued at roughly $10 million and $8 million, respectively.

Contracts worth mere millions

Wednesday, Payton is expected to sign for $4.9 million and Malone for a veteran's minimum salary of $1.4 million. Not that the Los Angeles Department of Health Services will be sending Meals on Wheels out to the Malone residence. He did earn more than $19 million last year. But it was a statement, all the same.

"Players could have done this in the past, but they didn't," says Dwight Manley, Malone's agent. "Probably the younger players will take note of this."

The deals are, in many ways, a mirror of the contracts signed by hockey all-stars Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Though their decisions were probably influenced by an expected strike the season after next - adding incentive to take chances this year - their motivation is the same as Payton's and Malone's: to win a first title.

Ignoring calls from teams across the league, the two former teammates simply got together and decided to go to Colorado, where they thought they had the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup. Even though the Avalanche had little to spend, each took a pay cut - Kariya of $8.8 million - to make it work.

Mixed reactions from fans

Will Pittz likes that - and not just because he's a native Coloradan and an Avalanche fan. Though it pains him to say it as he shoots baskets with a friend here in Oakland's Mosswood Park, he likes what the despised Lakers are doing, too.

"I'd much rather see someone go to a team to try to win a championship for less money than to just go to the highest bidder," says the curly haired Mr. Pittz, also a fan of the NBA's Denver Nuggets.

His playing partner isn't so sure, and they trade jibes with along with jumpshots. Renée Willette remembers the basketball team in her summer league that got all the "hot shots." "If all the all-stars go to one team, then where's the competition?" she asks, not taking her eyes off the rim. "It seems a cheap way to win a championship."

At the very least, though, they will tune in - if only because they now have a team to root against. "They'll be fun to watch," grins Pittz wryly. "Especially if they lose."

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