Wizards center Ike Austin credits much of his growth as an NBA player to his good friend, Jazz forward Karl Malone. When he was playing in the CBA and Europe, Austin frequently received calls of encouragement from Malone, Austin said.

Austin, the godfather to Malone's daughter Kylee, grew close to Malone when he was forced to carry Malone's bags as a rookie with the Jazz.

"He is a great example," said Austin, whose part-time offseason home is in Salt Lake City, near Malone. "I learned a lot from him. Seeing what he does as a player. He works so hard off the court. And to come out and perform every year is something to look up to. He's one of the best power forwards in the league and he's going to be like that until he retires."

Malone, last season's NBA Most Valuable Player, is fourth in the league in scoring with a 24.9 points per game average. . . .

Austin, who tonight played his second game after breaking his nose against Toronto, will have to wear the same temporary protective mask he wore against the Sacramento Kings for at least one more game. A custom-fitted face guard will not be ready until Thursday's game at Phoenix, Austin said.

In Saturday's game against Sacramento, Austin was hit in the face guard early in the second half by Kings center Vlade Divac and his nose bled profusely. He was unable to return.

"It's tough because the mask kind of blocks your view," Austin said. "At the same time you really don't want to get hit again so it's something different. I wanted to take it off the other night but I knew if I did I was going to get hit. I ended up getting hit anyway."

The Jazz is not dominating right now. Just two games above .500 entering tonight's game against Washington, the Jazz is hearing enhanced speculation--which escalated when the spry Sacramento Kings nearly upset Utah in the first round of the playoffs last season--that age has caught up to the team.

Malone and guards John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek have played a total of 42 seasons in the NBA. Utah has not won more than two games in a row this season and has lost two of its past three home games, which just a few years ago was unheard of at the Delta Center.

The fault may not lay with the team's elder statesmen. Malone is fourth in the NBA in scoring and Stockton is third in assists (8.4) and Hornacek leads the league in free-throw percentage (96 percent).

"I'm basically tired of all this age stuff," Malone told the Deseret News. "Everybody wants to talk about that when we lose a game. I don't buy that. You can't convince me that we've fallen off that much in two years."

The Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals in Michael Jordan's final season in 1997-98.