The telephone calls were simple and straightforward and both concluded with the same message: "You know I love your game and respect you and I really want you to come to L.A. and get that championship. I want you on my team."
Shaquille O'Neal recruited Karl Malone and Gary Payton hard last summer for one express reason. He did not want Tim Duncan winning his third championship before O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers got their fourth in five seasons. Ideally for O'Neal and the aging veterans -- Malone is 40 and Payton 38 -- those phone calls would cumulatively end two decades of postseason frustration for the newest Lakers glitterati.
But there they were on Sunday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, two of the greatest players of their generation, unable to muster any amount of productivity necessary to help O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in their 87-75 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
Malone looked all of his 40 years, taking fallaway, 18-foot jump shots that traveled either 17 or 19 feet. He missed seven of nine shots he attempted, barely put a body on either Rasheed Wallace or Ben Wallace and was not the physical power forward who helped the Lakers get here. Four points in 44 minutes.
Payton was even worse. He picked up his fifth foul early in the second half, had but three assists and two turnovers in 31 minutes and was no match for Chauncey Billups, Detroit's point guard who scored nine of his 22 points in a third quarter the Pistons controlled.
The Lakers also lost Game 1 of the finals in 2001, when Larry Brown was coaching the Philadelphia 76ers and not the Pistons. They won the next four, using the surprising loss at home to wake them from their slumber.
As Bryant said after the game of the dismal performance by Malone and Payton, "I'm sure it was a difficult game for them, as it was for all for us. But it's a seven-game series. And there's always Tuesday."
But the way the Lakers came undone offensively -- with O'Neal and Bryant combining for 59 points and the other Lakers starters managing to make only 5 of 18 shots -- had to be a disturbing harbinger for a team heavily favored to knock off the Eastern Conference champions.
Malone admitted as much as he soaked his ankles in ice after the game. "I look at a game like that and I didn't help 'Big' and the guys at all," he said, referring O'Neal and his Lakers teammates. "I'm very disappointed in me. I didn't help the guys. I got out of my rhythm, couldn't make shots and didn't help that well defensively. That's unacceptable as a professional athlete."
Rasheed Wallace, in particular, had much to do with Malone's inability to win his matchup at power forward. Though he was struggling in the first half, Wallace began to assert himself in the second half, taking Malone outside and knocking down key jumpers with the shot clock running down. The dynamic of trying to guard the other Wallace, Ben, seemed to throw Malone off. He was maneuvering from power player (Ben) to the finesse player (Rasheed) and having little success with either.
Payton was simply beaten off the dribble by Billups and almost anyone else he guarded in Game 1. As Billups scooted past him and broke down the Lakers defensively on one end, Payton's hesitation stutter-steps had neither the effectiveness nor efficiency on the other end. He appeared slow and ponderous, almost waiting for his teammates to initiate the offense instead of himself.
In early January, when the Lakers were playing poorly, Payton seemed to speaking for himself and Malone, who also took sufficiently less money in hopes of winning a championship, when the often-grumpy guard said, "I didn't sign up for this."
But the Lakers' playoff run, through San Antonio, past Minnesota and into the finals, seemed to make the adversity worthwhile. And here they are again, one game in, and all the questions of age and infirmity are being raised again.