Originally published in SLAM 76

The 6th Man: Well, it’s championship-seeking power forward month here at SLAM! On one coast, you’ve got the been-there, almost-but-never-quite-done-that veteran in Karl Malone. And on the other (well, not quite on the coast, but you get the point), you have the young, just-coming-into-his-prime All-Star in Jermaine O’Neal. Neither of them have been on the cover solo before (say what?) and this just seemed like a good time to finally give them some love.

Forget the disparity between East and West for just a moment, and focus on these two men. Forget their ages, too—Karl may be 40, and there may be a little bit of gray in that goatee, but we’ve seen him running the break this season—he’s still in his prime as far as we’re concerned. What it all boils down to is desire. And from the way the Pacers and the Lakers were playing before the All-Star break, there was plenty to go around.

The Lakers have championship experience for days. Kobe and Shaq have their three rings apiece, Phil Jackson has his nine (10 if you count his playing days) and both Malone and Gary Payton have at least gotten to the Finals. The Pacers, on the other hand, are still learning. A few of the core guys have been there, at least, but Jermaine, their undisputed leader, has yet to make it out of the first round. His destination, while the same as Karl’s, lies further off.

Over half the season still remains. Much can—and will—happen between now and the start of the playoffs in April. There is, however, a pretty good chance that somebody in one of these two uniforms will be back on the cover come summer, probably looking a good deal happier.

And to be honest, we would be fine with either of these guys lifting the Larry. Jermaine has been a favorite in the Dome since he was just a skinny kid blocking shots in SC. We’ve been very proud watching him become a star. And Karl? We may take our shots here and there, but we have nothing but respect for Karl Malone. (And that’s not just because we’re scared of him, either.) He runs the courts like he’s 20, throws ’bows like a young Hulk Hogan, and has been doing whatever it takes to keep the Lake Show running smooth. He finally gets his due here.

This cover was free, fellas. You’ll have to really earn the next one.

Peace,

Russ Bengtson

P.S. A note to collectors: Depending on where you live, one of these two covers is going to be hard to find. Happy hunting.

SLAM 76 Jermaine O'NealSLAM 76 Karl Malone