The Karl Malone and John Stockton GOAT Pick-and-Roll Partnership Began With a Trip to a Local Zoo

“Stockton and Malone” is a phrase that’s essentially ingrained in the NBA lexicon. It represents the long-standing friendship between Utah Jazz legends Karl Malone and John Stockton, who formed the greatest pick-and-roll duo in basketball history. They also garnered reputations for their unflappable toughness and occasionally dirty tactics, the latter of which consistently irked opponents.

But for all the on-court dominance and bravado, Malone and Stockton sowed the seeds for future success at a more childish attraction. In this case, a meeting at a Salt Lake City zoo.

The Utah Jazz drafted Karl Malone in 1985, one year after they selected John Stockton

Plenty of Jazz fans probably felt miffed when the team selected Gonzaga guard John Stockton in the first round of the 1984 NBA Draft. However, unbeknownst likely even to Utah’s front office at the time, the franchise had a pure point guard anchoring its foundation.

Naturally, the next step entailed getting the pass-first Stockton a dominant frontcourt partner. The Jazz did just that by selecting Karl Malone with the 13th overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft.

Like Stockton, Malone hailed from a school (Louisiana Tech) with a smaller national profile. However, the man they called “The Mailman” already boasted tremendous strength and athleticism at the forward position.

The Jazz had their two pillars firmly in place. Now, they needed to ensure Malone and Stockton could gel both on and off the floor.

Stockton met a rookie Malone at a local zoo in an effort to build a relationship with the Mailman

Utah Jazz greats Karl Malone and John Stockton talk during an NBA game in 1997
Karl Malone #32 and John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz talk strategy during an NBA game in 1997 | Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

John Stockton first met Karl Malone during the trials for the 1984 Olympic Games. Neither player made the roster, with Stockton’s late cut at the hands of head coach Bob Knight ultimately serving as motivation.

Nevertheless, Stockton’s brief encounters with Malone at the trials gave him an added desire to build upon the relationship with his new teammate. He helped set up a meeting with Malone and Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan in the summer of 1985. The location? Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, a majestic sounding location below a canyon overlooking a valley.

Years later, Stockton still remembers the serenity of it all.

“I don’t remember crowds or throngs of people seeking autographs or pictures or anything like that,” Stockton said, via The Athletic. “We just enjoyed the day like normal folk at the zoo. It’s almost kind of unimaginable, isn’t it? (With) the history of the Jazz and in our connection for all those years, it’s hard to imagine the two of us walking around in Hogle Zoo as two young guys just looking at animals. And to be able to get away with that.”

Just like that, a dynamic created from relative obscurity ultimately grew into one of the most famous combinations in NBA history.

The GOAT pick-and-roll duo

Karl Malone and John Stockton have the unfortunate distinction of being two of the greatest players never to win an NBA championship, thanks mainly to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

However, the Jazz legends still maintain a reputation as the GOAT pick-and-roll partnership in NBA history.

Malone and Stockton displayed terrific synergy and anticipation on the hardwood. The Mailman’s midrange shooting and explosive athleticism perfectly complemented Stockton’s ability to make plays driving to the basket or sit behind screens and hit outside jumpers. Both men also excelled in transition, with Stockton’s picture-perfect outlet passes leading to quite a few Malone layups.

It’s no surprise that Malone and Stockton are at or near the top of all-time leaderboards, given how well their games suited one another. The Mailman ranks second all-time in both field goals made and points scored. Stockton, meanwhile, is the NBA’s all-time leader in assists.

So while Malone and Stockton never won the hardware, they forever endeared themselves to Jazz fans while setting the standard for the most simple and commonly-used play set in NBA history.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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