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'A LITTLE CHINK IN THE ARMOR' MALONE TO SIT OUT 3 GAMES WITH KNEE INJURY.

Byline: Howard Beck Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO - A sprained knee ligament will force Karl Malone to miss at least three games, the longest injury absence of his storied 19-year NBA career.

Malone did not travel with the Lakers for tonight's game against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. He also will sit out home games against the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics before being re-evaluated by team orthopedist Dr. Stephen Lombardo on Monday.

In the meantime, Lakers officials are considering placing Malone on the injured list for the first time in his career, requiring him to miss five games. A decision will be made today.

As the Lakers contemplated a week without their Hall-of-Fame strongman, the happy news was that his absence should be relatively brief, and his injury is relatively minor.

When Phoenix Suns forward Scott Williams fell backward and landed on Malone's right knee Sunday night, both men heard a ``pop,'' and everyone feared the worst. An MRI exam conducted Monday revealed only a sprain to the medial collateral ligament.

``It is good news,'' coach Phil Jackson said. ``I think it's really good news, and we have to look at it that way.''

Still, it is the most severe injury Malone has ever suffered. In Malone's previous 18 NBA seasons, all with the Utah Jazz, he missed only four games because of injury. He missed consecutive games only once, in April 1989, because of a sprained ankle.

``It's frustrating, after a lot of years and not missing a lot of games,'' a downcast Malone said early Monday afternoon. ``But I guess the positive is it's early on, it's not the playoffs.''

The belief is Malone's recovery will be relatively quick and without complication. When pressed by Malone for a worst-case scenario, doctors speculated he could be out as long as ``a month or two,'' but that is considered unlikely. They have ruled out surgery.

``There's no clear diagnosis that can give us an estimated time of how long Karl will be out,'' Jackson said. ``But we're saying he's out indefinitely.''

Slava Medvedenko, who started when Malone served a one-game suspension this month, probably will take his place in the lineup. The Lakers' big-man rotation will be thin, with only Horace Grant available to back up at power forward and center. Devean George, Bryon Russell and Luke Walton could all see minutes at power forward.

``Believe me, he'll be missed,'' Russell said. ``And then he'll be welcomed back with arms open.''

The schedule will allow the Lakers to be patient. They play just three games in the next 10 days, providing Malone time to heal and doctors time to evaluate his progress.

Should Malone be placed on the injured list, he also would miss road games against the Seattle SuperSonics and Clippers. Rookie Brian Cook would probably take his place on the roster.

``I think what we plan on doing right now is seeing how Karl feels in the morning, and we will discuss the possibility of putting Karl on the injured list and activating one of our other players,'' general manager Mitch Kupchak said. ``Clearly, we prefer to have Karl. So there's no reason to jump the gun.''

A trip to the injured list would be anathema to a man who has prided himself as an ironman for nearly two decades, who has never before felt physically vulnerable.

``Reality set in, that we are human,'' Malone said. ``I know sometimes we feel like we're superhuman. I still feel like that a little bit; it's just a little chink in the armor right now.''

But Malone's year has been defined by changes and challenges, from leaving his longtime home in Utah to the passing of his mother.

``Just another test. I had my share of them this summer,'' he said. ``I still think things happen for a reason. That's a quote that my mom and I used all the time. We don't understand all the time, but we deal with it.''

As Malone tried running up and down a Staples Center hallway Sunday night, against doctors' wishes, hoping to find his way back into the game, Magic Johnson tried to remind him of the bigger picture, of the reason he sacrificed millions of dollars and came to Los Angeles in the first place.

``He said, 'Just remember, May and June,' '' Malone said.

Howard Beck, (818) 713-3607

howard.beck(at)dailynews.com

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CAPTION(S):

photo, 2 boxes

Photo:

(color) Lakers forward Karl Malone speaks to reporters Monday about the knee injury he suffered Sunday against Phoenix.

Stefano Paltera/Associated Press

Box:

(1) Knee ligament injury

Daily News

(2) LAKERS vs. GOLDEN STATE

- Howard Beck
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 23, 2003
Words:791
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