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NBA Finals

On this day in NBA Finals history: Scottie Pippen got into Karl Malone’s head late in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals

‘The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday’

Which player has the greatest nickname in NBA history? Is it the greatest of all time (GOAT) himself, Michael “Air Jordan”? Or maybe it’s the sharpshooting “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Don’t forget about Allen “The Answer” Iverson, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant, or Shaquille O’Neal’s stable of monikers, from “Shaq Diesel” to “Wilt Chamberneezy” to “The Big Aristotle.”

High on the list is certainly Hall of Famer Karl Malone, who’s been known as “The Mailman” since his college days in the early 1980s at Louisiana Tech University, where he’s remembered to have “always delivered” on the hardwood. The same proved to be true after the Utah Jazz selected the 6-foot-9 power forward with the 13th overall pick in the 1985 draft. In 19 NBA seasons, Malone always seemed to deliver, to the tune of 14 All-Star Game appearances, 11 All-NBA First Team selections, two NBA MVP awards and 36,928 career points, ranking him second on the league’s all-time scoring list, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But on Sunday, June 1, 1997, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls, Scottie Pippen gave Malone a humbling lesson in Postal Service protocol, and “The Mailman” failed to deliver.

With 9.2 seconds left in the game and the score tied at 82 after Michael Jordan made one of two free throws, Dennis Rodman fouled Malone on a loose-ball rebound, sending the 1997 league MVP to the charity stripe with a chance to give Utah the lead. Yet, before Malone toed the line, Pippen approached The Mailman and got into his head.

“I just kind of whispered in his ear that the Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday,” Pippen recalled of the moment to reporters after the game. And in all his pettiness, Pippen was right — not since 1912 (with a few exceptions) had the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) delivered mail on a Sunday.

Before Rodman’s foul took Malone to the line, The Mailman had made three of his four free throws on the night. But when he rose for his first attempt to the chorus of boos from Chicago’s United Center crowd, he couldn’t get it to fall. “F—!” Malone exclaimed after the ball rimmed out left. He then stepped into the backcourt to clear his thoughts. Surely, when he returned to the line, The Mailman wouldn’t miss two free throws in a row. His second attempt, however, had the same fate as the first. Another clank left, rebounded by the Bulls with 7.5 seconds left.

The two misses from Malone placed the ball back into the hands of Jordan, the MVP of the league the year before, for one final possession, which he seized from the left wing with a 20-foot jumper over Bryon Russell at the buzzer to lift Chicago to an 84-82 Game 1 win.

“It could have went either way,” Jordan told Ahmad Rashad on the court after his heroics. “You know, I missed a free throw. Karl comes down and misses two free throws. So, I mean, MVPs didn’t do much down the stretch until I was able to knock the shot in.”

It’s worth noting that Malone played Game 1 with an open sore on his right shooting hand, which could have contributed to his two late misses. But let’s not take too much away from the unsung hero of the night. Pippen’s words before the free throws completely iced Malone, and The Mailman succumbed to the pressure.

Nowadays, USPS offers Sunday delivery through Priority Mail Express and Amazon. But on that Sunday night in June 1997, not even Malone, the NBA’s beloved Mailman, could deliver. Pippen made sure of it.

Aaron Dodson is an assistant editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson of the Arizona Cardinals, he is one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.