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Saturday, January 8th, 2011 at 1:30 pm
Original Old School: The Right Person in the Right Spot
SLAM 85: John Stocktonâ€™s career in Utah just felt right.
Long before Deron Williams was at the helm, the Utah Jazz were John Stocktonâ€™s own. The Spokane, Washington native is the Leagueâ€™s all-time leader in assists and steals (and itâ€™s not even close), and with his son getting some pt as a reserve guard at Gonzaga, we thought now was a great time to share this Stockton feature from SLAM 85. As Alan Paul wrote, even though the 6-1 guard wouldâ€™ve succeeded anywhere, there was something about Utah that made it a perfect fit.â€”Ed.
by Alan Paul
John Stockton is still a sight gag.
Even knowing everything that you know about him, it is still impossible to look at Stockton and grasp the fact that youâ€™re staring greatness in the eyes. Itâ€™s crazy, even after youâ€™ve watched him make one incredible pass after another for damn near 20 years, seen him hit all those shots and set all those picks, and knowing that heâ€™s the all-time leader in assists and steals by a massive marginâ€”his 15,806 assists put him about 5,000 clear of anyone else, while his 3,265 steals are about 750 more than the runner-up, Michael Jordan.
Even knowing all that, you look at him, his slender frame, poker face and neatly parted black hair, and you think Rotary Club president or small-town mortician, not basketball legend. Of course, thatâ€™s part of his appeal, especially in Salt Lake City. Any city wouldâ€™ve loved to host a player of Stocktonâ€™s caliber for 19 years, and any real basketball fan would thank the hoop gods for the chance to watch him dissect foes for so long. But itâ€™d be hard to conjure up an athlete more in tune with a community than the Spokane, WA, native, who spent his every professional moment from 1984 to 2003 (missing just 22 of 1,526 regular season games along the way) repping for the SLC.
â€œI donâ€™t think I could have played anywhere else at the same level,â€ says Stockton, now 42, sitting in the bowels of the Delta Center hours before his number 12 is retired on Nov. 22, at halftime of Utahâ€™s game with New Orleans. â€œComfort is a big part of it, and anywhere else I would have been swimming upstream.â€
Those famously clean-living folks in Utah clearly feel the same, making Stockâ€™s number-retirement a particularly emotional affair. The sold-out crowd stands and cheers endlessly as Stockton waves from the floor, surrounded by friends, family and former teammates. They roar for his appearance, roar louder for his wave and louder still when Jazz greats Thurl Bailey, Mark Eaton, Adrian Dantley, Jeff Hornacek andâ€”especiallyâ€”Karl Malone are introduced.
And just when it seems the fever pitch can go no higher, Stockton takes the mic and says simply, â€œThank you, thank you,â€ and the roar doubles in volume and intensity. Stock looks overcome, like heâ€™s blinking back tears. Then the announcer leads the crowd in a countdown, and John and his six kids pull a rope to drop the curtain on his jersey, illuminated by a spotlight. The legendary poker face breaks into an ear-to-ear grinâ€”and the roar grows louder still.
With the ceremony out of the way and his jersey now secure in the Delta Center rafters, Stockton looks a lot more comfortable watching the second half from his front row seat. No surprise there, because Stockton was always all about the game. He didnâ€™t revel in the money or fame; in fact, he enjoyed publicity and talking to the press about as much as a visit to the oral surgeon. He was never nasty or arrogant, he just made himself elusive, and when you did manage to pin him down for a few minutes, he spoke in bland generalities that screamed, â€œThereâ€™s no use waiting around to talk to me,â€ especially when Malone was holding court in front of his nearby locker, spinning homey tales of fishinâ€™, truckinâ€™ and reboundinâ€™.
Not much has changed. Ask Stockton about his accomplishments, and he talks about his great coaches going back to elementary school, how much better his older brother was, and the inspiration he received from high school and college teammates. Heâ€™s clearly embarrassed by the attention, says it feels strange to raise his number into the rafters â€œwhen so many contributed to everything I did. Focusing on an individual is not what the sport is all about.â€
Itâ€™s exactly the kind of old-school humility youâ€™d expect from the all-time assists leader, but this time the players and coaches to whom he tries to pass the glory merely wait to push it right back. â€œHe gave more to me than I gave to him,â€ says Malone, of the partner with whom he will always be linked. Hard-nosed coach Jerry Sloan grows downright misty-eyed when talking about Stockton. â€œAs a coach, youâ€™re beating your head against the wall if you donâ€™t have someone to step up and hold their teammates accountable, and thatâ€™s what John did every day,â€ Sloan says. â€œHe set a terrific standard with his attitude and his approach. He didnâ€™t just show up with a great gift. He wanted to be the best he could be, and he drove himself relentlessly even after he was the best.â€
Malone says heâ€™s incredibly proud to have his name forever linked with the 6-1, 175-pound guard from Gonzaga. â€œHe earned everything. No one ever gave him a thing,â€ says Malone. â€œThere were a lot of times I took him for granted, because I knew what I was going to get every night. That made me better.â€
Stockton admits being driven to disprove the doubters, and even Malone says he was shocked when he arrived in Utah in â€™85 and laid eyes on the second-year pg: â€œMy first thought was that he was awfully small to be playing this game. I thought he might get hurt out there.â€ Remarkably, Stockton was almost never hurt. His durability was unprecedented among guards, as only Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played more seasons or more games. And Stockton hardly avoided contact; he was on the setting end of many of the Jazzâ€™s famous pick-and-rolls, he took countless charges, and he screened and defended with enough ferocity to be tagged a dirty player by many frustrated opponents.
â€œHe was the greatest teammate anyone could ever want, but I also played against John,â€ Jeff Hornacek laughs. â€œThen I thought he was a dirty little so and so. He knew a lot of tricks, and he would scrap and claw every second he was on the floor.â€
Stockton played every game in 17 of his 19 seasonsâ€”an NBA recordâ€”while averaging 10.5 assists per, including the two best single-season averages in NBA history: 14.5 apg in â€™89-90, and 14.2 in â€™90-91. He had 34 games of 20 assists or more, and set another record by leading the League in dimes for nine straight seasons (â€™87-88 through â€™95-96). Itâ€™s hard to imagine any of these records falling, and itâ€™s equally hard to imagine even one person predicting any of this when the Jazz picked Stockton 16th in the â€™84 Draft, not long after fellow Springfield-bound greats Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.
Dan Fitzgerald, the coach who recruited Stockton to Gonzaga, recalls that after John led the Zags to their conference tournament as a senior, a scout told him the guard had played himself into the fourth or fifth round of the Draft. As the spring and summer of â€™84 wore on, Stockâ€™s stock rose higher and higher; Fitzgerald finagled him an invite to the Portsmouth Pre-Draft Camp where Stockton impressed scouts enough to become a last-minute addition to a postseason all-star game, where he starred and earned an invite to the Chicago combines. There he secured his first-round status, easily convincing Portland coach Jack Ramsay, who was ready to grab Stockton with the 19th pick. Ramsay was crushed when Utah got him first, and to this day, Dr. Jack rues this loss more than Portland choosing Sam Bowie over Jordan at No. 2.
Because Utah already had an All-Star point guard in Rickey Green, Stockton looked to be little more than a backup. In fact, he was so unsure of his status that he says he expected to be cut every day of his rookie season. â€œI probably saved more money than any rookie in the history of the NBA,â€ he laughs. â€œI had no confidence in sticking around, so I got the cheapest apartment I could find and put nothing in it. I wouldnâ€™t even turn on the heat.â€
Stockton retained just enough of that uncertainty throughout his career, going back to Spokane every summer to work with Fitzgerald and never settling. When I suggest that a tinge of insecurity gave him an edge, he agrees. But his wife, Nada, seems amused that anyone would use that word to describe her husband. This contradiction arguably lies at the heart of Stocktonâ€™s drive; he had a supreme confidence in his own ability while assuming that everyone else was a skeptic. â€œDoubt has been a huge part of my career,â€ he acknowledges. â€œIâ€™ve always doubted that anyone else would think I could play. I always thought I could compete with anybody, but I didnâ€™t think anyone else would agree with me.â€
By his second season (Maloneâ€™s first), Stockton was making himself known. After coming off the bench most of his rookie year, he started 38 games in â€™85-86, averaging 7.7 ppg and 7.4 apg in 24 minutes per. â€œIt started to become clear that John was better than Rickeyâ€”and Rickey was really good,â€ recalls then-Jazz coach Frank Layden. â€œHe made better decisions and pushed the ball harder.â€
Everyone ran a little harder with Stockton on the court, says Thurl Bailey, then a Jazz star. He and Dantley are sitting in the stands just before Stocktonâ€™s number is retired, two high-scoring forwards recalling that Stockton prompted a friendly competition between them. â€œWe raced to see who could get downcourt first, because John was going to get you the ball and an easy two,â€ says Bailey.
When people talk about Stockton, you often hear words like â€œsteady,â€ â€œreliableâ€ and â€œnot flashy.â€ All that could add up to â€œboring,â€ but nothing could be further from the truth. Watching him, you saw passion, creativity and determination. You also saw a gifted athlete, which tends to be overlooked as people focus on things like heart, smarts and guts. But those intangibles alone donâ€™t make you the greatest pure point guard of all time.
â€œHe has huge hands,â€ says Sloan. â€œI think he and Magic were the only points ever who could pass out of a double team with one hand instead of two, and thatâ€™s a huge advantage.â€
â€œHis peripheral vision was phenomenal,â€ says Layden. â€œHe used that vision, along with his understanding, to deliver passes to the right people in the right spots every time.â€
â€œHe had great balance, which helped him avoid injuriesâ€”you never saw him sprawling to the floor after drives,â€ adds Fitzgerald. â€œAnd he was always in incredible shape. At the â€™84 Olympic trials, they recorded him with a resting pulse rate of 41, which is remarkable.â€ As Fitzgerald recalls, the only things Stockton naturally lacked were strength and shooting ability. â€œHe came in here at 148 pounds and not a great shooter. He could run by anyone, so he rarely stopped to shoot.â€
Stockton developed his strength in the weight room and his range with endless hours in the gym. Once the Js started falling, the floor opened up for him. â€œThat was the key to everything,â€ says Fitzgerald. â€œOnce he got that down, he was impossible to guard.â€
Ironically, itâ€™s a jumpshot that stands out as Stocktonâ€™s brightest moment: the buzzer-beating three he hit over Charles Barkley in Game 6 of the â€™97 Western Conference Finals to send the Jazz to their first NBA Finals. â€œGetting to the Finals was the highlight of my career,â€ Stockton says. â€œWe had been to the conference finals six or seven times and lost. Getting past that was the most exciting time.â€
It was also one of the few times Stockton let his emotions flow, leaping into Malone and Hornacekâ€™s arms and screaming for joy. It was a great contrast to his usual demeanor, but when I ask if, generally speaking, he found joy in playing the game, Stockton seems shocked. â€œOh, absolutely!â€ He stands to walk away, his media moment done, almost surely not to be repeated until he enters the Hall of Fame in 2008. He turns back, with one final thought. â€œI loved every second I was on the court.â€