Slam 85: John Stockton

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Slam 85: John Stockton

Postby tpakrac » Mon Jan 10, 2011 5:49 pm

http://www.slamonline.com/online/nba/20 ... ight-spot/

Saturday, January 8th, 2011 at 1:30 pm
Original Old School: The Right Person in the Right Spot

SLAM 85: John Stockton’s career in Utah just felt right.

Long before Deron Williams was at the helm, the Utah Jazz were John Stockton’s own. The Spokane, Washington native is the League’s all-time leader in assists and steals (and it’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 would’ve succeeded anywhere, there was something about Utah that made it a perfect fit.—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 you’re staring greatness in the eyes. It’s crazy, even after you’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 he’s the all-time leader in assists and steals by a massive margin—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, that’s part of his appeal, especially in Salt Lake City. Any city would’ve loved to host a player of Stockton’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 it’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.

“I don’t think I could have played anywhere else at the same level,” 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 Utah’s game with New Orleans. “Comfort is a big part of it, and anywhere else I would have been swimming upstream.”

Those famously clean-living folks in Utah clearly feel the same, making Stock’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 and—especially—Karl Malone are introduced.

And just when it seems the fever pitch can go no higher, Stockton takes the mic and says simply, “Thank you, thank you,” and the roar doubles in volume and intensity. Stock looks overcome, like he’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 grin—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 didn’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, “There’s no use waiting around to talk to me,” especially when Malone was holding court in front of his nearby locker, spinning homey tales of fishin’, truckin’ and reboundin’.

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. He’s clearly embarrassed by the attention, says it feels strange to raise his number into the rafters “when so many contributed to everything I did. Focusing on an individual is not what the sport is all about.”

It’s exactly the kind of old-school humility you’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. “He gave more to me than I gave to him,” 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. “As a coach, you’re beating your head against the wall if you don’t have someone to step up and hold their teammates accountable, and that’s what John did every day,” Sloan says. “He set a terrific standard with his attitude and his approach. He didn’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.”

Malone says he’s incredibly proud to have his name forever linked with the 6-1, 175-pound guard from Gonzaga. “He earned everything. No one ever gave him a thing,” says Malone. “There 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.”

Stockton admits being driven to disprove the doubters, and even Malone says he was shocked when he arrived in Utah in ’85 and laid eyes on the second-year pg: “My first thought was that he was awfully small to be playing this game. I thought he might get hurt out there.” 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 Jazz’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.

“He was the greatest teammate anyone could ever want, but I also played against John,” Jeff Hornacek laughs. “Then 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.”

Stockton played every game in 17 of his 19 seasons—an NBA record—while averaging 10.5 assists per, including the two best single-season averages in NBA history: 14.5 apg in ’89-90, and 14.2 in ’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 (’87-88 through ’95-96). It’s hard to imagine any of these records falling, and it’s equally hard to imagine even one person predicting any of this when the Jazz picked Stockton 16th in the ’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 ’84 wore on, Stock’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. “I probably saved more money than any rookie in the history of the NBA,” he laughs. “I had no confidence in sticking around, so I got the cheapest apartment I could find and put nothing in it. I wouldn’t even turn on the heat.”

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 Stockton’s drive; he had a supreme confidence in his own ability while assuming that everyone else was a skeptic. “Doubt has been a huge part of my career,” he acknowledges. “I’ve always doubted that anyone else would think I could play. I always thought I could compete with anybody, but I didn’t think anyone else would agree with me.”

By his second season (Malone’s first), Stockton was making himself known. After coming off the bench most of his rookie year, he started 38 games in ’85-86, averaging 7.7 ppg and 7.4 apg in 24 minutes per. “It started to become clear that John was better than Rickey—and Rickey was really good,” recalls then-Jazz coach Frank Layden. “He made better decisions and pushed the ball harder.”

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 Stockton’s number is retired, two high-scoring forwards recalling that Stockton prompted a friendly competition between them. “We raced to see who could get downcourt first, because John was going to get you the ball and an easy two,” says Bailey.

When people talk about Stockton, you often hear words like “steady,” “reliable” and “not flashy.” All that could add up to “boring,” 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 don’t make you the greatest pure point guard of all time.

“He has huge hands,” says Sloan. “I think he and Magic were the only points ever who could pass out of a double team with one hand instead of two, and that’s a huge advantage.”

“His peripheral vision was phenomenal,” says Layden. “He used that vision, along with his understanding, to deliver passes to the right people in the right spots every time.”

“He had great balance, which helped him avoid injuries—you never saw him sprawling to the floor after drives,” adds Fitzgerald. “And he was always in incredible shape. At the ’84 Olympic trials, they recorded him with a resting pulse rate of 41, which is remarkable.” As Fitzgerald recalls, the only things Stockton naturally lacked were strength and shooting ability. “He came in here at 148 pounds and not a great shooter. He could run by anyone, so he rarely stopped to shoot.”

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. “That was the key to everything,” says Fitzgerald. “Once he got that down, he was impossible to guard.”

Ironically, it’s a jumpshot that stands out as Stockton’s brightest moment: the buzzer-beating three he hit over Charles Barkley in Game 6 of the ’97 Western Conference Finals to send the Jazz to their first NBA Finals. “Getting to the Finals was the highlight of my career,” Stockton says. “We had been to the conference finals six or seven times and lost. Getting past that was the most exciting time.”

It was also one of the few times Stockton let his emotions flow, leaping into Malone and Hornacek’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. “Oh, absolutely!” 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. “I loved every second I was on the court.”
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Re: Slam 85: John Stockton

Postby mtamada » Tue Jan 11, 2011 1:11 am

tpakrac wrote:“He has huge hands,” says Sloan. “I think he and Magic were the only points ever who could pass out of a double team with one hand instead of two, and that’s a huge advantage.”


Interesting observation about Stockton's big hands. We often read about hand size as helping players who play inside: Dr. J's big hands, Spencer Haywood's big hands. Conversely there was a center whose tendency to fumble the ball was attributed to his small hands (I forget who, maybe Olden Polynice, or maybe it was even Artis Gilmore).

But I hadn't heard about big hands being an asset to a passer. But Sloan would be a guy who would know, an experienced NBA guard himself as well as Stockton's coach. Plus he's a guy who I think is relatively unlikely to make up some BS explanation just for the sake of a quote (unlike say a Dick Vitale, for that matter even Red Auerbach was prone to hyperbole.)

OTOH, does it really take two hands to pass out of a double team? I'm thinking of hook passes, bounce passes, and wraparound passes all of which in principle can be done with one hand.
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Postby tpakrac » Tue Jan 11, 2011 1:16 am

Interesting comparison between Jordan and Kobe: Jordan has huge hands while Kobe has small hands, and they say he can't palm the ball.
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Re: Slam 85: John Stockton

Postby meej » Tue Jan 11, 2011 7:50 am

mtamada wrote:Conversely there was a center whose tendency to fumble the ball was attributed to his small hands (I forget who, maybe Olden Polynice, or maybe it was even Artis Gilmore).


Bill Cartwright too, I think. And very recently Kwame Brown.
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Postby Mike Goodman » Tue Jan 11, 2011 12:34 pm

Ewing
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36% of all statistics are wrong
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Re: Slam 85: John Stockton

Postby MCT » Sat Jan 15, 2011 2:53 pm

Stockton played every game in 17 of his 19 seasons—an NBA record

That's pretty amazing -- I don't think I knew that. The only two years Stockton didn't play in every game were 1989-90 (78 games) and 1997-98 (64 games). In between, he had a streak of seven consecutive years in which he played in every game. He also had two other streaks of five consecutive seasons without missing a game (before 1989-90, and after 1997-98).

I guess Stockton's closest challenger in this category would be A.C. Green. Green played 16 years in the NBA, and appeared in every game in 15 of them, including the last 14 in a row.
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Postby D.Highmore » Sat Jan 15, 2011 8:05 pm

I'm pretty sure Green never missed a game due to injury - I think the 3 games he missed during his career (all in 1986-87) were due to DNP-CDs.

He was a pretty resilient guy - I remember him getting some teeth knocked out when he played for the Mavs (the same season he played in 83 games due to a trade), but he was back out on the floor the next night.
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Postby tpakrac » Sat Jan 15, 2011 8:25 pm

D.Highmore wrote:I'm pretty sure Green never missed a game due to injury - I think the 3 games he missed during his career (all in 1986-87) were due to DNP-CDs.

He was a pretty resilient guy - I remember him getting some teeth knocked out when he played for the Mavs (the same season he played in 83 games due to a trade), but he was back out on the floor the next night.


I'm pretty sure Pat Riley regrets those 3 DNP-CDs now.
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