Paying homage to the purest point.
I sometimes wonder if John Stockton ever felt like taking a night off. Imagine Utah on the back end of a long road trip, playing their fourth game in five nights, visiting somewhere like, say, New Jersey. Imagine Stockton sitting in the locker room, staring at his jersey hanging in its stall. Perhaps he’s carrying a niggling injury, his motivation is running a tad low, his energy not where it needs to be, his mind elsewhere.
In 19 seasons — whether he was playing a preseason game in Ogden, a meaningless regular season game with the Clips in January, a Finals game in Salt Lake in June — that night never came for John Stockton.
Finding the right words to articulate a near flawless (and unparalleled) career wasn’t as easy as it might appear. Finding the essence of John Stockton, however, was easy. It’s zipping a post entry pass on time every time in the one place it can’t possibly be picked off: Directly above the defender’s head. It’s redirecting interview requests toward less-talented, less-exposed teammates because “they’ll get a kick out of it.” It’s busting the biggest shot of your life, in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals, sending your team to a place they’d never been before. It’s missing just 22 games in nearly two decades. It’s making your teammates better. It’s setting picks against men twice your size, with your elbows up and your head down. It’s signing a two-year extension at 35. And 37. And 39. It’s showing up every day. It’s taking, and making, the big shot over and over. It’s loving what you do and never taking it for granted. It’s pushing yourself to the limit, and then holding that position for as long as you can. That’s John Stockton.
If Allen Iverson is the posterchild for remaining true to oneself, then where does that leave John Stockton? From 1984 to 2003, the length of his hair and shorts were in tandem, his passes still landed in hands, his attitude and work ethic remained steadfast.
The Basketball Hall of Fame, if legends are to be believed, is not a goal you shoot for. If you’re good enough, it’s something that just happens – the icing on a great career. Most players fill their satisfaction by just making the League, some dare to be an All-Star, the dedicated ones aspire to be among the best. But the Hall of Fame, that’s not something that you include in your third grade paper that is titled When I Grow Up I Want to…. If hoping to win a title leaves your head in the clouds then hoping to be a Hall of Famer means you’re shooting for orbit.
Stockton entered the Basketball Hall of Fame this Friday with emotion equal parts flattering and daunting. On one hand, he will be terribly embarrassed with the adulation that will be (rightfully) showered on him; on the other, he will be eternally relieved that he entered Springfield alongside Michael Jordan, for the modest Stock loves to be overshadowed — just another brick in the Hall.
The idea of slipping through the cracks represents a sort of nirvana for Stockton, who was known to dive for the back exit of the Jazz locker room before the media came in after games. No wonder the pick-n-roll was Stockton’s favorite play – the moniker “pick-n-roll” conveniently lends itself to the one who finishes, not the one who starts with the ball in his hands. Stockton’s not “picking,” and he sure ain’t “rolling.” Perfect.
Stockton’s life and career is an anthology to pushing your own personal limits. He had a grand total of three college scholarship offers when he graduated high school, landed and consequently overachieved at a small college (Gonzaga), was cut from the Olympic tryouts in ’84, was overlooked by 15 teams in that year’s NBA Draft, and didn’t become a full-time starter until his fourth season. Yet for all that he wasn’t, he worked hard to become what he did. To paraphrase Jazz lifer (and son of Frank) Scott Layden: Utah knew he’d be OK, but they didn’t know he would be an immortal.
To owe Stockton’s career entirely to his persistence, though, would be a misunderstanding: He knew how to play too. In the 1988 Western Conference semi-finals against the Lakers, matched against a Magic Johnson that still had one title and two MVP’s left in him, Stockton unleashed a seven-game series for the ages. He broke the playoff record for assists (115) and steals (28) in a seven-game series, tied Magic’s single playoff game assists record (24 in Game 5), dropped 29 points and 20 assists in Game 7 at the Forum, and pushed the Lakers to the limit. Byron Scott, actually, has not had a wink of sleep since. Stockton not only arrived, but he proved to himself that he could breathe the rarified air that so few had exhaled at his position before. He belonged. It was the 13-day stretch that propelled him from good to great.
If indeed Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game (or his 55-rebound game, or his 50-point single season average, or his…) is the NBA’s unattainable record, then Stockton’s career assists mark of 15,806 is Unbreakable 1A. Not only is he a full 33-percent ahead of next best (Mark Jackson) but if you took the current assists per-game leader, Chris Paul, and had him maintain his 9.9 per-game average, he would equal Stockton’s mark sometime in the ’23-24 season, right around the time CP3 will be staring his 39th birthday in the face. That perspective work for ya?
But to confine Stockton’s greatness to only his gaudy assists totals means you’ve missed the point.
It was in Stockton’s sixth season when he and his perfect attendance, sans the slightest dent, showed up at the arena with a bad case of the flu and a swollen ankle. Jerry Sloan sent him back to the hotel. The next night, Stock did the same – he showed up, banged up, coughing up, yet ready to play. Sloan had him hospitalized. Seventeen times he played all 82 games, and you can count on no hands the amount of times he didn’t show up.
So perhaps longevity was Stockton’s most endearing trait. When he broke in, he was matched against guys whose careers started in the 70s; by the time he was done, he was playing against those whose will finish sometime after I complete this sentence. Early on, he held his own against Magic, Isiah Thomas, and Mo Cheeks (who, ironically, played just like him); at the end, he was competing with the likes of Jason Williams and Steve Francis, with names like Payton, Kidd and Nash caught somewhere in between. Stockton was averaging 8.2 assists per game as a 24-year-old, and 8.2 per as a 39-year-old. He was at 14.7 points per game at age 25, and 13.4 at 39. His Jazz won 47 games in his fourth year, and 47 in his 19th – dipping below that total just once, and exceeding 50 wins 11 times in that span. That’s getting it done, over and over.
To talk at length about John Stockton means to also talk about Karl Malone. It also means to speculate. Would one be as good if he didn’t have the other? Would Stock have had as many assists without Malone to finish? Would Malone have scored so many points without Stockton’s pinpoint passes?
How about this for a different spin: Their harmonious blend of hard work, right attitude, and intense pride meant they concurrently lifted each other.
Malone would work the weight room in Summerfield, LA, in the offseason knowing full well Stockton would be doing the same thing in Spokane, WA. Stockton might have done an extra set of wind sprints in an empty gym at 7 a.m. only because he was sure Malone was defeating a steep hill somewhere down south. Malone might be face down on the trainer’s table prior to a game against a substandard team but would get up and put on his uniform only because Stockton was, by already being dressed and stretched, bargaining with his own aging body, hoping to extract one more game from it. Stockton would push the ball up the floor time and time again because he knew Malone would be there. And so the cycle continued between them – for 18 years.
Only God (and Hot Rod Hundley) knows just how many times these two hooked up in games, but this much we know: Stockton and Malone, Malone and Stockton, lifted each other equally to esoteric levels. One is the greatest pure point guard ever, the other, the greatest power forward. And the best part is no one can prove otherwise.
So Stockton, he of the bronze statue, the retired number, the unreachable records, has one final stop. His style may have prohibited him from leaving indelible marks on future generations, and his lack of need for the spotlight ensures even on this, his biggest weekend, that he won’t be front and center. But few have been more deserving of their spot in the Hall, and for that, John Stockton will be commemorated. Just like when he played, Stockton’s spot in history will always be there. Never take a night off.