Original Old School: The Right Person in the Right Spot
SLAM 85: John Stockton’s career in Utah just felt right.
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.”