Original Old School: The Right Person in the Right Spot

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.

John Stockton

by Alan Paul / @AlPaul

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.”