Before he became the NBA’s all-time leader in steals and assists, John Stockton was a little-known guard from Spokane, Wash., and Gonzaga’s hometown hero. The Zags were far from the perennial power they are now, failing to make the NCAA tournament during his tenure. SI spoke to Stockton about his time as a Bulldog and the program’s evolution through the years.
Sports Illustrated: How has Gonzaga basketball grown since you were on campus from 1980–81 through ’83–84?
John Stockton: You can barely recognize it, both the school and the basketball program. The school has made such a jump from when I was there. They’ve got new facilities, new streets, new schools, everything. There’s a real love of the game there, and its impact on the environment of the school has been huge.
SI: What kind of an impact has a consistent basketball program had on the university?
JS: Well, I can’t give you exact statistics, but when the Zags do well, it always seems that enrollment goes up the next year. There’s a pretty direct correlation that everybody can see.
SI: Coach Mark Few has found a way to keep the Zags in the national spotlight every year. How is he able to consistently do that at a smaller school?
JS: The coaching staff goes out and recruits well every year. The players who play for Gonzaga get better, and then they make the tournament. Mark is always relevant in terms of talking to people. He’s on TV shows, he’s on radio shows. He really does the work and keeps his name and the school’s name out there all the time.
SI: Why do you think it’s become so popular for people to debate Gonzaga’s seeding in the tournament every year?
JS: I’ve never understood much of the bracketing in the first place. Somebody’s feelings seem to always get hurt if some of the big boys aren’t ranked number one. It seems like it should be a simpler process. I don’t understand the complaints about Gonzaga or Wichita State or any of these teams that have been good year-in and year-out. Even if you accept that they play in a league that isn’t as strong as the ones that make up the big five, you still have to do good work to make the tournament.
SI: Gonzaga has seen its fair share of standout point guards since you played in Spokane. Do you see yourself as the top point guard in program history?
JS: I’ve never considered myself that way. I had a great experience [at Gonzaga] in a different time and a different era. I was lucky enough to have some great teammates and I had a blast playing but I never got caught up in who’s the best. It really doesn’t matter to me. We all bring different skills to the table, and I’m proud that I get mentioned alongside some of the great players who have come through over the years.
SI: Do any of those point guards remind you of yourself?
JS: I saw one that was very much like me: my son, David. I really enjoyed getting to watch him play in a Gonzaga uniform a few years back, and I still enjoy watching him today.
SI: Is this year’s group the best Zags team of all-time?
JS: There certainly are teams who I think were in the same ballpark as this group, ability-wise and talent-wise, who didn’t quite get there. This team is now 36–1 and advancing to the Final Four, so you’d be hard pressed to find a better argument than that. However, there have been groups that I thought were right on that level but didn’t win in the tournament.
SI: Do you feel as though finally winning the national championship will validate Gonzaga basketball in any way?
JS: You know, I don’t really think so. People always talk about validating and things like that. But [Gonzaga] is good this year and has been good for a long time now. They’ve had battles against teams who went on to win the national championship. It’s more important what you think inside the program than what the outside world thinks.
SI: Have you given the team any advice heading into the Final Four?
JS: You know they have a great system that’s been working for them so I don’t want to muck-up the soup at all. They’re playing well and they need to continue what they’ve been doing. I’m sure they don’t need some old guy giving them advice.
SI: Gonzaga faces South Carolina on Saturday and would play the winner of North Carolina and Oregon on Monday. How confident are you in the Zags heading into this weekend?
JS: Well this is the NCAA Tournament so you really shouldn’t feel good about it at any point. Once you reach the Final Four every team belongs there. All the teams are impressive defensively and are well coached, so I’m looking forward to some great matchups.
We’ll see what happens.