In the winter of 2002, one season before John Stockton retired, I asked the Utah Jazz point guard why, in half-court situations, he still looked toward the bench to get a play call from coach Jerry Sloan. After all, Stockton was in the 18th year of a stellar career, a Hall of Fame lock whose intelligence and decision-making ranked him as one of the top half-dozen lead guards of all time. Stockton looked at me quizzically, as if I had asked him, "When you go fishing, why do you use a pole?" To Stockton, the answer was self-explanatory.
"Why wouldn't I?" Stockton said. "He's the coach. He runs the team."
End of explanation.
And so they will go into the Hall of Fame together, as they should, two rock-solid and stolid personalities, the architect and the quarterback of one of the greatest precision offenses in NBA history. Sloan set it up, all those across-the-lane and back screens, all those little things that nobody saw that resulted in wide-open jump shots. And Stockton saw that it got done, the engineer, the executor par excellence.
The obvious visual associated with Stockton is this: He dribbles downcourt, quickly but carefully, head up, eyes wide open, deliberating his options. With seven or eight seconds left on the shot clock, forward Karl Malone comes up and sets a pick. Stockton brushes his own man off the pick and heads toward a sliver of daylight. But then he decides instead to slip an off-the-dribble bounce pass to the Mailman for a layup, thus collecting one of the 15,806 assists Stockton amassed in his career, a few thousand more than any player in history.
But I have a different visual. Stockton comes down with the ball, gives off to a wingman, then veers into the lane where the heavy traffic is congregating. At precisely the right moment, he sets a back pick on a much larger player, a center or power forward, bounces off the neck-rattling contact, and comes back to get the ball in better position, closer to the basket, his defender perhaps lost in the scrum. He did that thousands and thousands of times, contact ill-befitting a man built (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) for passing, not picking.
In that respect, Stockton was a second-generation version of the former Chicago Bull Sloan, who for 11 years was a monster on- and off-the-ball defender, an outside linebacker of a player who could also score (14 points a game), rebound (7.4), pass (2.5 assists) and pugilize (he once squared off against Wilt Chamberlain). In Stockton, who is also the NBA's all-time leader in steals, Sloan found not only a floor manager but also a blue-collar version of himself.
"Whatever I asked John to do, he did," Sloan told me once, extending his ultimate encomium. When I asked Stockton to sum up his coach, this is what he said: "Teaching players the right habits -- that's what Jerry Sloan is about."
If they were ideally matched in personality, they also seemed geographically well-placed in conservative Salt Lake, two no-nonsense, hold-the-bright-lights-hold-the-big-city types who never drew attention to themselves. But do not go overboard trying to make them into a single archetype, the introspective gunslinger, perhaps, or the unsmiling Marlboro Man.
For one thing, Stockton never touched a Marlboro. As far as I know, he never drank either. The same cannot be said of Sloan. For many years during a coaching career with the Jazz that began in 1984 (he was an assistant for three years and elevated to the head job early in the 1988-89 season), Sloan did too much of both. Away from the court, Sloan was most at home in a barroom, chasing away the demons of coaching with alcohol, tobacco, profane bluntness ("Right now our main problem is that we're f------ terrible," he might say of his team) and corny jokes. "I'm on a seafood diet," he told me one night over a postgame beer in Chicago. "I see food, I eat it."
In talking about life with Jerry, Bobbye Sloan, his high school sweetheart, first wife and a first-ballot entry into heaven if there ever was one, gave me a Hall of Fame quote about her husband. "I've been married to that man for 37 years," she said, half-kidding, half-serious, "and at least 11 of them were pretty good."
Their final years together were some of the good ones, though. Sloan says he stopped drinking in 1998, about the same time he weaned himself off tobacco with the help of Zyban, an antidepressant. He and Bobbye had been closer than ever when she contracted pancreatic cancer in the winter of 2003 and died in June 2004. Sloan has since remarried and, by all accounts, including his own, lives a domesticated, blessedly boring existence when he's not hollering at his team or helping the referees try to get it right.
In other words, the way Stockton always lived. I remember coming into the Jazz locker room before a game during the 2002-03 season and there was Stockton flanked by his three young sons, who were sitting quietly around his locker. Stockton introduced me, and the youngsters all politely stood and shook my hand, mini-versions of their father. There was no Great Santini about it, no authoritarian demand. That's just how they were raised. All three of the offspring are fine athletes who played hoops at Gonzaga Prep, their father's alma mater. I never saw them in action, but I'd be willing to bet they have sound fundamentals.
The greatest difference between coach and player is obvious. Sloan is a lifer, married to the NBA, still going strong at 67, still in love with the nightly challenge of playing the game the right way. Stockton, on the other hand, remains that rare superstar who walked away without so much as a glance backward, content to spend his time with family in his beloved Spokane. There's a mention or two of him every year at NCAA tournament time when Gonzaga (his other alma mater), advances, and you might catch sight of him at a Jazz game or some other Salt Lake event, as was the case in February when he attended the funeral of Jazz owner Larry Miller. But other than that, Stockton is a ghost.
I end with the angle that most would put at the beginning -- the fact that neither Stockton nor Sloan won a championship, Michael Jordan's Bulls having twice ended their title dreams in the Finals in the late 1990s. Both are known for what is so seldom prized in our society -- mind-numbing, grind-it-out consistency without ultimate reward. It is one of the great injustices in sports that Sloan has never been named Coach of the Year, even though he has failed to make the playoffs only three times in 21 seasons in Utah. And don't forget that Stockton, who played in the shadow of Magic Johnson (and sometimes Isiah Thomas), was named to the All-NBA first team only twice. That doesn't seem quite enough recognition for a guy who leads two career categories.
But when both say that they "don't care about that stuff," I believe they don't care about that stuff. What fueled them -- and still fuels Sloan -- is that aching desire to give it your all, then do it again the next night, then do again the night after that. I'm glad they'll be enshrined together. And when Stockton gets up to give his acceptance speech, I hope he first looks over at Sloan, gets the play call, and begins. Listen closely, for the speech will probably last all of three minutes.