To borrow one of John Stockton's favorite phrases, it was
simple, really. It was all about faith--the faith that a team
has in its system even after the team appears to have met its
master; the faith that two brilliant players have in each other
after 12 years together; the faith that fans have in their
heroes, a belief so strong that when matters looked bleak they
put a sign on a cemetery gate with a picture of Stockton and the
words DON'T BURY US YET. The Utah Jazz was built on faith, and
that conviction was never more evident than it was on Sunday,
when the Jazz clawed its way back into the NBA Finals against
the defending champion Chicago Bulls. Utah's 78-73 victory in
Game 4 at the Delta Center tied the best-of-seven series, with
Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
This idea of faith probably couldn't take hold so firmly in most
other places, where people fancy themselves more sophisticated
(but in truth are probably just more jaded). The Jazz and its
following couldn't care less if anyone considers them corny or
old-fashioned. Their faith is a powerful thing, and it shook the
Delta Center rafters when Utah, which appeared all but dead
after losing the first two games of the series in Chicago, was
scoring 12 of the last 14 points of Game 4 to stun the Bulls.
When Stockton, the feisty Utah point guard whose toughness is
matched only by his cleverness and daring, found power forward
Karl Malone with a length-of-the-court pass that gave the Jazz
the lead for good with 45.1 seconds remaining, well, suffice it
to say that there was no more joyful noise on Sunday than the
unholy din raised by the true believers in attendance.
In the end, of course, it had to be the 6'1", 175-pound Stockton
who led Utah's resurrection. The regular season may have
belonged to Malone, the NBA's 1996-97 MVP, but the postseason
has just as surely been owned by his diminutive partner.
Stockton's three-pointer that beat the Houston Rockets at the
buzzer and sent the Jazz to the Finals quickly became legend in
Utah, but with his heroics on Sunday he topped himself. The
final minutes of Game 4, when he sealed the Bulls' fate with a
basket, a steal and an assist, should stand for the ages as the
ultimate example of how complete a point guard he has been
throughout his 13-year career. He buried a critical
three-pointer to stem the tide after the Bulls had taken a 71-66
lead and appeared ready to pull away. Then, with the score
73-69, he stole the ball from the master himself, Michael
Jordan, and took it the length of the court before being fouled
by an airborne Jordan and sinking one of two free throws.
Twenty-eight seconds later, Stockton hit two more free throws to
make the score 73-72. Finally, Stockton made the play (hereafter
immortalized as The Pass) that serves as a worthy counterpoint
to Jordan's buzzer-beating jump shot that won Game 1 for the
Bulls on the previous Sunday.
It's fitting that the Jazz point guard, the NBA's alltime assist
leader, won the game not with a shot but with The Pass.
Stockton, who finished with 17 points and 12 assists, sneaked
near the basket, grabbed the rebound of a Jordan miss, turned
and fired the ball downcourt. For a moment the Delta Center
floor became a football field, with Stockton the quarterback,
Malone his intended receiver and none other than Jordan playing
free safety, racing to get to The Pass before Malone did. To
describe it as a risky play is like calling Jordan a fairly
decent leaper. "Would I have made that pass?" Jazz forward Bryon
Russell asked rhetorically afterward. "I'm not John Stockton."
June 15, 1997
Stockton realized the danger in the play even as he was making
it. "If you could have suspended time right then, when the ball
was in the air," he said, "[Utah coach] Jerry [Sloan] probably
would have strangled me."
But Stockton threw the ball because of his faith in Malone, who
has been on the receiving end of Stockton's passes for the last
dozen seasons. Stockton admitted after the game that if any
other teammate but Malone had been downcourt, he would probably
have held on to the ball. "I saw Karl had position, and when he
does, he's the best at getting the ball," Stockton said. "I had
great faith that he would fight for the ball and come down with
Malone, meanwhile, was thinking similar thoughts about Stockton.
"I knew Michael was back there, lurking, but I also knew that if
anybody could get that pass to me, it was Stock," Malone said.
"When he threw it, I thought, Well, Stock doesn't throw bad
passes, so I must be open." He was, but just barely. Stockton's
pass sailed over Jordan's head and settled softly into Malone's
hands, and he dropped in the layup that gave the Jazz a 74-73
Malone added a pair of free throws with 18 seconds left to give
the Jazz a three-point lead, redeeming himself nicely after his
two crucial misses from the foul line at the end of Game 1.
Bulls forward Scottie Pippen had warned Malone before those Game
1 free throws that "the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday"; but
Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek stepped between Malone and Pippen when
Malone stood at the line in Game 4--do the Utah guards ever stop
setting screens?--to prevent a replay of that incident.
As for Stockton, after he finished playing the hero, he changed
back into his pink polo shirt and navy blue Dockers, looking
like anything but a future Hall of Famer. He is the ordinary
man, the antithesis of the stereotypical star athlete. Some
players push for contract clauses that allow them to ski or ride
motorcycles, but when Stockton, who has three sons and a
daughter, negotiated his current three-year, $15 million deal
last October, he asked for and received a clause protecting his
freedom to roughhouse with his children.
On the court Stockton's style is as simple as his wardrobe.
"He's as steady as the ticktock of a clock," says Malone. "Other
[point guards] come into the league, and they've got the flashy
moves and the endorsements. Then they come play against John,
and he teaches them that you can play this game without putting
the ball between your legs 20 times before you do something with
it. He just keeps making the plays, game after game, year after
Just as Stockton, 35, wastes little motion on the court, he
wastes few words away from it. He is polite but laconic, and he
abhors self-analysis. Someone asked what he was feeling when he
took the long three-pointer in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and
his response was, "I don't know, I just shot it."
Though his passion for the game is obvious, his displays of
emotion are usually limited to a short pump of the fist or a
quick clap of the hands. Even when he throws the occasional
stray elbow, which has caused some opponents to call him a dirty
player, he does it with a stoic expression. Above all, Stockton
tries to project an image of himself as being uncomplicated.
"I'm not a cerebral player when I'm out on the floor," he says.
"I just play." Nothing could be further from the truth, of
course. Stockton is constantly thinking on the floor, and his
grasp of the patterns and options of the Jazz offense is so
complete that he sometimes throws passes to teammates before
they are even open. Although he understands everything, he
doesn't care to explain anything--at least not to outsiders.
One of Stockton's off-the-court interests is flying, which he
indulged in last summer when he briefly took the controls of an
F-16 jet under the supervision of a pilot with the elite Air
Force Thunderbirds. In his description of the pilots, he came
close to describing himself. "They're normal guys outside the
plane, but inside they're pretty special," he said. "When you
watch them, you realize it takes only the slightest touch to do
some amazing things. It's like everything else, I guess. When
you get guys who are the best in the world at what they do, they
make it look easy."
Stockton's Game 4 performance made things much easier for Utah,
although the Jazz still faced the fact that it would have to
beat Chicago on the Bulls' home floor, site of Friday's Game 6
and (if necessary) Sunday's Game 7, to win the NBA
championship--a daunting task even though the United Center
sounds like a librarians' convention compared with the Delta
Center. In tying the series, Utah created the closest thing to a
crisis the Bulls have faced in two years: Chicago had one more
game remaining in Utah, where the Jazz had won 23 straight;
power forward Dennis Rodman (no points and nine insignificant
rebounds in Games 3 and 4 combined) was still missing in action;
and the Bulls' offense was becoming even more reliant on Jordan
In Game 4 Jordan scored 22 points, including 12 in the fourth
quarter, on 11-of-27 shooting, while 10 of his teammates
combined for just 51 points and missed seven of 12 free throws.
"This doesn't feel like us," Chicago center Luc Longley said
after the game. "It was very quiet in the locker room. We'll be
fine, but this is not a position we expected to be in."
Hardly anyone else expected it either. There were those who
didn't think the Jazz would reach the Finals, much less prove to
be such a worthy challenger. A Marriott hotel in Houston was so
confident that the Rockets would beat Utah in the Western
Conference finals that T-shirts with the NBA Finals logo were
ordered for the hotel staff. When the Jazz won the series in six
games, the hotel sold the shirts to the Salt Lake City Marriott.
Chicagoans didn't seem to care which team the Bulls faced in the
Finals. They were so certain of another championship that a
public-service announcement urging Chicago fans to celebrate
responsibly was being taped at the United Center the day after
the Bulls' 84-82 Game 1 win.
Those words of caution didn't seem terribly premature after the
second game, in which the Bulls appeared to have taken control
of the series with a convincing 97-85 victory. Chicago bottled
up Utah's famed screen-and-roll by forcing Stockton out of the
middle, toward the sideline or baseline, thereby limiting his
options as he came off the screen. That took the teeth out of
the Jazz attack and raised the old criticisms about the Utah
offense's being too predictable. "They definitely seemed to
think they had us figured out," Hornacek said after Game 2. "We
would run our patterns, and they would call out to each other
where the pick was going to be or where the cutter was going.
And they were right." When Jordan also spoke of having "figured
out" the Jazz attack after Game 2, Utah seemed to be doomed.
But one thing that should be obvious about the Jazz--considering
how resolutely it has come back from postseason heartbreak year
after year--is that Utah's belief in its philosophy is not
easily shaken. "We are who we are, and we do what we do," Sloan
said before the series began. "We don't make a lot of drastic
changes, we don't try to be geniuses and outsmart anybody. If
what we do isn't working, we don't usually look to do something
different, we just try to do it better."
Steadfast as Sloan's belief is in the Utah system, he
nonetheless made significant changes in Game 3. The Jazz ran the
screen-and-roll far less often, picked up the tempo and went to
its motion offense, predicated on quick passing and constant
movement without the ball. The strategy was designed to give the
Bulls something new to contend with and to get Utah's offensive
juices flowing--and the plan could not have worked better. By
the time Chicago adjusted, the Jazz, helped mightily by an
unforeseen contribution from reserve center Greg Foster (who
would score a playoff-career-high 17 points), had a 24-point
lead late in the third quarter and then withstood a late Bulls
rally for a 104-93 win.
Utah made a key defensive switch in that game as well: The 6'4"
Hornacek, who had guarded Jordan (6'6") in the first two games,
defended against Pippen (6'7"), while the 6'7" Russell tried his
hand against Jordan. While this new wrinkle gave Jordan a bigger
defender to deal with, Hornacek was able to survive the
resulting matchup with the taller, more athletic Pippen, who had
only 13 points through the first three quarters, largely because
of a sore left foot.
Even with all the changes, the Jazz could not have won Game 3
without Malone, who had 37 points and 10 rebounds. After two
subpar games in Chicago, he was in danger of becoming the
series' tragic figure, of culminating 12 years of striving to
reach the NBA Finals stage by blowing his lines once he got
there. It wasn't surprising, then, that he felt the need to
clear his mind before Game 3. He slipped on a black muscle
shirt, climbed aboard one of his Harley-Davidsons and headed out
on the highway. In an effort to relax he took a roundabout route
to the arena, arriving about 40 minutes later than usual--but
still more than two hours before tip-off. "Sometimes when things
get a little tough, I just do that," he said afterward. "It's
just good being outdoors. Everybody in America has been great,
sending me letters [of encouragement], but I just needed that
Harley ride today."
Stockton's preferred mode of transportation, not surprisingly,
isn't nearly as flashy. After the game on Sunday he drove his
Chevy Suburban out of the Delta Center parking lot and through a
gap in a group of Jazz fans who had waited to cheer for him. He
gave a wave and a slightly embarrassed smile, and as he drove
off, someone yelled out, "Hey, John, we believe!" Stockton
probably didn't hear it, but then, he probably didn't need to.