Search

Keep It Simple By hewing to that dictum--as direct and uncomplicated as he is--37-year-old John Stockton remains peerless at point guard for the title-hungry Utah Jazz playoffs

May 10, 1999
May 10, 1999

Table of Contents
May 10, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Keep It Simple By hewing to that dictum--as direct and uncomplicated as he is--37-year-old John Stockton remains peerless at point guard for the title-hungry Utah Jazz playoffs

Watch him as he leaves. The buzzer sounds, and by the time your
eye finds him, he's already in the tunnel leading to the locker
room, like a base stealer who has gotten a good jump. He's
walking swiftly, taking long, purposeful strides, as though he
has just remembered something elsewhere that requires his
immediate attention. The eyes that moments earlier were darting,
taking in every movement on the court as he directed the Utah
Jazz attack, are staring straight ahead now, meeting no one's
gaze. The game is over, so there's nothing left here for John
Stockton, nothing that interests him in the least. The court is
filling with peripheral people--photographers, sideline TV
reporters, nameless folk with credentials around their necks and
no function he remotely cares about. Stockton is a man at a
party who realizes it's not his kind of crowd.

This is an article from the May 10, 1999 issue Original Layout

Follow him to the Jazz's Delta Center locker room, and stay
alert because he'll try to slip away again. He's not as
reclusive as he used to be, when he would hide in the trainer's
room, waiting for reporters to drift away out of frustration or
deadline pressure, but he still usually dresses in an area
off-limits to the press after the game. When he finally emerges,
almost always attired the same way--a golf shirt, khakis and
sneakers as close to plain white as he can find--he pauses at
his stall to put a few things in a canvas duffel bag. "I can't
remember ever seeing him in a suit," says Mark Kelly, the Jazz's
media relations manager, "but I've only been here 4 1/2 years."
Look at the 37-year-old Stockton now and you see him as a
teenager back in Spokane, getting ready to head home after a
game at Gonzaga Prep.

He stops only for a moment, obviously hoping the media will be
so busy interviewing his teammates that he can slip out
unnoticed. It seldom happens, and once spotted, he's rather
cordial, which often surprises people who have heard so much
about his aloofness. Years ago Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles
Times columnist, found Stockton at his locker, ringed by a half
circle of empty chairs. "What's this?" he asked Stockton
accusingly. "A fence?" Stockton quickly explained that other
writers had been sitting there and had left the chairs in that
arrangement. He invited Murray to sit down, and they had a long
conversation.

"Some people think John's cold, but he's not," says Utah forward
Thurl Bailey. "It's just that if he could take away all the
accolades, all the hoopla, all the nationally televised
interviews and just play basketball, he'd be in heaven. John
might be the one player who really wouldn't miss it if the fame
went away tomorrow and all he was left with was the game."

But it is precisely because he shuns attention that Stockton
attracts attention. He seems like an artifact from a less
ego-driven age, and there's a tendency to want to preserve him
and study him. It's often said when a great player retires that
there will never be another like him--no one with Michael
Jordan's combination of talent and will, for instance; no one
with Magic Johnson's mix of size, playmaking skills and joie de
vivre. The truth is, those players are far more likely to be
replicated than Stockton, if only because so many others will
try. There are far more kids out there trying to fly like Kobe
Bryant or crossover dribble like Allen Iverson than there are
trying to perfect the bounce pass and set tenacious picks so
they can become the next Stockton. Everything in the culture
militates against the emergence of another point guard so
brilliant and so uninterested in being praised for it. Sports
these days are about form, not function. Players are all
glowering or goofing for the cameras, raising the roof or
slashing the throat or flashing the choke. Another player like
Stockton emerging is about as likely as a rose blooming in the
desert.

It isn't just his retro persona that will make Stockton a tough
act to match. In his own way he's as much of a physical marvel
as players half his age with twice his vertical leap. At 6'1"
and 175 pounds, he's the same size he was when he joined the
Jazz as a first-round pick in 1984. He has hands the size of a
power forward's, and his resting heart rate is in the mid-30s,
about half that of an average male. Stockton is an unimposing
man of unprecedented accomplishments. The 13,076 career assists
and 2,701 career steals he had accumulated through Sunday are
NBA records, and though his average points (11.0) and assists
(7.4) have dropped off this season along with his minutes
(28.3), his steady and larcenous handiwork is a primary reason
that Utah will be a favorite as the playoffs begin this Saturday.

"I'm not much of a numbers guy, and yet that's the way I'm
defined a lot," Stockton says. "There was a lot of attention
when I was nearing the [assists] record, and that wasn't
comfortable for me. Everybody asked about it. But I've never
paid attention to that stuff. People who watch have to have
their fun, too; I understand that's part of it. They have to
have something to talk about. If they can enjoy it that way,
looking at the numbers, that's fine, but that's not what I'm
seeking."

So we try to understand him, while he tries to understand why we
want to understand. He's so obsessed with protecting his privacy
that his wife, Nada, would only consent to do a 1997 TV
interview if the Salt Lake City station with which she did it
promised to air it while John was at the All-Star Game in
Cleveland. John often refuses to reveal what seems like the most
harmless information. What did he learn from playing against
Magic Johnson? "I won't tell you that," he says. How has he
improved his game over the years? "Oh, in certain general ways.
I don't really want to get into specifics."

No one can do more than guess at Stockton's world view, because
part of his philosophy is that he doesn't articulate his
philosophy. If we had really been paying attention, no questions
would be necessary. We would know that he hasn't changed--not
his hairstyle, not his wardrobe, not his personality--because
there has been no need. We would know that what he's all about
is stripping away the excess, getting down to what's important.
"When you're doing it right," he says, "it looks simple."

He's talking about basketball. Or is he? The reason he doesn't
go in the air for a no-look, behind-the-back fancy dish when a
simple chest pass will do is the same reason he makes other
choices. If simple works, why change? If the Jazz franchise fits
you like your favorite pair of khakis, why even think about
playing anywhere else? Why even have an agent? Just figure out a
salary you think is fair, tell the owner to do the same thing,
and meet somewhere in the middle. If you've always worn your
shorts a little snug and no longer than mid-thigh, why change
just because everyone else is letting them billow down around
the knees? If the hometown girl you began dating in college will
give you a lifetime, no-cut contract, why go looking elsewhere?
Marry her and settle down. If you've never been happier than you
were in the neighborhood you grew up in, why not get yourself a
house right next door to your parents' and re-create your
childhood for your five kids? "You don't do anything just
because other people do," Stockton says. "My father taught me
that."

The interviews, the agents, the autograph seekers he's been
known to duck--Stockton doesn't avoid them because he's shy. He
avoids them because they complicate things. "You know, people
say to me sometimes that John looks so serious out there, like
he's not having any fun," says Karl Malone. "I tell them not to
worry about John. He's enjoying himself on the court, and I
don't know anybody who's happier with his life than he is. That
son of a gun has it all figured out."

It's an April night at Arco Arena in Sacramento. Stockton's
playing time may be down, but it's a tight game in the fourth
quarter, and the important minutes still belong to him. Down the
stretch he steals a pass from flashy Kings rookie point guard
Jason Williams, takes off on the fast break and gets to the foul
line, where he holds up for a beat, freezing two Sacramento
defenders. That split second of hesitation he created makes it
impossible for either Kings player to do anything about Malone,
streaking to the basket from the wing for a layup. It looks as
if Stockton has just made an elementary pass that any point
guard in the league could have made, but if he had not timed it
perfectly, he might have led Malone into a charging foul instead
of a layup. Moments later Stockton leads another break. This
time the two Kings take away the pass to the wing, so Stockton
casually drops the ball off to the trailer, forward Greg Foster.
Another layup. The Jazz wins 105-100.

It's the kind of performance that he has been giving for 15
years, the kind that long ago persuaded Utah coach Jerry Sloan
to trust him implicitly. You get the feeling that if Sloan
needed a triple bypass, he'd let Stockton perform it. Sloan is
known for calling timeouts far less often than most coaches,
especially late in close games, and the reason is Stockton.
"What do I need to call one for?" he says. "I got a guy out
there who knows more about what we need than I do."

Opponents hold him in the same high regard. Although Stockton
and Malone are thought of as a tandem and, if there's any
justice, will enter the Hall of Fame together one day, many
insiders believe that Stockton is the Jazz's engine. Peers may
gripe that he sometimes gets a fistful of jersey when he sets a
screen and that his sharp elbows too often stray below the belt,
but even those whose style is nothing like Stockton's bow to his
mastery of the position. "He's the best," says Seattle
SuperSonics point guard Gary Payton. "When I came into the
league, he was the guy who took me to school. I'm still looking
for a weakness in his game."

Stockton's game is structured, measured. After 1,175 games in
the league, he has created precious few moments appropriate for
video montages. If Dominique Wilkins is the Human Highlight
Film, Stockton is the Human Instructional Video. There are guys
playing pickup at the Y who can give you a flashier show, if
that's what you're looking for. "I think I saw him go behind the
back against Bobby Hurley once, a couple of years ago," says
Foster. "That's about as showtime as John gets." His work has to
be seen over long stretches to be truly understood, because it's
the cumulative effect of all those perfectly timed decisions,
one after another after another, that illustrates his greatness.

Stockton has never liked a fuss, especially when it was over
him. When he was in high school, he wouldn't even let his
parents buy him a letter jacket. In fact, he never wore anything
that would let people know he was an athlete. When he got
married he made sure that the wedding announcement in The
Spokesman-Review said only that the groom was "employed in Salt
Lake City." When Stockton surpassed the NBA career record for
steals in February 1996, the game was stopped and he was
presented with a plaque. Kelly went out onto the court to help
with the ceremony, and as soon as Stockton saw him, he thrust
the hardware into the surprised Kelly's hands. "I remember my
wife saying how nice it was of him to choose me to trust with
the trophy," Kelly says. "But you know what? He was just looking
for the first familiar face to take the thing off his hands so
the game could start again."

He was at the top of his profession, but Stockton might as well
have been back in the pickup games of his youth, when the action
would stop for an injury or an argument and he would urge
everyone to get on with the game.

As you walk down North Hamilton Street in Spokane, the red
lettering on the white sign is visible in the distance: Jack and
Dan's Tavern. As you get closer, you can see the tiny shamrocks
that dance around the letters. It's the sight that Little
Johnny, as some of the neighborhood old-timers still call him,
saw every day as he pedaled over from school to see his dad, the
Jack of Jack and Dan's. First he came from grammar school at St.
Aloysius, a few blocks away on East Boone Avenue, and later from
high school at Gonzaga Prep, about a mile away. "When he was
small, he'd show up at that door at 4:30 every day, and
sometimes I'd give him a quarter to get french fries from the
Dairy Queen across the street," Jack says, coming out from
behind the bar and wiping his hands on his apron. "When it was
time to go home, he'd sit on the handlebars of the bike, and I'd
ride him back to the house." His eyes look off into the distance
for a moment as a slight smile crosses his face. "Those are some
good memories," Jack finally says. "Thanks for bringing them up."

Connect the dots on a Spokane city map--St. Al's, Jack and
Dan's, Gonzaga Prep, Gonzaga University and the Stockton family
home around the corner from the tavern on North Superior
Street--and you have the borders inside which the first 22 years
of John Stockton's life were neatly contained. The neighborhood
is nicknamed the Little Vatican for its preponderance of
Catholic residents. Jack Stockton, his wife, Clementine, and
their four children, Steve, John, Leeanne and Stacey, were
regulars at Sunday mass. John and Steve, who is four years
John's senior, were altar boys, but they weren't choirboys. The
weathered wooden backboard and faded orange hoop still hang
above the carport at Jack and Clemmie's house, where the intense
competitions between the brothers often led to loud profanity
that gave the good sisters at the girls' school across the
street cause to shut their windows. Watch those tenacious picks
Stockton sets on bigger players today and you are seeing the
combativeness he developed in the driveway against his big
brother and friends.

There are a couple of pieces of Jazz decorations in Jack and
Dan's--one sent by a fan in Utah and another made by one of
Jack's neighbors--but there's no picture of John, no memorabilia
that indicates the co-owner has a famous son. "I know he
wouldn't like it," Jack says. "I don't even have to ask him."
This way John can walk into the tavern when he comes to town and
feel like he has stepped back into Spokane, circa 1975. When he
made it to the NBA, John told the owner of the house next door
to his parents' to let him know if he ever wanted to sell. A few
years later the owner did, and now John and his family spend
much of their summers in an unassuming home on the same street
where he grew up.

During the season the locals crowd into Jack and Dan's to watch
the Jazz play, cheering as though their voices will somehow help
little Johnny make it in the NBA. They're not above praying for
the luck of the Irish to help him. Years ago Jack wore the
purple Jazz polo shirt that John gave him on a night that Utah
beat San Antonio. He still wears the shirt whenever the Jazz
face the Spurs. "Just a little superstition," he says. "Every
little bit helps."

John takes the same approach to improving his game. Every
off-season he goes back to the gym at Gonzaga, where he worked
out so often on his own as a college student that he was given a
key, and hones his subtle skills. One summer he wanted to work
on shooting over and making entry passes around big men, so
former Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald brought some of the
Bulldogs' centers and forwards in to drill with him. It's the
kind of preparation that Stockton feels lost without. Last fall
he was available to play in the Gonzaga alumni game for the
first time, because of the NBA lockout. "He said to me, 'I've
never been so ill-prepared for a game in my life,'" says Jeff
Condill, a former Bulldogs teammate who's also co-owner of Jack
and Dan's. "There were no plays, no sets, no nothing. He didn't
know where guys were going to be on the floor. It was almost
unnerving for him."

But Stockton will surely play again someday, because his
devotion to his school and his hometown is as great as their
devotion to him. "Earlier in his career, he kept to himself even
when he was here in town," says Condill. "He'd rather have a
barbecue at his place with a few friends than go out and have
everyone cause a commotion. But people tend to give him his
space now. It's more like he's just Johnny, coming home for a
visit. It's coming back around to where he was in college, when
Spokane was the most comfortable place he could ever be."

Stockton sums up his hometown as precisely and efficiently as he
does most everything else. "I feel very lucky to have grown up
where I did, and the way I did," he says. For him that is a
testimonial. "You know what?" says Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod
Hundley. "The day Stock retires, I bet he'll be back in Spokane
by nightfall."

The quick, young point guards are getting by him with greater
frequency now, and the day is coming when Stockton will take his
permanent leave. He's in the last year of his three-year, $15
million contract, but that doesn't mean his departure from the
NBA is imminent. He will know when he is playing his last game,
but don't be surprised if he doesn't tell anyone until
afterward, until he's back home in Spokane or relaxing with Nada
and their kids at their cabin in Idaho. When he's at a safe
remove, he'll probably send word: By the way, I'm not coming
back. There's nothing he would like so much as a quiet exit.
Don't bother with the obligatory highlight reel set to a syrupy
sound track. You want to honor him in a way that he will
appreciate? Don't make a speech, don't give him a plaque, don't
block his exit, even if it's just to shake his hand. Just hold
the door for him. Just watch him as he leaves.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Still going strong Stockton's minutes may be down, but neither his age nor the likes of 7'3" Arvydas Sabonis faze him on the court.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Got to hand it to him Since joining the Jazz in 1985, Malone has turned thousands of Stockton's pinpoint passes into assists.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGHCOLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN Bar none Jack respectfully displays no photos of his son.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Quitting time Having donned his uniform of golf shirt, khakis and pristine sneakers, Stockton can resume his unassuming ways.

Taking Stock of Number 12

12 regular seasons in which John Stockton played in all 82
games, including seven straight from 1990-91 through '96-97.

11 seasons in which Stockton has averaged double figures in
scoring; his career shooting marks are 82.3% from the line,
51.9% from the field and 38.4% from three-point range.

10 seasons in which Stockton has averaged at least two steals a
game.

9 consecutive seasons, from 1987-88 through '95-96, in which
Stockton led the NBA in assists; his total of 1,164 in '90-91 is
a league record.

8 games in which Stockton handed out 23 or more assists; his
career high of 28, the third-highest total in league history,
was set eight years ago.

7 times Stockton has dished out 1,000 assists in a season; the
only other players to ever reach that mark, Isiah Thomas and
Kevin Porter, each did it once.

6 players, including Stockton, who have surpassed 12,000
points and 7,000 assists; Thomas, Maurice Cheeks, Magic
Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkens are the others.

5 Western Conference finals reached by the Jazz since Stockton
came into the league; Utah has made the playoffs in each of his
15 years.

4 sure Hall of Famers chosen in the 1984 draft: Hakeem
Olajuwon (the No. 1 choice), Michael Jordan (No. 3), Charles
Barkley (No. 5) and Stockton (No. 16).

3 times, in nine All-Star Game appearances, Stockton has had
double digits in assists (17 in 1989, 15 in '93, 10 in
'94).

2 Olympic gold medals won by Stockton, a member of the Dream
Teams at the 1992 Barcelona Games and the '96 Atlanta Games.

1 Stockton's place on the NBA's alltime assist (13,076 through
Sunday) and steal (2,701) lists.

We can only guess at Stockton's world view, because part of his
philosophy is that he doesn't articulate his philosophy.
"I don't know anybody who's happier with his life than John is,"
says Malone. "That son of a gun has it all figured out."