The play, as it inevitably does, starts with the ball in John Stockton’s hands.
Then a pick is set and David Benoit cuts around it, freed from his defender maybe 15 or 16 feet from the basket. He pivots 90 degrees to find the ball already in flight and the voices of 19,911 hangers-on to history building to a roar.
Benoit gathers the ball and himself - and misses the open shot. James Donaldson rebounds and scores, and the Delta Center crowd exhales an unbecoming groan. Sure, the home team scored - but another assist gets away from John Stockton.
But who’s counting?
Draped over the facing of the upper deck are numbered pennants, a new one flipped over What’s-MyLine style each time John Stockton conspires with a Utah Jazz teammate on a basket. The count has stopped momentarily at 11 - the number of assists Stockton needs to reach 9,922 for his career and pass Magic Johnson and become the National Basketball Association’s all-time leader - but will resume tonight when the Jazz and Denver play.
Utah has won 13 straight - a club record - and every basket counts, but it almost doesn’t seem like a basket anymore unless Stockton delivers the pass that leads to it.
It is exactly what Stockton dreaded: the corruption of this seemingly incorruptible act.
“I’d feel terrible if everyone’s concentration was on assists - my passing it to them and them taking shots quickly trying to get this record,” he said. “And if we would lose the game, that would really taint it.”
Nonetheless, the networks and magazines and the national dailies - with a number to hang a story on - have chosen this moment to swoop in, the glare of Michael and Magic and Bird and Barkley having been far too bright for Stockton to be noticed when they were all Dream Teammates. What the media has discovered are all the things Spokane already knew - values rooted in a strong family background, his relentless pursuit of privacy, his single-minded approach to the game.
Then they look at the assist numbers and decide he must be the most unselfish player that ever lived.
“That’s a misnomer,” Stockton insists.
“It’s far from unselfish. I think shooting the ball can be unselfish. You want to win. And when something gets in the way of that - when you’re more concerned about a stat than a win - that’s when it gets to be selfish. Just because it’s an assist and it’s passing, people wrongly term it as unselfish.”
The man who recruited him to Gonzaga University and coached him for a year, Dan Fitzgerald, agreed.
“He’s about winning,” said Fitzgerald. “He is not a pass-first guy, he’s a win-first guy. The reality is, at his position and with his ability, he should pass more than he shoots.”
Not all of the great point guards have. Almost all of the legends Stockton has passed on his climb up the NBA’s career assist ladder were prolific scorers, as well.
“Many of them did a lot of things better than John,” said Frank Layden, the Jazz president who made Stockton the club’s first- round draft pick in 1984. “But John is the greatest passer who has played the game.”
Better than Cousy? Asked to compare them years ago, even Cousy’s coach, Red Auerbach, wouldn’t pick one over the other.
Better than Magic? “Magic was more spectacular,” said Jazz assistant Gordon Chiesa, “but John turned the simple pass into an art form.”
Of course, had Johnson’s career not been cut short when he was diagnosed with HIV, he might still have a 3,000-assists head start on Stockton. Still, when he passed Robertson in 1991, Magic characterized himself as merely a caretaker - that Stockton would eventually take the record away.
“There is nobody that can distribute the ball, plus lead his team, like John Stockton,” said Johnson. “He is the best at it.”
The best passer the game has ever seen, if you buy the premise, has huge hands for a 6-footer, strength and durability that also belie his size, prescient vision and a distaste for the baroque.
“There’s no mustard on the hot dog,” said Jazz teammate Tom Chambers. “He sees you and delivers it. He sees you a lot of times when other people don’t and he knows how to read people and get the ball to them in the right situation.”
At 32, there is still some junior-highness to Stockton’s appearance in this game of giants, until you see his hands, which wouldn’t look out of place on a 7-footer. They serve as triggers on his best weapon - the one-handed pass off the dribble.
“I think he does that as well as anybody,” said Magic, “where he can come at you and then pick it off the ground with one hand and just fire it - or get an outlet and then look up ahead and pick it up off the dribble with one hand and get it there.”
That strength allows him to fire a 60-foot pass or lob it over three defenders from half court or just get rid of the ball once he’s driven.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a strong player,” Stockton contended, “but you have to be able to finish a play. Guys are going to foul you and it’s not always going to be called. You have to have enough strength to play through it and finish - get a shot on the glass or complete a pass when a guy’s draped on you.”
The hands and the strength are tangible assets. The vision is something else again.
“He has a sixth sense,” said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. “It’s not just seeing the floor, it’s recalling the floor - remembering who is where and anticipating where they’ll be.”
Fitzgerald equates it to other sports.
“I think the really good players see the game bigger and see it slower - and therefore are able to go faster, if that makes any sense,” he said. “Like the good hitters and the good doubleplay guys, he sees things sooner.
“He’s similar to the great quarterbacks. He doesn’t throw into double coverage. Those guys see more of the field, they’re able to wait longer. They have a feel, a sense of where guys are around them. How do you teach Joe Montana instincts or Willie Mays instincts?”
Well, you don’t - but you can enhance it with experience.
“I was lucky,” said Stockton. “I’ve always played the same position, so I’ve always had the same view of the floor.
“If I had the same skills that, for example, an Anfernee Hardaway has - size and all of the things he can do - I doubt that I would be in the role of passer as often as I am.”
Which brings us to another refutation of the unselfish theory: Stockton has to have the ball to be effective.
Not that he can’t set a screen - despite his size, he’s regarded as the best screener on the team. And not that he can’t score: he’s a lifetime 51 percent shooter and this season is hitting a lifetime-best 44 percent from beyond the 3-point line. But unlike Robertson or Isiah Thomas or Nate Archibald - or Magic, who once scored 42 points in a playoff game as a center - it’s hard to imagine Stockton being effective at any other position.
“The only way to deal with Stockton,” Seattle assistant Bob Kloppenburg once offered, “is to force the ball out of his hands. And you need two people to do that. Once you force him to give it up, if you slip at all, he’ll cut to the basket. So you have to have somebody right there with him so he doesn’t get it back. But you’ll never convince him he can’t.”
What does an assist measure?
“Decision-making,” Fitzgerald said.
“A lot of things,” countered Stockton. “It measures good shooters, it measures how much the ball is in your hands. Maybe your assists go up because you play a certain way or you play a lot of minutes.”
So does the way Utah plays puff up Stockton’s assists totals?
“No, not really,” said Magic. “The sets are wonderful - Coach Sloan does a fantastic job, but he leaves the court open so that way John can survey it and attack from there. He’s just a master - he watches the defense. Most guys who are point guards don’t understand - the key is to watch the defensive man and John does that better than anybody.”
Stockton thought about that and shrugged.
“Sometimes you get assists you don’t deserve because guys make fantastic plays,” he said.
John Stockton, the passingest point guard who ever lived, is not a connoisseur of passes as much as he is a connoisseur of catches.
Out of 9,911 assists, three stand out.
“One was to Karl Malone way back when Ralph Sampson was guarding him,” Stockton remembered. “He was on one side of Ralph and for some reason I threw it to the other side and Karl spun around behind him and caught it low and away. I don’t know why I threw it there or how he managed to catch it there and to this day I’m shocked by that play.
“Another one was to Mark Eaton in a playoff series with Seattle. I think that game clinched the series for us. Mark cut to the basket and I absolutely threw it as hard as I could and Mark snagged it and finished the play.
“The other one was to Carey Scurry. I just cut loose and I thought it was going in the stands and he jumped - maybe this sounds like a kid saying it - but it seems like he jumped to where his hand was above the backboard. I thought it was going into orbit and he dunked it.
“You have to be blessed with good catchers. Some people think I defer to them, but that’s what it is - no finish, no assist.”
And no one finishes like Malone.
Just how many of Stockton’s assists have become Malone baskets is impossible to say - it could be 4,000 or more. As expert as Stockton is in delivering the ball - indeed, isn’t he the real “Mailman?” - Malone is in catching and getting it to the rim.
Against the Nets the other night, Stockton hurled a 60-foot baseball pass downcourt to a streaking Malone, who caught it over his left shoulder while a defender dogged him and still dunked it.
“Passes like that are a calculated risk,” Stockton said, “but they’re less risky because you’re throwing to Karl. You want to put it on the button so all he has to do is catch it and lay it up, but there’s also a confidence that if it’s a little off and he’s got to battle a guy for it, he’s going to win the battle.”
Playing with another Hall of Famer for 10 years, some have said, have enhanced Stockton’s numbers. And yet the other national knock on Stock - that he hasn’t won an NBA championship - can be traced to the fact that the Jazz has never had enough complementary players. Thurl Bailey was a decent scorer for a few years, Jeff Malone a onedimensional shooter after that. The current Jazz team - with Jeff Hornacek as third banana and a strongerthan-anticipated bench - is the strongest Utah has fielded yet.
By comparison, look at Magic’s supporting cast, or Cousy’s. Even Robertson played with a series of fine scorers - Jack Twyman, Jerry Lucas and eventually Kareem AbdulJabbar.
Against the Timberwolves on Monday, Stockton was on the floor with four substitutes - Antoine Carr, Adam Keefe, Jamie Watson and Chambers. The Jazz led 29-23. One Stockton layup and four assists later, the lead was 40-23.
“He’s perfect,” cracked Layden, “and he’s improving.”
So who will score the basket on the record assist? Normally, that would be fair game for a round of locker room darts, but these are not normal times. The last thing Stockton wants to discuss is stats - and while his teammates are trying to oblige the press, they’re more interested in keeping a good thing going.
“You’d better ask me another question,” Malone bullied a TV reporter the other night.
Chambers, meanwhile, was saying that if he gets a pass at the time in question, “I’m going to do everything I can to get that ball to the rim.”
Said Hornacek, “If it comes down to a 3-pointer, I’ll shoot it. Hopefully, I’ll make it. But John’s got almost 10,000 assists and I’m guessing 9,000 of those have been to Karl. So I’d bet we’ll run that `fist-1’ play to Karl until he breaks it.”
Who’s counting? Everyone but Stockton.
“Who would have thought this tiny kid coming out of Gonzaga and Spokane would be breaking records like this?” said Donaldson, who wrapped up a career at Washington State just before Stockton enrolled at his neighborhood school. “It’s amazing.
“Knowing John, I don’t think he’s enjoying the chase. But I think he will enjoy leaving his mark.”