John Allen can quote you two definitions of an assist.
One is the National Basketball Association’s version: A pass which leads directly to a basket. In the next game or two, Utah Jazz guard John Stockton will have amassed more of those than anyone in NBA history - and Allen, as the supervisor of Utah’s statistical crew, has counted more than 5,000 of them.
And the other?
“Well, according to Hot Rod,” said Allen, referring to the Jazz’s excitable broadcaster, Rod Hundley, “an assist is anytime John touches the ball.
“You’d think I’d get flak (about the assist) from the visiting teams. I get it from our own play-by-play guy.”
And Allen has received some flak over the the years. Baskets are baskets; assists are judgment calls.
When Stockton baits two or three defenders to him and then slingshots a pass to Karl Malone for an uncontested dunk, it’s a no- brainer. But when Stockton feeds Antoine Carr - “the Big Dog,” as he’s known in the Delta Center - in the post, the distinctions blur.
“The NBA will allow a dribble and a fake or two, and then the shot has to go in,” said Allen. “The leeway is, `What is directly?’ I just try to be consistent with the Jazz and the opponent.”
Allen has been counting assists since the Jazz came to town in 1979 - and for the ABA’s Utah Stars before that. But he became familiar with the statistic much earlier at the University of Utah, as one of the Utes who kept scoring machine Billy McGill well fed in the early 1960s.
“When Stockton first started to get big numbers, in 1986 or so, I got the perception that everybody thought I was really liberal,” he said. “As time has passed, people have realized what he can do and how great a passer he is.”
Still, his judgment is often questioned - mostly from afar.
Critics assume Stockton’s assist numbers are padded at home. It’s not an unnatural assumption - just wrong. This season, Stockton is averaging more assists on the road (12.6) than at home (12.0), though some of that can be attributed to his average playing time - 32.7 minutes at home, 37.3 on the road.
But an analysis done by John Dewan and Don Sminda in the Stats Basketball Scoreboard last year revealed Stockton is well down the list of guards who are taken care of by their home crews. Using a ratio of home-to-road assists per field goal, Stockton was a mere one percent higher in home games for both the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Mookie Blaylock and Mark Price, by comparison, were 33 percent higher at home in 1993; Spud Webb was a plus-41 percent in 1992.
“I think you should get more at home anyway,” Allen said. “Your teammates shoot a better percentage, you win more and you score more baskets.”
Then there’s the Oscar Robertson camp, led by the Big O himself. He contends the modern stat-keeper is extravagant in handing out assists.
“It’s absurd,” Robertson said on a visit to Spokane several years ago. “I can be standing five feet away from you with no defender in sight, and if I pass it and you hit a 20-footer it’s an assist.
“If they’d have given those to me, I’d have 20,000 assists.”
Well, maybe 11,000. The fact is, assistkeeping has varied wildly over the years. In 1990, when Stockton averaged a career-high 14.5 assists, 60 percent of all NBA field goals were assisted. In Robertson’s best year, 1962, the league-wide count was 52 percent.
Yet just six years before, when Boston’s Bob Cousy was at his best, 69 percent of all NBA field goals were assisted.
Whatever conclusions there are to be drawn, it’s inevitable - Stockton will break the record soon. But when he does, there will be as much scrutiny - maybe more - of the man making the call.
“I hope it’s clear-cut,” Allen said. “Anything as long as it’s not Big Dog making six dribbles and 10 fakes and Hot Rod is screaming, `There it is!”’