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Here’s Johnny! Stockton, Jazz Vie For Loyalties Against The Sonics

Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena will be a house divided tonight.

The Seattle SuperSonics and the Utah Jazz christen the new building’s basketball floor in a 7:30 NBA preseason game giving the sellout crowd a choice between cheering for the home team or for the home boy.

It’s the return of the native, Jazz guard John Stockton.

The Sonics stop over in Spokane each October. Stockton, of course, lives here from May to September.

But this marks his first return in a Jazz uniform since 1986 - his third professional season. That and the Sonics’ surge in popularity during the past three seasons pretty much guaranteed G&B; Presents, the game’s sponsor, of filling all 11,970 seats.

Which, by the way, is more than the 1985 and ‘86 meetings of the Sonics and Stockton’s Jazz drew combined.

As for those ticket holders who might be torn between their monetary outlay and the last couple innings of the American League Championship Series, well, be advised that Tom Barbieri of G&B; Presents affirmed that the television sets in the Arena concourse will be tuned to the Mariners.

Who knows? Stockton might join you for a quick peak.

“I jumped squarely on the bandwagon when they were five games down (to California),” he reported. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Playing in Spokane again is fun, too, but homecomings have certain anxieties - as he discovered 10 years ago. When the Jazz and Sonics first met here in 1985, Stockton had 16 points, 13 assists and eight turnovers in a 108-90 victory. The following year, he had 10 points and 10 assists in a 121-118 loss.

“I was just trying so hard to do something that people would appreciate,” he said then.

Obviously, it’s a more settled pro who returns tonight.

“You don’t want to look bad, especially at home,” he said. “That’s really the only negative.

“You seem to have a lot more commitments and it’s hard not to go see mom and dad. There are tugs and pulls, but if it’s tugs and pulls to see your family, that’s not bad.”

Stockton has already seen the inside of the Arena - he was in the seats for last month’s NHL exhibition between San Jose and Vancouver. He liked what he saw - “it’s awfully nice” - but that doesn’t mean he won’t miss the late, lamentable Coliseum, where he starred in high school for Gonzaga Prep and, occasionally, in college at Gonzaga University.

“I liked the old barn,” he said. “I’m traditional that way - I like the old ways, the old things. But obviously, this is a far better building.”

As for other things new and improved, both the Sonics and Jazz might qualify - even though these two teams won 117 games between them last season.

Alas, both were rudely bounced in the first round of the NBA playoffs Seattle by the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah by the eventual champion Houston Rockets.

Seattle’s retooling has been the more dramatic - dumping guards Kendall Gill and Sarunas Marciulionis in trades and replacing them with Hersey Hawkins and forwardcenter Frank Brickowski. In the draft, the Sonics landed forward Sherell Ford from Illinois-Chicago and point guard Eric Snow of Michigan State.

Not surprisingly, the changes haven’t had much impact so far. In a weekend split of two games with the Lakers in Hawaii, Brickowski played just 18 minutes and Hawkins made just 2 of 18 field goal attempts.

“I think we’ll be very good - one of the top six or seven teams in basketball,” Sonics coach George Karl said. “If we get the right chemistry and teamwork, we should compete for the championship.”

A lack of chemistry has been a notable weakness of the last two editions of the Sonics.

Utah, meanwhile, has tried to improve itself underneath, where center Felton Spencer’s ongoing recovery from Achilles tendon surgery has left a void.

The Jazz used their first-round draft pick on 7-foot-2 Greg Ostertag of Kansas and acquired fifth-year man Greg Foster from Minnesota for support. Then Utah took a rare dip in the free-agent market, signing 6-8 forward Chris Morris of the New Jersey Nets.

“I think the organization has made a big effort to improve the team,” Stockton said. “Chris Morris is a talented free agent and we haven’t gone out often and done that.

“Right now, everybody’s learning. Chris is a good player who’s been in a different system for a long time. He’ll do big things, but there’s an adjustment period. The same goes for Greg - like all rookies, he’s got a lot to learn, but he seems willing to work at it.”

The Jazz dropped a 103-96 decision to Golden State in its exhibition opener last week in Albuquerque - with Ostertag scoring 13 points in 31 minutes. Like Hawkins, Morris struggled with his shooting.

Monday night in Ogden, Utah, Morris scored 21 points, including 13 in the third quarter, to lead Utah to a 114-110 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FULL HOUSE At the Arena: Tonight’s preseason game between the Sonics and Jazz is a sellout. The game will not be broadcast on radio or TV. Team rosters./C4

This sidebar appeared with the story: FULL HOUSE At the Arena: Tonight’s preseason game between the Sonics and Jazz is a sellout. The game will not be broadcast on radio or TV. Team rosters./C4

Tags: basketball