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Business First, And In A Bulls Market

Sun., June 1, 1997

It’s been said in any of a hundred ways, that meaning or truth or wisdom - your pick - is not a destination, but a journey.

And all that Zen Jazz.

Just what John Stockton would make of that notion is anybody’s guess. The other night, in the giddy aftermath of the defining play of his basketball career, he wouldn’t be duped into calling the moment “surreal,” claiming he didn’t know what it means.

But surely he grasps the concept of journey.

And never more so than now, having reached this particular destination.

From gym-ratting his way around Spokane as a kid to the National Basketball Association Finals is an unprecedented leap - of faith, talent, determination - that is John Stockton’s personal province. Some day, he’ll give it some thought.

Not now.

Now there is a championship for Stockton and his Utah Jazz teammates to win, although virtually no one else believes they can. The Jazz may be the team of the moment, but Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are one for the ages - specifically this age.

Guess this calls for another leap of faith.

For the believers, the leap seems less daunting in the reflection of Stockton’s shot that beat and buried the Houston Rockets last week. And not just the shot itself, but the events that led to it - Utah’s recovery from a 13-point deficit in the final 7 minutes, and notably Stockton’s string of clutch plays in the final 90 seconds.

It became water cooler conversation all over Spokane the next day, whether you sat across the aisle from Stockton in the fifth grade at St. Al’s or are just a friend of a friend of a friend of the family.

And, of course, it’s still being rehashed at his father’s tavern.

Jack Stockton came home from the celebration at Jack & Dan’s and went rummaging in his basement for an old newspaper clipping from one of his son’s college games. John had made a buzzer-beater in that one and the account read, “It won’t be the last time he’ll win a game with a last-second shot.”

“Pretty prophetic,” Jack Stockton joked, “13 years later.”

Not all those games blur together, it seems.

The St. Al’s days, the days of being only the second-best guard in Gonzaga Prep history - something else they’re still debating at Jack & Dan’s - and the heroics at Gonzaga University are long gone, replaced by two gold medals and a place among the 50 best NBA players of all time.

Now, when Stockton brings wife Nada and their five children home to Spokane and Priest Lake this summer, he’d love to bring the final piece of the puzzle.

He has been part of Spokane’s sports identity for more than a decade now - one of three professional superstars who grew up within a couple years and a couple miles of one another.

One, Mark Rypien, has been on this stage - winning a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins and the MVP award to go with it.

The other, Ryne Sandberg, was an MVP himself - but wedded to a baseball franchise destined never to return to the World Series.

But in the strange, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture of professional sports, Rypien finds himself as a vagabond quarterback at the mercy of opportunity and football economics. Sandberg, retired and unretired, struggles through a benching and the worst slump of his career.

Only Stockton, at 35, can be said to be still at the top of his game, though talk radio was rife with suggestions last year that he was well past it.

Many of those same talkers suggest that greatness for Stockton and his Sundance Kid, Karl Malone, will come with an asterisk unless they conspire to win an NBA championship. It is, again, an unfortunate by-product of the culture.

Take away his Oscar and Olivier can still act a little bit. But it’s a fact: No other NBA star has appeared in as many playoff games - 121 - without winning the title.

And if you don’t think just the chance to play for it is important, then you weren’t watching Stockton hurl himself about the court in celebration Thursday night - or watching Charles Barkley, another ringless soul, lean his head against a locker in resignation.

“It’s not going to define my life,” Stockton said. “It’d be great, a heck of a topper. But if your life depends on whether you win a championship, there’s a whole lot of losers in this world - billions of them.”

Just a little wisdom picked up on the journey to this very special destination.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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