You can tell when a player, no matter the sport, has reached the level of Living Legend because teammates and opponents and coaches start reveling in his greatest exploits, when they first saw him, and how long it took for them to see greatness.
John Stockton has arrived at that point, courtesy of a run of clutch playoff performances that not only delivered the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals but has them tied after four games against the defending champion Chicago Bulls.
Ten days ago, Stockton dominated the fourth quarter and sank “The Shot” at the buzzer in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to eliminate the Houston Rockets.
Sunday night, with his team trailing in the final minute, Stockton lofted “The Pass” to Karl Malone for a layup that gave the Jazz a lead they did not relinquish in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Two topics dominated the conversation around the Finals Monday: Dennis Rodman, because he went to Las Vegas to gamble away his blues, and John Stockton, because after 13 years of on-court brilliance, the international basketball public is finally getting to see how a 6-foot-1 guard with mostly subtle talents can dominate the sport at its highest level.
Given today’s obsession with Q-ratings and marketing, it’s taken a while to fully appreciate Stockton because his Q-rating must be pretty close to 0.0. A career that began in the obscurity of Spokane and Gonzaga University has continued along the same path in the NBA’s smallest and most secluded market.
Stockton said last week he doesn’t endorse any products. And even in Salt Lake City, where it is virtually impossible to exaggerate his popularity, he is hardly ever on TV or quoted in the newspapers. He’ll crack a joke in public about once every 10 years, and explains how he does what he does even less frequently. “I’m not that cerebral,” he has said a dozen times since the Finals began, “I just play.”
When somebody asked him Monday morning if it boosted his confidence to outplay Michael Jordan in the final three minutes of Game 4, an incredulous and embarrassed look crossed Stockton’s face and he said: “I don’t know how to answer that… . I’m sorry… . That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Stockton’s ascent hasn’t been making sense to a whole lot of people for 13 years.
Karl Malone, the beneficiary of Stockton’s most wondrous gift - the ability to pass a basketball with almost illogical precision - said it never fails that he’ll go home to Summerfield, La., during the offseason, and somebody will approach him and say: ” ‘You know what? I think I could take that John Stockton.’ And I say to myself, ‘Son, little do you know you’d have a tiger by the tail.’ “
But it’s not just people on the street who have no idea. I think we can all agree that Bob Knight knows a little about basketball talent. Yet Knight cut Stockton from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team in favor of Vern Fleming, Alvin Robertson, Knight’s own Indiana player Steve Alford, and then-sensation Leon Wood, now an up-and-coming NBA referee.
“John was an unknown … ,” Jordan recalled Monday. “At the time the guy who was getting most of the attention at guard, ironically, was Leon Wood. He became a referee and John is still playing basketball. Leon was a highly publicized guard who … made the team without even trying out,” since Wood had a sprained foot.
Stockton “was a guy that came from a small school that no one could pronounce or even knew, and I think that had a lot to do with him not making the team because no one knew him,” Jordan added. “I admired his gutsiness.”
A little later in summer 1984, Stockton was trying to boost his stock at the NBA’s pre-draft camp. He moved himself into the first round, but the scouts kept talking about a kid named Kevin Willis who always seemed to be in perfect position to score. Willis, in fact, never looked better than he did in that camp.
A few weeks before that camp, Steve Kerr ran up against Stockton in what he didn’t know was an audition for a scholarship to Gonzaga. “Stockton was a senior at the time, a great player but unknown. We played an hour of pickup and I was matched up with Stockton. He kicked my butt all over the place, and at the end of the hour the coaches said, ‘Well, we don’t think you’re good enough to come here.’ Nobody knew at the time he’d be one of the greatest players to ever play.”
Anybody you talked to Monday had a testimonial.
The most incredible thing about “The Pass” Stockton threw to Malone for that layup Sunday is probably that Stockton had the nerve to try it, what with his team trailing by a point and down a game in the Finals. Malone says it’s probably the best pass Stockton has ever thrown to him.
Cousy, Magic, Bird, Unseld and Pistol Pete Maravich were the only names the old-timers here could agree upon as men who would have successfully completed that pass, with the game on the line, past Scottie Pippen and over Michael Jordan, off the dribble, with one hand, perfectly.
Stockton is another player who’s living proof of how overrated running fast and jumping high have become.
He plays as simple and as no-frills a game as there is in basketball, yet is the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals.
“Karl Malone may have been voted the MVP,” Charles Barkley said about an hour after “The Shot” eliminated his Rockets from the playoffs. “But I want you to remember next week when Utah gives the Bulls a run for their money, it’s going to be because of John Stockton.”