September 10, 2009 in Sports

John Blanchette: A Journey’s end

Stockton’s Hall of Fame career follows path adorned with success stories
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Molly Quinn photo


(Full-size photo)

Sending a basketball, with a pass delivered one-handed and from waist-high, 60 feet over the head and into the hands of a streaking Karl Malone … the nuns next door slamming their windows shut as he cursed his brother in another vicious 1-on-1 driveway war … bolting, eyes moist, from reporters, unable to handle questions about his decision to retire … another excuse-me-Mr.-Fire-Marshal full house at Jack and Dan’s, with every eye trained to his every move on the scattered TVs … bowing his head to accept the gold medal in Barcelona – and again in Atlanta … stripping a helpless Gonzaga opponent at half court and turning it into a layup, back when you could walk into Martin Centre at tipoff and find a front-row seat … firing in the 3-pointer over Charles Barkley to send the Jazz to their first NBA Finals, and leaping into the arms of teammate Jeff Hornacek … and, forever, the short shorts …

More than two decades of basketball images merge into one tonight when John Stockton is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, taking his rightful place with the game’s greatest figures.

The context could hardly be more fitting. With Michael Jordan headlining the hall’s Class of 2009, Stockton is left with a relative sliver of the spotlight – just the way he likes it – and is happily sharing that with the coach who presided over most of his professional career, Jerry Sloan. The addition of David Robinson, a fellow Dream Teamer, and Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer make it arguably the best induction group in the hall’s history, and ensemble pieces have always appealed to Stockton.

His credentials are self-evident: the National Basketball Association’s career leader in steals and assists, the latter a record unlikely to be broken; voted one of the league’s 50 greatest players in its first half century; twice an Olympic gold medalist; 10 times an All-Star game participant, and twice voted to the All-NBA first team; an unprecedented 19 seasons with the same team, the Utah Jazz, and the longest NBA career by a player not 7 feet tall.

It would take each of those 19 years to assemble all the testimonials that have been lobbed his way, from the game’s sages – John Wooden cited him as the single NBA player he would pay to watch – to his playing contemporaries, Magic Johnson foremost among them.

His hometown of Spokane, of course, has always been more preoccupied with his Hall of Fame roots: the saloonkeeper’s son who crafted his game in the neighborhood gyms of St. Al’s, Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University, and whose approach unwaveringly reflected his family’s well-grounded ethic.

The numbers, praise and pedigree are not insignificant, but to launch the weekend’s celebration of a singular basketball career, let’s instead look at some snapshots from the Stockton album:

The record night

Stockton’s climb to the top of the NBA’s assist list in 1995 was one of those heat-seeking spectacles he abhorred, and never more so than the morning after he passed Oscar Robertson for the No. 2 spot. Arriving at what was then known as the Delta Center for a shoot-around, he was horrified to see numbered pennants draped over the balcony facing to count down to the record.

“Get that out of here,” he begged a team official.

He saw it as a violation of the seemingly inviolable act of passing the basketball (“We don’t need to have fans groaning about a missed shot blowing an assist of mine,” he said), while Jazz management saw it as spicing up the show – and told him, in effect, you take care of the basketball and we’ll take care of the marketing.

There was almost a bigger brouhaha over the record pass. Sentiment dictated that it almost had to be delivered to Karl Malone, who had probably been on the converting end of more than half of Stockton’s assists over the years. But in the early blowout of Denver as the countdown neared conclusion, Stockton keyed a flurry to start the second quarter playing with four Jazz subs, as Malone fidgeted.

“Karl,” reported Stockton’s backup, John Crotty, “was trying to put himself back into the game.”

Tom Chambers swished a 20-footer for assist 9,921 – tying Johnson’s record – and only then did Sloan send Malone to the scorer’s table to check in. But before he could, Jazz rookie Jamie Watson blocked a shot to trigger another fast break, and only a surge by Denver’s Rodney Rogers to slap the ball away from Chambers prevented a dunk.

Instead, Malone trundled into the game and turned a routine entry pass into No. 9,922.

In the postgame ceremony, Stockton’s smile turned into a cringe only once – when Jazz owner Larry Miller suggested he aim for 15,000 assists.

Turns out they both underestimated him. Stockton finished his career with 15,806.

Throwing darts

As good as Stockton was at threading the needle with a pass, he may have been better wielding the needle itself.

The flipside of his public persona – reticent, stoic, disinclined to talk about himself and often just generically about anything else – is a private wit both quick and sharp, aimed wickedly (but never cruelly) at teammates, friends and coaches, who could also be targets of on-point impersonations.

On a trip east, the Jazz team bus was crawling along the New Jersey Turnpike when it passed a burning car in the median, which prompted Stockton to zing teammate Mike Brown, “Great to be home, isn’t it, Mike?”

When Malone was voted to start for the first time in an All-Star Game, Stockton mercilessly ragged him for an appropriate gift, noting how Walter Payton would dole out Rolexes to his lineman. “Sweetness – he takes care of his guys,” Stockton teased.

Spokane resident Craig Ehlo, a 13-year NBA veteran, remembers hitting last-second shots to beat the Jazz in successive years. On his next trip to Utah, fans serenaded him with the chant, “Oh no, Eh-lo” during warmups. One voice seemed to carry over the rest. Ehlo turned around to see Stockton joining in the chant.

But he may never have been so bold as when he was a junior at Gonzaga and the Bulldogs found themselves at the same LAX luggage carousel as actress Bernadette Peters. After procuring an autograph, Stockton was goaded by his teammates into asking her to watch them play at Pepperdine the following evening.

“She has other plans,” Stockton reported back after a brief conversation. “We’re going out.”

Faster than the Fastest

A mostly forgotten character in the Stockton saga is Rickey Green, the incumbent point guard when Stockton arrived who had been dubbed by Jazz radio announcer “Hot” Rod Hundley as “the Fastest of Them All.” Ehlo recalled how the Jazz would have to slow the pace whenever Green came out of the game; drafting Stockton was supposed to be the answer to that, though Jazz coach and general manager Frank Layden wasn’t sure he was getting an eventual successor with the 16th pick of the draft.

The relationship with Green provided a rare window into both Stockton’s insecurity as a young player from a basketball backwater like Gonzaga was at the time and his competitiveness.

In his second year, Stockton was moved into the starter’s role for 38 games, but when the Jazz slumped Layden turned back to Green.

“We lost something like 10 in a row and it wasn’t that I was playing poorly, but I wasn’t playing really well, either,” he said. “I kind of started looking over my shoulder and, golly, I can never remember doing that. I was worrying about Rickey playing well and not with my own game and things went downhill from there.”

But Stockton’s drive was such that he unseated Green again four games into the next season. And it was instructive to note that no young pup ever nudged aside Stockton, though the Jazz drafted or imported any number of youngsters – Carlos Arroyo, Raul Lopez, Jacque Vaughn – as understudies.

The shot

The Jazz had never made it to the NBA playoffs until the year before Stockton arrived. They never failed to make it until the year after he retired. And when they made it to the NBA Finals, it was Stockton who carried them there.

Not with a pass, but a shot.

As time expired in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against Houston, Stockton rubbed defender Clyde Drexler off on Malone’s pick (“a bear hug,” Drexler complained) and launched a pure 25-footer over Barkley’s late lunge that seemed to hang like the moon. When it snapped the net, Stockton launched himself into the air with a punch toward the rafters and soon was dancing a six-legged jig with Hornacek and Malone.

Forgotten in the moment was the fact that Utah had trailed by 13 points in the fourth quarter and that Stockton had scored 11 of the Jazz’s last 14 points in a 17-4 run to close the game.

“John Stockton is one of the five best players I’ve played against,” Barkley said. “He made all the plays. Karl Malone deserved to be MVP, but he wouldn’t be there without John Stockton.”

That finishing touch surfaced again in Game 4 of the Finals, when the Jazz came back from five points down on a Stockton 3-pointer, a steal from Jordan, three free throws and a full-court pass to Malone with Jordan playing free safety.

The Jazz would lose that series, and again in the Finals to the Bulls the following year. So the shot that got them there remains the franchise high point.

Hiding in plain sight

It didn’t take long for the public crush of stardom to wear on Stockton, who became almost pathological in his disdain for the spotlight. Dark glasses and a ballcap pulled tight to his brow became his favorite attire – whether in New York City on a road trip or checking out his children’s Hoopfest games.

Not being recognized was, in fact, another competition for him – and he celebrated the wins. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, he could barely contain his glee when a fan grabbed him – so he could take a picture of the fan posing with Barkley, being completely unaware of who Stockton was. Even better was the time he was going through airport security in Newark on a Jazz road trip.

“Say,” an excited guard told Stockton, “if you’re a basketball fan, Karl Malone just walked through here!”

“Really?” gushed Stockton. “Think I could get an autograph?”

Striking gold

“Barcelona,” Stockton once said, “changed my life.”

In any number of ways. Being chosen for the original Olympic Dream Team put him in the same strata as the game’s pre-eminent names – Jordan, Johnson, Larry Bird, Barkley. Yes, the massive marketing done by USA Basketball and the NBA meant his face was on T-shirts sold worldwide, and so any anonymity he once enjoyed beyond Utah and Washington was gone.

And, yes, he sustained his first major injury – the fibula he fractured in a freak collision with Jordan in the tuneup Americas tournament in Portland. But recovery from that no doubt steeled his resolve when he had to come back from knee surgery in 1998, and did so ahead of schedule.

But it allowed him to develop relationships with men who heretofore had been merely rivals.

“Clyde Drexler, who I’d hated for years – and not just a little bit – I wound up getting as close to as anybody,” he said. “In fact, my son Michael met two guys in Portland. One of them was Clyde, who had poked me in the eye in the playoffs and Michael told him in no uncertain terms that he’d better not do that again. And then he told Jordan, ‘You broke my daddy’s bone – you better not do that again!’?”

But mostly it allowed Stockton a do-over from being cut from the 1984 Olympic team. That was the last team of collegians to win gold, and though Stockton made it to the final camp coach Bob Knight sent him (and Barkley) home, keeping the likes of Steve Alford (four NBA seasons, 744 points) and Leon Wood, who before Stockton retired from the Jazz had become an NBA referee.

“I would have loved to have been a part of that in ’84,” Stockton would say later. “I hadn’t expected to even get invited to try out, but when you’re cut it’s as bad as not being invited in the first place. But I still wouldn’t trade this gold medal for that one.”

Hello and goodbye

John Stockton’s built a reputation as the antithesis of the spoiled, entitled athlete. But does anyone remember he was a rookie holdout? Layden had tendered his unknown first-round choice (from “Gondola State,” as Tiny Archibald said) a $75,000 contract, and Stockton’s competitive streak told him to ask for more.

“The Jazz, buckling under the pressure, offered $80,000,” he said. “I signed the next morning.”

Later that rookie season, on John Stockton Poster Night, he stepped to the foul line when a paper airplane landed at his feet.

“I picked it up and unfolded it,” he said, “and it was a poster of me.”

“Yeah,” Layden cut in, “and I was the guy who threw it.”

What they couldn’t have known was that once they signed him, he was going to get so deep under their skin. The 19 years were just part of it. Stockton, Malone and Sloan turned the Jazz from an OK franchise into one of the elite teams of the 1990s, a monument to bedrock consistency, hard work and ensemble play. And though they recognized his fierce competitive streak, even those closest to him took a while to grasp how much the game meant to him.

Sloan learned in an end-of-playoffs press conference in 2001, when he suggested it might have been Stockton’s last game and said he hoped his point guard’s career had been fully appreciated. When he peeked over, he saw a tear welling up in Stockton’s eye.

“I apologized to him later,” Sloan said.

Those same emotions had him dashing out on reporters when he actually did retire two years later, but he pulled himself together for a reluctant postseason goodbye ceremony that lured more than 19,000 people to the Delta Center without the draw of an actual game. Malone, Sloan and Miller all wept, while Stockton poked fun at his rookie penury and his short shorts.

Back in Spokane, Ehlo noted that when Jordan retired, he said he was leaving the NBA in “good hands” because of all the young guns – Kobe and LeBron specifically – with a scorer’s mentality.

“I don’t think John has anyone to say that about,” Ehlo said. “He really is one of a kind.”

Even in the context of the Hall of Fame.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email