DENVER – So here was the toss-up, silly as it seems now:
Could David Stockton crack the lineup at, oh, Whitworth?
This was the pants-seat deliberation three months ago – not even a debate, really, but just a couple of guys in the bleachers, considering the state of Gonzaga basketball even before the seeming crisis point of mid-January. Already the assembled personnel was struggling to cope with the demands of the Zags’ usual outsized ambitions. Sent into the occasional breach against the Kansas States and Baylors – with only flickering success – was this freshman weighing all of a buck-fifty, still looking more like eighth-grade class president than college point guard, a nonscholarship audition from the high school up the street.
He didn’t seem like a sure thing even at an upper-echelon small college. Was he really going to help the Zags get to where they needed to go this year?
But this is how it’s always been for David Stockton and perhaps always will be, and that’s fine. Because being underestimated is his second-best ally.
His best is, well, his what? His confidence? Nerve? Cheek? Chutzpah?
“He’s just … not afraid,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
The Bulldogs’ increasing reliance on this willful wisp is one of the more obvious elements in the surge that’s carried them to a 13th consecutive NCAA tournament. Just do some quick, simple math: The fourth-place Zags of late January had Stockton playing 11 minutes a game; for the 11-1 team since then he’s averaged 24 minutes, 7 points, 3.5 assists.
Who would have thought, other than David Stockton himself?
This may be the most ignored or taken-for-granted quality – perhaps it’s even a skill – in all of sports, this posture of “Why not me?” And Stockton looked it square in the eye just in entertaining the notion of walking on at Gonzaga in 2009.
Not afraid? Every day he practices in an arena where his father’s number is one of two retired jerseys hanging on the wall, where his own play will inevitably and illogically be compared to the impossible standard established by one of the game’s finest point guards and an NBA Hall-of-Famer.
“I knew wherever I’d go I’d have to beat it – not beat it, but just deal with it,” Stockton said. “I’d been told stuff about my dad my whole life, so it’s nothing new. I wasn’t worried about it.”
Besides, he’s always found the daunting somewhat tempting.
“And I’m not the one who first noticed that,” said his father, John.
Seems there was a Little League game back in Salt Lake City where the family lived during John’s years with the Utah Jazz. The opposing team was the Utah state champions, and a fresh arm was needed for the last inning. So what volunteer did the coach have warming up?
David Stockton, who hadn’t pitched in a game all year.
Later, when the family moved back to Spokane, John would sweat it out in the grandstands while his 130-pound son quarterbacked Gonzaga Prep’s option attack.
Still, Division I basketball was the biggest leap of all, and John Stockton admitted his first instinct was to try and dissuade David.
“Just because Gonzaga’s last several point guards have been monsters,” John reasoned. “(Jeremy) Pargo, (Matt) Bouldin – you start going down the list and they’re big guys. Coaches have ways they like to coach and players that fit within that system.
“And yet they had Meech (Demetri Goodson) the last couple of years, a smaller guy whose success probably benefited David. The coaches learned to trust Meech so when another small guy comes along they don’t just discount him from the start.”
As for David, well, he might not have analyzed it quite so much.
He did attract some interest from NAIA-level schools, but it didn’t take much coaxing when GU assistant Tommy Lloyd called to offer the opportunity to walk on.
“You never know unless you try – why not set the bar high?” he said. “Kind of like my dad did, if you put me up to something, I’m going to work really hard and eventually get there, I hope.”
The happiest side effect of Stockton’s emergence is the quieting of foolish grumps who maintained he was filling a uniform because of his last name. The staff contended all along that Stockton would be a solid contributor by his junior year with some physical growth; as Few has said, “We don’t have to teach him how to play.”
Opportunity and necessity have accelerated that schedule – and it was opportunity earned, the way it always is at Gonzaga, from his first day.
“All of a sudden the coach is getting on me – I’m not just the kid who comes in and plays with the guys,” Stockton said. “Guys are going at me. Maybe they think, ‘I’m a point guard, he’s a point guard, I’d better kick his face in.’ That happened a pretty good amount my (redshirt) year and it really helped me.”
And so did something else, though you might not expect it.
“In a lot of ways, growing up little is an advantage,” said John Stockton. “You always deal with it. It’s kind of normal. You don’t get to make the eighth-grade team or the freshman team if you don’t find a way to play.”
David Stockton found a way. Maybe someday, he’ll have to overcome no longer being underestimated, too.
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