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Gonzaga Basketball

Zags retire Stockton’s No. 12

John Stockton, with his wife Nada, turns to the crowd in The Kennel to show the jersey Gonzaga retired in his honor Wednesday night 2/18/04.  Christopher Anderson/The Spokesman-Review (Christopher Anderson)

John Stockton has a ready explanation as to why no player at Gonzaga University has been issued jersey number 12 since he graduated in 1984.

And it isn’t that the keeper of the uniforms kept it in a drawer - a pocket veto, if you will.

“I don’t think anybody asked for it,” he joked, the self-deprecation needle going into the red.

Hmm. Could be something to that. It’s never easy to be the guy who follows The Guy, even if such an unlucky soul was never expected to come along at Gonzaga.

Then again, no one could have anticipated that it would be a 20-year wait before the school would/could get around to doing what it did Wednesday night, which was hoist that No. 12 so high up on the wall at The Kennel that no one will ever think about trying it on for size.

The ceremony they staged at halftime of the Bulldogs’ 79-69 victory over Portland was brief, dignified, genuine - and undeniably difficult for the honoree, who enjoys public spectacle in the same way a filling enjoys an ice cube.

“I’m proud to be able to share this,” he told the third-to-last sellout crowd at The Kennel, his voice cracking. “I’ve benefited from the efforts of a lot of other people in my life, and a lot of them are here tonight,” Stockton said.

The benefits, of course, have been entirely mutual.

It is often difficult to adequately draw the connection between the Stockton era of Gonzaga basketball in just plain old Kennedy Pavilion and the ongoing carnival of amazement now closing up shop at the raucous Kennel, and for no one more than Stockton himself, who watches the show from a couple rows behind the home team’s bench.

“My wife and I talk about it all the time,” he said. “We can’t believe what it has become. They’re so good, from top to bottom, and it’s impressive to see the change.”

And then, befitting the best man in basketball history at getting the ball from Point A to the finish line, he found the opening.

“But it’s kept a lot of the charm of Gonzaga, too,” he said, “and that’s almost as good.”

Before the Bulldogs swashbuckled their way into their current position of power and influence, the only real connect the outside basketball world had with GU was Stockton himself - and, let’s not kid ourselves, the ceremony on Wednesday night had as much, if not more, to do with what Stockton achieved as an alumnus as it did with what he achieved as an undergrad.

With the carnival of amazement, if you will, he became in the National Basketball Association.

At Gonzaga, Frank Burgess scored more points - would you believe Stockton isn’t even in the top 10 anymore? - and eventually both Matt Santangelo and Blake Stepp amassed more assists. And the wins - always Stockton’s favorite statistic - have multiplied exponentially.

“We weren’t quite the team they have out here today,” Stockton allowed to the crowd.

But as a pro, Stockton was surely as good as it gets, his records for passing, larceny and longevity all but untouchable and committed to memory by any serious basketball fan.

“You look back and it seemed like he flourished after the Olympic Trials (in 1984, when he was Bobby Knight’s last cut),” said Tim Ruff, one of the former teammates invited back to participate in Wednesday’s ceremony. “It was like college ball wasn’t that difficult for him and once he got around bigger and better challenges, he just blossomed.”

Is that another way of saying even his GU teammates were astounded by his 19-year NBA career?

“Everybody I’ve spoken to,” Ruff chuckled, “pretty much has the same sentiments.”

And then he became America’s window into Gonzaga and Spokane - the values, the ethic, the unspoiled character, the too rarely unearthed potential. The association could be almost a cultural aphrodisiac.

Jeff Reinert, another GU teammate, coached junior college basketball in Utah during the latter stages of Stockton’s Utah Jazz career.

“Just being there at the same time as John has helped my career as a coach - just by association,” admitted Reinert, who also attended Wednesday’s fete. “I don’t know that we talked a half dozen times during that time, but everyone else made the connection and it opened some doors. It was really kind of amazing.”

But then, so were their playing days with Stockton.

Reinert, for instance, recalls “us playing and we’d be down, inevitably, and we’d put a press on which was basically John at the point of it, stealing the ball and laying it in and that’s what would turn it around.”

And Ruff, the 6-foot-10 giant who was the target of so many of Stockton’s verbal darts, recalls his teammate’s almost manic competitiveness.

“Somebody had a lake cabin - I think it was coach Pickett (Kerry Pickett, Stockton’s grade school coach),” he said. “John had a designated room there I didn’t know about and I went to put my luggage down in that bedroom and we had about a five-minute, big-time wrestling match. In fact, when he saw me tonight, that was the first thing he brought up - nothing about basketball.

“Competitive? We’d fight over the remote control - everything.”

For Stockton, seeing his jersey go up under the Kennel ceiling brought back memories not of on-court heroics but off-court curios - “the camaraderie, things as basic as the conversations you’d share in a rental car on the way to a game. You don’t get that in a lot of places - even the NBA, because it’s different there, people have families. You don’t make the same kinds of friendships or have teammates in the same way.

“In college, you all have one goal. People talk about chemistry and I don’t recall ever having chemistry problems at Gonzaga.”

And, yes, he does recall the stunning upset Gonzaga engineered at DePaul in 1983, and beating Washington State and being the surprise MVP of the Far West Classic the next season and even the signature comeback the Zags made to beat Santa Clara at home in ‘83, a game in which Stockton scored 22 of his 30 points after halftime.

“Strangely enough, though, I remember the Santa Clara game my senior year better,” he said. “We were all sick and just trying to hang on with eight bodies and Jeff Condill played a whale of a game.”

And he remembers taking something, too, from GU as he embarked on a brave new basketball world.

“I know what I want to say, but I don’t know if I can word it right,” he said. “I guess what I took is that you could compete with anybody. You don’t have to be better to win, but you can’t be in awe. You have to have a confidence, that fine line between that and thinking you’re better than the other guy.

“It’s something that’s been carried on. Being able to come back and play with these guys in the off-season, I could see the program getting better and better. But I was proud of the guys I played with and I was proud of the teams here every year no matter how good they were.”

The number’s been retired. The sentiment hasn’t.