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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Stockton takes fame to next level

That must be quite the pickup game they get together in the old gym at Gonzaga University.

In a little over a month, they’ve sent one player to the NBA – well, the developmental league – and another to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Of course, that last bit of business was just the inevitable becoming the actual on Monday when John Stockton, having fulfilled the five-year retirement period, was ushered VIP-style past a crowd standing behind the velvet rope. In September will come his official induction in the shrine named for James Naismith, who invented the game – likely with the way Stockton played it in mind.

A slam dunk, for a player who didn’t.

The Hall of Fame is, among other things, a museum. Stockton isn’t going in because they need his retro shorts for the display case, however, but more for his retro game.

Pass, screen, move, hit the open jumper – or, preferably, the open man.

Exactly 15,806 times he found the open man and the man made the shot, an NBA record that in all likelihood will never be broken unless another freak of nature, determination and conditioning comes along. Who knows how much more lead stayed on the statkeeper’s pencil when misses turned other assists into shoulda-beens?

Then there were his steals – another NBA record – and nearly 20,000 points, and maybe most impressive of all playing all 19 of his professional seasons with one club, the Utah Jazz, and missing only 22 games to injury along the way.

What else?

“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t keep statistics on screens,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who also passed hall muster on Monday, once said. “That’s one of the most important things he does for a team and tells you a little bit about who he is and what he’s about – to try to make somebody else better. He wasn’t screening midgets.”

In any case, Stockton was a lock for the hall on his numbers alone, which is almost anathema to him because of a general indifference to any statistic other than the final score. And that’s sort of a baseball thing anyway, putting potential honorees through a quantitative obstacle course just for the sake of a good – OK, endless – argument. And this even before a few hauty voters automatically withhold their consent on the first ballot, simply because they can.

If the basketball hall is less snooty, it is also less transparent. If 18 of the 24 electors mark an “X” beside your name, you’re in – and maybe for no other reason than you talk loud on television.

Stockton’s worthiness was without question when his career was only, oh, 75 percent complete. What always remained was trying to explain how it could have happened.

Many apostles always wanted to cite his heart and smarts, which were abundant, but also tended to devalue his ability. In a big man’s sport he was not a big man, but otherwise his physical gifts – vision, big hands, quick feet, a ridiculously low standing heart rate – were considerable.

At the risk of amateur headshrinking, can we suggest another thing he was obviously special at: managing fear, or at least doubt.

Stockton was better as a college player at Gonzaga than he was as a high schooler at Gonzaga Prep, and better as a pro than in college. That happens often enough in sports, but it seems a reach to call Stockton a late bloomer.

“He handled the pressure of getting better tremendously,” said Dan Fitzgerald, the man who recruited him to GU and coached him there for a year. “In 1984, does a Gonzaga kid have some doubts about whether he can compete?

“You’re thrown in against the best in the world from a place with no pedigree. You’re the 16th pick in the draft out of a school nobody has heard of at the time and people are going, ‘This is crap – this guy can’t be the real deal.’ ”

True enough. If Gonzaga – not the Gonzaga we know today in a basketball sense – allowed him the ultimate underdog’s platform, he also had to overcome it. And that notion never left him long after people forgot where he went to school and knew him only as an established NBA star.

“I just wanted to survive,” he said. “I don’t mean physically live through it. But I always felt like I was climbing uphill.

“I’d look at the roster sheet of the other team and think, ‘Wow, how am I going to deal with this guy?’ I never thought I was ‘the guy.’ The other guy was ‘the guy.’ To figure out a way to compete is what drove me more than anything – because the couple of times I thought I was better, it never worked out very well.”

And herein is the conflict in the general public perception of the Stockton legacy. His relentlessness, his determination to be as good the next game as he was the previous one – and better, if necessary – is an ethic we purport to prize above all, and he took it to nearly an unheard of extreme. But there is a scoreboard and that the Jazz never won an NBA title is often leveraged against his reputation, never mind how much that sort of quest is beyond an individual player’s control.

It might be also pointed out that he never indulged in free agency or demanded a trade to chase a ring – loyalty being another disappearing virtue the sports fan lives to mourn.

Sometime when he returns from Detroit, where the Hall of Fame announcement was made, Stockton will rejoin the pickup game at GU he still enjoys at age 47 – the one from which another ex-Zag, Richie Frahm, just launched his return to the pro game. Stockton will pass and screen and move and hit the open jumper – and again and again, find the open man.

He has always played better at the next level. But as of Monday, there are no better levels. He stands at the top.

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