SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – For 18 years, John Stockton was Johnny Unitas to Karl Malone’s Raymond Berry – that is, when they weren’t Martin and Lewis, Ben and Jerry or Yin and Yang.
The NBA’s other superstars of the 1980s and 1990s – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson – were stand-alones, figures unto themselves. Stockton and Malone weren’t just Utah Jazz teammates but co-dependent identities, passer and shooter with a shared thirst for work and play.
Yet in other respects they couldn’t have been more different. Indeed, the true basketball soulmates were Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan.
So their side-by-side induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday seems to be more than coincidence, and beyond fitting.
“Anything I can do with Jerry Sloan,” said Stockton, “whether it’s standing up here doing interviews or going back to his house in McLeansboro and walking around in the mud with bare feet checking out the grain is a thrill for me.”
Speaking of which, it’s a good thing basketball immortals aren’t inducted with caps on their plaques like their baseball brethren, or else Sloan’s would bear the logo of the Heritage Tractor Company.
They joined the Jazz just months apart in 1984, Stockton as the surprise first-round draft choice out of off-the-grid Gonzaga University and Sloan as an assistant to coach Frank Layden, who would will Sloan the head chair four years later. Their impact on each other’s careers – to this destination – was immeasurable.
“He’s one of the main reasons why I’m here,” Sloan said during his Hall of Fame press grilling on Friday. “I don’t think he would have let them fire me.”
If an NBA title eluded them, the Jazz were world champions in stability. Stockton played longer than any guard in history, and both he and Sloan set records for longevity with a single franchise. And yet both men seemed to be cursed with short-sightedness, a no-shifts-off focus motivated by the fear that their basketball careers were built on borrowed time – a notion that seems ridiculous in retrospect.
Dreaming big – especially Hall of Fame big – never occurred to Stockton.
“I thought they’d figure me out pretty quickly,” he revealed Friday. “I thought the Jazz would figure out they’d made a mistake.
“So I got that first paycheck and saved every cent. I rented a one-bedroom apartment, already furnished, and never bought a television set. I went to the discount food store and bought cases of Nalley’s chili and made my mom’s lasagna and stacked it in the refrigerator. I was pretty sure I was a one-year-and-out guy.”
When he broke into the league two decades before with the old Baltimore Bullets, Sloan was dogged by the same doubts. Veterans like Gus Johnson – the one-time University of Idaho strongman – helped see him through, even when he went to the Chicago Bulls in the expansion draft the following year.
“We played Baltimore in an exhibition game and I get in a fight with one of the players,” Sloan recalled. “Gus Johnson, who always called me ‘Rookie,’ came up and got in front of me and saved my life. He said, ‘Rook, get behind me – nobody’s going to hit you.’ It was a wonderful feeling knowing I wasn’t going to get my butt kicked.”
Sloan would go on to be rough-and-tumble Chicago’s most beloved basketball figure until a fellow named Michael Jordan came along – but it didn’t prevent him from getting fired midway through his third year of an unsuccessful tenure as head coach. So no wonder insecurity haunted him after he took over for Layden and promptly went 3-6.
But he had better ingredients this time, starting with a point guard who was a vest-pocket version of himself – more skilled on offense, not as rugged on defense, but possessed of the same steely resolve and an off-the-charts basketball IQ.
“We questioned whether he would hold up,” Sloan acknowledged with a laugh. “He only played 19 years. He started out playing behind a very good player in Rickey Green. Rickey missed three games once – I think we played Houston, Chicago and Detroit – and John had to fill the role. He played like 47 minutes and didn’t break a sweat.
“He was a once-in-a-lifetime guy to coach.”
And Sloan was Stockton’s once-in-a-lifetime coach – “the boss” and backstop for the team accountability Stockton and Malone enforced.
“I never needed a father figure because I have a wonderful father,” Stockton said, “but he certainly has taken this role as well.”
Had Malone not stayed in the league another year to chase – without success – a championship ring with the Lakers, there’s every probability that all three of them would have entered the Hall on Friday. As it is, Stockton is likely to be back next year as Malone’s presenter, and the stories will be revived anew about their peanut-butter-and-jelly relationship.
It’s a strong bond, but no stronger than the one shared by two men convinced they wouldn’t last – even as they walked in together to the Hall of Fame.
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