LAS VEGAS – For someone who rose to the heights as a basketball player – two gold medals, the NBA Finals and eventually the Hall of Fame – John Stockton has a knack for highlighting the humble beginnings.
And relative to today, Gonzaga basketball in his time on campus was definitely humble.
“The Gonzaga you see today is not the Gonzaga we experienced – although we didn’t know any better,” Stockton said on Saturday. “We thought we were special. We didn’t expect anybody else to see it.”
So his induction into the West Coast Conference’s Hall of Honor this year was a surprise – not given his career, but just the evidence of the times.
“We never won the league,” he said. “We never went to the NCAAs. But I’m still grateful. This is pretty nice.”
The NBA’s career leader in assists and steals was, in fact, the WCC Player of the Year in 1984, the first of 14 Gonzaga players so honored, so it’s not as if he’s without a college resume. He fits right in with a WCC Hall of Honor class that also included, among others, the league’s career scoring average leader, Pepperdine’s Bird Averitt; coaches Dick Davey of Santa Clara and Paul Westhead of Loyola Marymount, and Olympic soccer gold medalist Shannon Mac Millan of Portland.
Stockton was always better appreciated in a team context, so fencing questions and answers with the WCC’s Sarah Kezele at Saturday’s induction ceremonies showed him at his best. He recalled his future wife and her “gorgeous twin sister” coming to watch games at the old Kennel when it was barely half full.
“By the way,” he added, “I chose my wife Nada because she’s a bit sturdier –and she was a much better rebounder, too.”
“Every woman wants to hear that,” Kezele replied.
“I’m a charmer,” Stockton said. “Always have been.”
He was always a Gonzaga guy, for sure –growing up three blocks from campus, sneaking inside to open the gym to his brother and friends for pickup games, his grandfather one of the school’s original football greats. He was recruited to GU by the late Dan Fitzgerald who figured in another Stockton story about inauspicious beginnings.
“One Friday after I’d signed with Gonzaga I’m down at the gym all by myself,” he remembered. “He walks through the gym and looks at me and I think he’s kind of proud – this kid wants to be a player. I said, ‘Coach, watch this’ – I’d learned something from Paul Westphal at a H-O-R-S-E competition where he put the ball under his arm and jumped up and grabbed the cross bar attached to the backboard, and he swung up and he could dunk the ball that way.
“So I thought I show that to coach. I went up and grabbed the bar and my hand slipped and I landed right flat on my back. Fitz was speechless for the first time in his life, thinking ‘What have I got myself into.’ ”
No one could see the Basketball Hall of Fame from there, nor Stockton’s 19-year NBA career and the two runs with the Olympic “Dream Team.” Nor was Gonzaga’s basketball flowering something to be imagined – and that two of his six children, David and Laura, have made significant contributions to it.
“It’s fun to see your kids pursue their dreams whatever it is,” he said, “and to be at home and see them wear the Gonzaga jersey and to know that’s the very place I used to sneak into.”
Now he watches the Zags from seats behind the scorer’s table, and marvels with everyone else.
“They have a terrific team,” he said. “I’m excited for the prospects of them going out and compete and proving who they think they are.”
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