When John Stockton is solicited for some enduring moments of his college basketball days at Gonzaga, the memory train’s first stop is hardly a surprise.
“The DePaul game,” he said.
True, he scored all of eight points that night in 1983 against a program that had been the winningest in college basketball the previous five seasons. His best and most important pass didn’t go for an assist because the recipient blew the layup – then tipped in his miss to make the Bulldogs winners.
And the winning was the thing.
Not much point in drawing a breath if oxygen isn’t part of the intake.
“But it was also how it changed how people looked at us,” Stockton recalled. “The greeting when we arrived at the (Spokane) airport the next day, and at Kennedy Pavilion – the intramurals stopped and everybody clapped. It was just a different atmosphere from that point forward.”
He’s right, you know. Even before the Bulldogs charmed their way into the national consciousness and then built an estate there, any number of small, subtle moments inched the program along. Even now, as we saw last April, the moments keep coming.
Here’s another one: Gonzaga now has someone in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Stockton goes in Sunday as part of an induction class that will also include Tim Duncan and six others in ceremonies in Kansas City. He is no stranger to such honors, of course. He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012 for his remarkable career with the Utah Jazz. But he didn’t expect this call.
“I was surprised to be included, frankly,” he said. “I never looked at my college career in those terms.”
Maybe that’s understandable. Stockton never played in an NCAA Tournament or on a team that won more than 19 games. He wasn’t an All-American. Alvin Robertson, Lancaster Gordon, Leon Wood – those were the playmaking guards of renown in the class of 1984, and all went ahead of Stockton in that year’s NBA draft.
We know what happened after that.
“My pro career, I think, is what brought attention to my college career,” he said.
But he was Gonzaga’s first WCC player of the year – on a fourth-place team – and a 1,000 point/500 assist player before that was routine. There wasn’t a guard in America who shot the ball better his final season – 57.7 percent – and, passing and scoring, figured in more than half the Bulldogs’ points.
Since few among today’s sellout crowds at McCarthey Athletic Center saw Stockton play at GU, a quick recap of his five best college games – our picks, working up – would be in order:
Washington State 73, Gonzaga 72: Chris Winkler’s baseline jumper won it at the old Spokane Coliseum — after the Zags roared back from a 15-point halftime deficit and Stockton gave them the lead with a three-point play. He had 29 points, playing the last 15 minutes with four fouls.
GU 60, San Diego 58: The Toreros won the West Coast Conference in ‘84, but lost the league opener at home. Stockton had 17 points and assisted on 13 of 28 field goals. “I still remember Jeff Reinert hitting the bucket to win it,” he said.
GU 91, Eastern Washington 80: Try 38 points on 17-of-20 shooting, plus seven assists. “He’s there when the game’s on the line,” said Jerry Krause, EWU’s coach then, “and when it’s not, too.”
GU 64, Santa Clara 62: In Stockton’s junior year, the Zags trailed 36-18 at halftime. He scored 18 of his 30 points from that point, and set the school’s season and career assist marks along the way.
GU 71, WSU 70 in overtime at the Far West Classic in Portland: This time Winkler missed the baseline jumper and Stockton – 25 points, nine assists, seven steals – was a wildly popular choice as tournament MVP on a third-place team. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to beat them,” he said then. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
The happy moments have multiplied. He’s now seen a son (David) and a daughter (Laura) play in the NCAAs for Gonzaga – two of four Stockton children who’ve played college basketball, a Hall of Fame credit in itself. And he’s watched the Zags’ remarkable rise – cheering from a hotel room in Sacramento with former teammate Blair Anderson when John Rillie shot them into their first NCAAs, and running screaming from the Jazz locker room after a game in Washington when Casey Calvary’s tip-in put Gonzaga in its first Elite Eight.
Stockton’s college days were of a different time, and one he treasures just as much.
“It was just the purity of it,” he said. “There was no TV. We weren’t playing for a chance to be in the league. It was just playing a game you love with your buddies. I don’t think you ever get something like that again – and maybe you don’t get it anywhere anymore.”
Hall of Fame memories, in any case.