By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 11 2009 9:43AM
You watched the right hand hold the basketball, mold the basketball, shape it as if it were a lump of clay. He was creating a work of art. With each dribble, his eyes shifted and darted and searched for the opening. Each time the ball hit the floor and came straight back up into his hand, the defender steeled his body and tried to brace for what was coming next.
John Stockton leaned in with his shoulder and created contact, he took one more peek through the mass of bodies, and then -- with the swiftness of a cobra -- he unleashed the pass that found a Utah Jazz teammate cutting along the baseline. The resulting layup always looked as easy as falling out of bed.
That's the way it always was with Stockton, cool and calm like a duck floating on top of the lake, never letting you see the mad paddle beneath the water.
He did it for so long in the NBA that those laser-beam passes came to be as expected as spandex-clad dancing girls and blaring rock music. Through all those years, all those games, all those passes and all those plays, Stockton kept right on going. Straight ahead. Nothing fancy. Plain and simple.
The numbers say he's on top of the NBA career list for assists (15,806) and steals (3,265), say he had five of the top six assist seasons in NBA history, say he holds the league record for most seasons and most consecutive games played for one team, say that he's third behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish in total games played.
The numbers don't say nearly enough. In 19 grueling NBA regular seasons, he missed only 22 of 1,526 games, 18 of those in one season.
"Stockton to Malone" was a common phrase at every Jazz game.
Norm Perdue/NBAE/Getty Images
"John showed up to compete every night in every game and every day in every practice,' said Jerry Sloan, Stockton's head coach for 15 seasons and now a fellow Hall of Fame inductee in the Class of 2009.
"He's one of the most unique players you'll ever run across. You can talk about all the things he tried to do. But first of all, you've got to look at his stature. He's not a very big guy. And yet he played as strong and tough as anybody could.
"He had tremendous desire to want to win. It wasn't about him. It was strictly about his teammates. He made his teammates better. The guy tried to defend and he set screens. Everybody remembers him for the pick and roll, which he and Karl Malone were terrific at, no doubt. But he also set a lot of screens that helped some other guy get an easy basket."
If Stockton were a boxer, he'd have been a body puncher instead of a knockout artist. If he were a painter, he'd have been a guy using a roller to put a fresh coat on the kitchen, not creating masterpieces on canvas.
He never beat you up. He wore you down. He never dropped a ton of bricks on your head. He sneaked up and tied your shoelaces together so that you'd trip over your own feet.
"There absolutely, positively will never be another John Stockton," said Malone, his running buddy for all those seasons.
That uniqueness came not from an extraordinary or singular physical attribute that allowed him to take the court like one of those other-worldly skywalkers, but from a down-to-earth, relentless approach to every game, every possession and every drill at practice. "He worked harder than you," Sloan said. "That was his secret."
Stockton, the son of a bar owner in Spokane, Wash., earned his basketball chops playing in the driveway of the family home against older brother Steve and friends, who showed no mercy in roughing up the elementary school kid, the smallest player on the court. When John would complain about the abuse, his father, Jack, would suggest that maybe he should find opponents his own size and age. That would only raise the young Stockton's ire.
He was only 5-foot-5 as a ninth grader at Gonzaga Prep when he'd phone his freshman coach, Ed Smith, on Sundays after church. "He'd say, 'Open the gym and bring your fat friends,' " Smith told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "He'd play his butt off and get mad if he got beat by a 25-year-old man."
The feisty little guy grew big enough to average 21 points as a senior at Gonzaga University and earned an invitation to try out for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. The little-known Stockton played well enough in his tryout for the team coached by Bob Knight, but he and Charles Barkley were among the final cuts.
Two months later, Stockton became the No. 16 overall pick in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Jazz. The fans gathered at the celebration in Salt Lake City promptly booed his selection.
"That's right, they did boo him," Sloan said. "They yelled: 'Who is this guy? Where's he from?' He did, of course, eventually change that opinion.
"I don't think John was ever trying to prove anything to anybody. I think he was just having fun. I don't think anybody had as much fun playing basketball that I've ever been around.
"I think he played every single game in 17 years of the 19 in his career, didn't miss a game. You've got to like it quite a lot not to say, 'I've got a sprained ankle or a busted nose or a bad cold,' and sit a game out. He did not sit out. He loved to play."
Stockton played with the quiet, unflinching nerve of an assassin and the ferocity of a pit bull. When opponents sometimes called his tactics dirty, Stockton responded with a shrug and an innocent look on that angelic face.
"I'm sorry my nose hit his elbow," Houston Rockets guard Matt Maloney once said during a Playoff series.
"Hey, I didn't even know he was there," replied Stockton. "This is a rough game. Sometimes, you get hit."
The loquacious Barkley would have loved to have decked Stockton. That is, if he could ever have gotten his hands on him. Stockton scored the Jazz's final nine points, including the game-winning 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Barkley, to clinch Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals, lifting the Jazz over Houston and into their first ever berth in the NBA Finals.
Stockton was the mosquito that you couldn't quite swat, the blade of crabgrass that kept growing up through the crack in the sidewalk. You never realized that he was sticking the knife in until you were helpless from the blood loss.
Stockton is the NBA's all-time leader in assists (15,806) and steals in steals (3,265).
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
"John stays quiet and hidden, but let me tell you ... he was one of the most dynamic point guards to ever play the game," Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler told the Deseret News. "His assist total tells you about his ability as a player, but he was a leader and, kind of like Brett Favre, he was always there. I tell players today, you can't be a leader, making the most money, and not be there for your team. He showed, hurt, injured, sick ... It's the mark of a true professional, and he epitomized that as well as anyone."
The numbers were staggering. His career assist record is more than 5,000 ahead of the No. 2 man on the list, Mark Jackson. His career steals total exceeds runner-up Michael Jordan by more than 700.
Yet it was not about the statistics or the accolades, only the games.
"It's never been a goal to get into the Hall of Fame or anything like that," Stockton said in a recent interview with NBA Entertainment. "I always played each game for the enjoyment of that game, with the goal of that individual game, even separating it by quarters or by plays.
"I never thought this far ahead. It's exciting. I think it's probably more exciting for my dad, for my brother and sisters, all the people who have been along for the ride. Nevertheless, it's a great honor."
Stockton is especially pleased for the recognition being given to Sloan.
"More than going in together, just the fact that he's going in, I don't know that anything is more important to me relative to basketball," Stockton said. "He's been such a quality influence in my life. He's a great man. He's a terrific coach. We've become friends as I've grown older, as we've both grown older, and I wouldn't trade that relationship for anything.
"Absolutely anything I can do, whether it's trimming brush at his place down in Illinois or if it's hanging with him at the Hall of Fame, it's a great experience for me."
After all the battles they waged together, all the big shots and critical passes, Sloan's favorite Stockton memory is about practice.
"He was beaten one time in 19 years running laterals, suicide drills, across the floor," the coach recalled. "That's after he was 40 some years old. It wasn't about him proving that he was still the best. He just wanted to do everything the best he could to try to help the team, try to win.
"It sounds corny, I know, but that's who he was. He put it out there every single day. Now if you can't build a team around somebody like that ... well, I was the luckiest guy in the world to get to coach him.
"It's about him. I wouldn't be here. I think anybody who would have coached John Stockton would have been recognized a little bit, because he was every coach's dream."
You look at Stockton and it doesn't seem possible that he would be at the top of the assist heap, ahead of Oscar Robertson and Magic and everybody else who ever tried to feed a teammate for a hoop. With the choirboy looks and the diminutive stature in a giant's game, it would seem that all he would want to do is survive.
In the hip-hop world of the 21st century NBA, he was a throwback as quaint as bobby sox and ducktail haircuts.
"I try to take what the defense gives me and never think ahead that I'm going to try to get this or that," he once said. "I just do what I have to do. I try to keep it simple."
That's John Stockton. Simply amazing.
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