Backing Up a Legend
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in April 1997.
Backing Up a Legend
There is no way to follow a legend and be remembered, but for Jazz guard Howard Eisley, backing up Stockton is a learning experience.
by Dave Blackwell
Backing up John Stockton would seem to be a thankless chore. Pity the young accordionist who is told by the concert promoter that he will play "Lady of Spain" right after Frank Sinatra leaves the stage.
There is no way to follow a legend and be remembered, unless the performance is a disaster. A no-win situation. But Howard Eisley, who is first off the bench to give Stockton a rest on Jazz nights, is not awed by the responsibility. Respectful is a better description.
"This is a good experience," says the second-year Jazzman from Boston College. "I try to learn as much as I can from probably the best point guard ever to play the game. I watch him on the floor as well as in practice.
"But sometimes, it gets difficult," says Eisley, "because as a player you always want to improve. Everyone wants to play more. But I understand exactly my role on the team. I accept that. I just try to do my best when I am on the court."
Stockton, who came off the bench for Rickey Green his first two years in the league, has since been backed by reserves the likes of Eddie Hughes, Jim Farmer, Jimmy Les, Delaney Rudd, Eric Johnson, Eric Murdock and John Crotty. A common problem the last dozen years is that the reserve point guard, aware of his limited playing time, has often tried to do too much, too quickly in a brief appearance.
Arguably, Eisley has been the most effective of the reserves in staying within himself and not pushing for immediate results.
"That's how I've always played," says the soft-spoken Eisley. "I try to stay within the scheme of the team and do the things I do well. I pretty much let the game come to me. I try to be aggressive but at the same time not force the issue."
The Detroit native grew up in a city that provided superb Piston guard play, going back to the days of Dave Bing. "I grew up watching Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars," says Eisley, those choices befitting a 24-year-old. While at Detroit's Southwestern High School Eisley lettered in cross country and played a little bit of baseball, but basketball held center stage.
"We had a pretty good high school team," says Howard, "but I really didn't score that much. I averaged about 12 points and 10 assists my senior year," which is reasonable, considering two of his prep teammates were Jalen Rose (Indiana Pacers) and Voshon Lenard (Miami Heat).
While Rose and Lenard were highly recruited their senior years, Eisley was recruited by only two colleges, and he picked Boston College over Ohio University of the Mid-Atlantic Conference.
"My career at Boston College started very slow," says Howard in an understatement. "My freshman year we started off 1-15 in the conference, and we lost 16 in a row, which was a school record. But from then on we made steady improvement, and my senior year we made the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament."
That senior year Eisley averaged 16 points, 4.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds. During his BC career Howard led the team in assists all four years, finishing third on the career list (544), ninth in scoring (1,628) and second in steals with 195.
Unlike four years earlier, Eisley had earned the attention of NBA scouts, and the 6-2 guard was eventually drafted by Minnesota in the second round (30th pick overall) in the 1994 draft.
Eisley says he "felt fortunate to live a dream and be drafted into the NBA, but it didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted it to. They had Michael Williams and Chris Smith at guards, and then when Williams got hurt, they brought in Winston Garland. I think they wanted a more experienced look, and I wasn’t what they were looking for at that time.” Eisley was released around the All-Star break after scoring 3.3 points and 2.3 assists in 34 games. A couple of weeks later he signed with the San Antonio Spurs, and matters worsened as he played only 56 minutes in 15 games. “I really didn’t have the opportunity to show what I could do on the court,” says Eisley. “I guess it was a numbers thing.”
The “numbers thing” was just getting started.
The Utah Jazz always had interest in Eisley, and he had been penciled in on the 1994 draft list. The Jazz had hoped Eisley would slip to their 47th pick, but when the Timberwolves took him at number 30, Utah selected Jamie Watson. That was the start of a sequence where the fortunes of the two players would be intertwined.
In October 1995 Watson was held out of training camp while agent Sal DiFazio negotiated a new contract. The Jazz invited Eisley to camp. Howard thought it was an opportunity to be seen and, if it didn’t work out with the Jazz, maybe someone else would see him and be impressed. Then the Jazz signed Watson to a two-year, $1.5 million contract, and Eisley was released. He quickly caught on with another team, not an NBA team, but Rockford (Illinois) of the CBA.
“It was tough, and I was disappointed at the time but not discouraged," he says. "I was very confident in my ability. I wanted to prove myself and hopefully have a chance to be called up. I didn’t have a problem with that."
That’s good, because Eisley played only seven games with Rockford before receiving another call from the Jazz. Watson announced he would undergo ankle surgery, causing him to miss the remaining 66 games of the season.
Eisley signed as a free agent with the Jazz on December 7, 1995 and, with Watson absent, he played in 65 regular season games and all 18 playoff games, averaging almost 15 minutes an appearance during the regular season and 11.2 minutes in post-season. With the slow-mending Watson on the shelf until the final week of February, 1997, Eisley had played in every game this year, and, going into March, had a streak of playing in 120 consecutive games over two years. He has yet to start, and he won’t until the indefatigable No. 12 becomes injured or retires.
With Stockton, the former is unthinkable and the latter, for at least a few more seasons, also unthinkable,
When asked what areas of his game he wished to improve, Eisley replied, "I want to improve in all areas of my game and not just in one thing. I want to become a more complete and better basketball player.”
So far the report card on Eisley has been good.
Head coach Jerry Sloan likes the way Howard gets the team into the offense without "going crazy." Sloan also lauds Howard’s consistency, his attitude and work ethic, adding that he isn’t flashy, but he doesn't make many mistakes, either.
Assistant coach Gordon Chiesa says that, while Eisley is soft-spoken with a quiet demeanor, he has good mental toughness and street smarts. With all the jukin’, dunkin' and trashin' by many of the young players of the 1990s, Chiesa calls Eisley "a refreshing throwback."
Even incumbent Stockton has nice words for Eisley, saying he’s one of those guys who gets better and better every day.
Eisley, who is single, keeps in touch with his mother and his younger sister Mario. During the summer he keeps in touch with the younger local crowd by working in Jazz instructional camps and making Junior Jazz youth clinic appearances in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho.
During a Kids' Stuff interview in the February 1997 issue of HomeCourt magazine, Magna fourth-grader Brian Simpson got more out of Howard than do most of the professional media guys. Eisley revealed his shoe size was 14; English was his favorite subject; licorice is his favorite candy; chicken, shrimp and greens top his food list; and a Detroit restaurant called Fish Bones is his favorite place to eat.
Howard Eisley doesn't say much, but if "silence is man's chief learning," as written by the Greek Palladas (400 A.D.) then Howard is summa cum laude. If the Roman statesman Cato the Elder was right when he wrote (200 B.C.) that "He is nearest to the gods who knows to be silent," Howard is going to have a good seat.
Reticence aside, Howard Eisley is quietly sending a message to the rest of the league. He can play this game.