Some play a position exquisitely, just as it was designed. That would be John Stockton at point guard.
A fast, gritty, durable player who saw the floor as well as anyone who ever played the game, he left the NBA after 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz, holding a mass of assists records, including the career mark (15,806).
As Stockton giveth, he taketh away: He led the league in steals twice and, with a career total of 3,265, he retired as the NBA’s all-time leader. He also played all 82 games in 17 of his 19 seasons and his career shooting percentage was 51.5, a remarkable statistic for a guard.
“There absolutely, positively, will never ever be another John Stockton — ever,” said Karl Malone, Stockton’s teammate for 18 seasons.
The Jazz never missed the playoffs during Stockton’s career and they reached the Western Conference finals five times in a seven-year span. The enduring image of Stockton is him sinking a buzzer-beating 3-pointer over Houston’s Charles Barkley in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals, and then embracing Malone and Jeff Hornacek as they celebrated their first NBA Finals berth.
Utah went to consecutive NBA Finals, losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games in 1997 and 1998. After his final NBA game, a playoff loss in Sacramento on April 30, 2003, Stockton was asked to summarize his feelings about retiring without an NBA title.
“A lot of this is about the journey,” he said. “I’m sure there are people that have won championships who haven’t had to work very hard at it. We worked very hard and haven’t done it, and yet I feel a lot of reward out of the effort that it took to compete.”
Stockton’s other assists records included most in a season (1,164), highest average for a season (14.5) and most seasons leading the league and most consecutive seasons leading the league (nine). He also shared the record for most assists in a playoff game (24), had the second-highest assists average for a career (10.5) and tied for third for most assists in a regular-season game (28).
Famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said Stockton was the NBA player he enjoyed watching the most and the only one he would pay to see. Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay called Stockton the ultimate team player and best point guard ever in the halfcourt.
Stockton did it all without fanfare. Sam Smith said it this way on ESPN.com: “He doesn’t dribble behind his back or through his legs. He doesn’t crossover. His highlight reel features primarily bounce passes and layups. Despite evidence to the contrary these days, that’s basketball. He doesn’t practice the no-look pass, but we’ll all be poorer not able to watch him anymore.”
Stockton was also known around the league for using his 6-foot-1 body to set picks on much bigger players, absorbing the blows while freeing up teammates for baskets.
“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t keep statistics on screens,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. “That’s one of the most important things he does for a team and that tells you a little bit about who he is and what he’s about — to try to make somebody else better. He wasn’t screening midgets. The rules probably changed because of the way he set screens on big guys.”
His career accomplishments are even more impressive considering his modest basketball beginnings. Stockton played college ball at little-known Gonzaga University in his hometown of Spokane, Wash., where he averaged 20.9 points and 7.2 assists as a senior and finished as the first player in school history to register more than 1,000 points and 500 assists.
The Jazz selected Stockton with the 16th overall pick in the 1984 NBA draft, which also included Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Barkley. The following year, the Jazz drafted Malone. During their years together in the NBA, Stockton and Malone would become the most consistently productive guard-forward combination.
“He’s a great great friend of mine,” Stockton said of Malone, “and I’m thankful we’re part of each other’s families.”
In an Athlon Sports article, Stockton’s first coach in Utah, Frank Layden, admitted the Jazz did not know what they had when Stockton arrived. “Nobody thought that he was going to be this good,” said Layden, who himself thought Stockton was a project. “Nobody. But the thing was, you couldn’t measure his heart.”
During his retirement ceremony at the Delta Center on June 7, 2003, Stockton thanked Layden for giving him some good advice early in his career. Specifically, Layden told Stockton never to change the person he was once he entered the league.
“I haven’t changed a thing. I haven’t even changed the length of my shorts,” joked Stockton, one of the only NBA players to ignore the trend toward long, baggy shorts in the 1990s.
Stockton posted his best statistics from 1988-89 through 1990-91, a period in which his combined scoring average was just better than 17 points and his assists average ranged from 13.6 to 14.5 per game. Also, in 1993-94 and 1994-95 he recorded the highest field-goal percentages among NBA guards.
He was also selected to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in 1994 and again in 1995. Stockton became the NBA’s all-time assists leader in 1994-95, surpassing Magic Johnson’s 9,921 dishes on Feb. 1, and topped the 10,000-assist mark for his career by season’s end. The following season, Stockton also surpassed Maurice Cheeks as the all-time record holder in steals. Through 1995-96, he led the NBA in assists for nine consecutive seasons, besting the record of eight set by Bob Cousy.
For the first two seasons of Stockton’s career, he played behind the incumbent starting point guard, Rickey Green. Stockton, worried he would only last one NBA season, didn’t make a significant purchase until he had been in Salt Lake City for four months and decided to get a television for his one-bedroom apartment so he could watch the Super Bowl.
The Jazz front office had the last laugh, however, when this diamond in the rough set club rookie records for steals (109) and assists (415) while earning votes toward the NBA All-Rookie Team.
He played in all 82 games and averaged 5.6 points in 18.2 minutes per game. Utah finished in a fourth-place tie in the Midwest Division, then upset the Houston Rockets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Subsequently, the Jazz were overwhelmed by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals.
The next season, Stockton’s playing time increased to 23.6 mpg, as did his scoring and assists (7.7 ppg and 7.4 apg). This was Malone’s first season in Utah and his 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game brought him NBA All-Rookie Team honors. The Jazz won one more game than they had the previous season, but they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs.
Stockton’s apprenticeship was over — almost. He opened the 1986-87 season as a starter, but he platooned with Green. The tandem intimidated most of the clubs in the league. Stockton averaged 7.9 points and 8.2 assists in 22.7 minutes per game, while Green averaged 9.6 points and 6.7 assists in 25.8 minutes per game. The two combined for 287 steals, with Stockton’s 177 (2.16 per game) ranking eighth in the NBA.
Prior to that season, the Jazz had acquired Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson in exchange for Adrian Dantley, the club’s scoring leader in each of the previous seven seasons. This paved the way for Malone to assume more of the scoring responsibilities. Malone’s average shot up to 21.7 points per game, primarily on the strength on the pick and roll that he and Stockton orchestrated to perfection. The two formed a duet that brought about one of the most repeated — and harmonious — phrases from broadcasters in NBA annals: Stockton to Malone.
But not even Stockton and Malone — known as the ‘The Mailman’ since his college playing days — could deliver a series victory in the NBA Playoffs. After Utah took two straight games from Golden State in a first-round series, the Warriors answered with three consecutive wins to end the Jazz’s season. Stockton shot a sizzling .621 from the field in the five games, averaging 10.0 points and 8.0 assists.
Before the 1987-88 campaign, the expansion franchise Charlotte Hornets selected Green in an expansion draft . Now, Stockton totally owned the point guard position in Utah and he responded in record fashion. The reliable Malone averaged 27.7 points and shot 52.0 from the floor, taking many of Stockton’s dishes and depositing them in the basket. The Jazz shot 49.1 as a club, one reason why the once-obscure Gonzaga product compiled a dazzling total of 1,128 assists, breaking the NBA record of 1,123 set by Detroit’s Isiah Thomas in the 1984-85 season.
Stockton averaged an astonishing 13.8 assists per game (a mark he would eclipse twice over the next three years), beginning a record string of nine consecutive assists titles. Although his passing skills were what put him on the NBA map, Stockton developed into a complete player. He ranked third in the NBA in steals (2.95 per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage (57.4). He also averaged 14.7 points per game, nearly doubling his output of the previous season. His performance earned him a spot with Malone on the All-NBA Second Team.
The Jazz finished with a then franchise-best 47-35 record. They defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in a four-game first-round series, then locked horns with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers before bowing in seven games. In Game 5, the Jazz lost 111-109, but Stockton handed out 24 assists, tying Magic’s playoff record. In 11 postseason games, Stockton averaged 19.5 points and 14.8 assists per game.
In 1988-89, Stockton was selected to his first NBA All-Star Game when coaches added him to the Western Conference squad. After an 11-point, 17-assist performance, he finished second to Malone in the game’s Most Valuable Player voting.
Postseason honors rolled in as well for Stockton, who led the NBA in steals (3.21 per game) and assists (13.6 apg) while finishing 10th in field-goal percentage (53.8). He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team and the All-NBA Second Team. He also averaged 17.1 ppg, ranking him third on the Jazz behind Malone (29.1 ppg) and Thurl Bailey (19.5 ppg).
The team finished with an overall mark of 51-31, good enough for the Midwest Division crown. The Jazz were heavy favorites against the Chris Mullin-led Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, but despite a super performance by Stockton, Utah was eliminated in three straight games. Stockton averaged 27.3 points and 13.7 assists in the series.
Despite missing the first four games of his career in 1989-90, he broke his own single-season assist record, compiling 1,134 for the season and averaging an NBA record 14.5 per game. By reaching 1,000 total assists for the third straight season, Stockton became the first man ever to notch at least 1,000 more than two times. (He wouldn’t stop there, cementing his place in history by reaching four digits in assists in each of the next two seasons.)
For the third straight season, Stockton shot better than 50% (51.4) from the field and racked up at least 200 steals (207). He averaged a career-high 17.2 ppg and was selected by the fans to start at guard in the NBA All-Star Game. At season’s end he was named to the All-NBA Second Team.
The Jazz slumped near the end of the season, and their woes continued into the first round of the playoffs. The Jazz fell to Phoenix in five games. Stockton shot only .420 from the field in the postseason, but averaged 15.0 points and 15.0 assists.
In 1990-91, Malone banged in 29.0 points per game on 52.7 shooting and newly acquired shooting guard Jeff Malone averaged 18.6 points on 50.8 shooting from the field, but Stockton was the player responsible for feeding the Malones the ball. He rang up another 1,000-assist season. For his efforts, he was selected by Western Conference coaches to the NBA All-Star Game for the third consecutive season.
Stockton’s season total of 1,164 assists in 82 games still stands as a single-season NBA record. He also tied a career high with 17.2 points per game and ranked second in the NBA with 2.85 steals per contest. He was named to the All-NBA Third Team at season’s end.
Stockton took care of rival point guard Kevin Johnson (All-NBA Second Team) and the Jazz handled Phoenix 3-1 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. However, the Jazz didn’t have enough firepower to defeat Portland in the Western Conference semifinals. Stockton had a tremendous postseason, averaging 18.2 points and 13.8 assists.
The next season, he notched his fifth consecutive assists title, recording 1,126 assists for a 13.7 average. On the final day of the season he edged past the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Michael Williams for the NBA lead in steals (2.98 per game).
He made his fourth straight All-Star appearance, was named to the All-NBA Second Team and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. After a slow start, Utah went 26-10 over the season’s final three months. The Jazz advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time ever after beating the Los Angeles Clippers and the Seattle SuperSonics.
However, Stockton and Co. fell just short of the NBA Finals after losing to Portland in six games. Stockton’s 16-game playoff averages were quite impressive: 14.8 points, 13.6 assists and 2.13 steals per game.
After the tough loss to the Blazers, Stockton and Malone joined the Dream Team at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Although Stockton could not fully participate due to a broken leg, Malone and the rest of the team — which also included Jordan, Magic and Larry Bird — pushed the United States to the gold medal. Stockton and Malone would team up for Olympic gold again in 1996.
During the 1992-93 season, the Jazz played host to the NBA’s best when the All-Star Game came to Salt Lake City in 1993. Appropriately, Stockton and Malone were named the game’s co-MVPs. Malone had 28 points and 10 rebounds while Stockton contributed nine points and 15 assists in the West’s 135-132 overtime victory. Stockton led the way in the overtime period, scoring a pair of baskets and setting up two more as the West outscored the East 16-13 in the extra frame.
In 1993-94, Stockton joined some lofty company when he became only the third player in NBA history to record 9,000 career assists, behind only Magic (9,921) and Oscar Robertson (9,887). In addition to his league-leading assist average of 12.6, Stockton also contributed 15.1 points and 2.43 steals per game while shooting .528 from the floor.
He ranked fourth in the NBA in steals and led all guards in field-goal percentage. He played in his sixth consecutive NBA All-Star Game and was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career. Stockton’s continued excellence helped Utah get to the Western Conference finals, where the Jazz lost to the Houston Rockets in five games.
After a quick exit against Houston in the 1995 playoffs and a loss to Seattle in the 1996 Western Conference finals, Stockton and the Jazz had a breakthrough in the 1996-97 season, reaching the first of their two consecutive NBA Finals against Chicago.
Utah posted a franchise-best 64-18 record and won the Western Conference crown in 1996-97 and Stockton finished second to Mark Jackson in assists per game, ending his record streak of nine consecutive seasons leading the league. Stockton was voted to the West’s starting lineup for the All-Star Game and had 12 points and five assists.
But the journey to the Finals was the real story of that season. In Utah’s 20 playoff games, Stockton averaged 16.9 points, 9.6 assists and 1.65 steals per game. He had 26 points and 12 assists in Game 2 win of the Western Conference finals against the Rockets. He then scored 25 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer over Barkley at the buzzer to win Game 6, which prompted a wild celebration.
In the NBA Finals, Stockton had 17 points and 12 assists as the Jazz took Game 3, 104-93. In Game 4, he came back with 17 points, including a crucial late 3-pointer in the 78-73 victory that knotted the series. However, Jordan overcame a stomach flu to lead the Bulls to a 90-88 Game 5 win. Using that momentum, the Bulls closed out the Jazz in Game 6, 90-86 to win their fifth title.
Sidelined for the first 18 games of the 1997-98 season due to knee surgery, Stockton played every other game, finishing fifth in assists with 8.5 per game and helping the Jazz back to the NBA Finals. The Jazz, who had a regular season NBA-best record of 62-20 along with the Bulls, took Game 1 with a 88-85 overtime win.
However, it was déja vu all over again, as the Bulls eventually defeated the Jazz in six games in successive years. The final blow came in Game 6 when Jordan stole the ball and made a jumper to seal the 87-86 win and the Bulls’ sixth title in eight years.
In the lockout shortened 1998-99 season, the Jazz went 37-13, which again tied for the best record in the NBA. This time, the team shared the honors with the division rival San Antonio Spurs, the eventual champs. The Jazz lost to Portland in six games in the Conference semifinals. The following year, the Blazers would defeat the Jazz in five games in that same round.
The team’s winning percentage began to decline in the 2000-01 season, but individually Stockton bounced back to finish second in the league in assists (8.7apg), trailing the Suns’ Jason Kidd (9.8 apg). For the next two seasons the team would play a little above .500 and make the playoffs. And as Stockton approached the age of 40 and beyond, he was as efficient as ever.
During his 18th season with Utah in 2001-02, he set a league record for most seasons with the same franchise. He also became just the 10th player in NBA history to play at the age of 40. Another milestone he reached that season was his 15,000th assist.
Stockton finished his career after the 2002-03 season having played in 1,504 games. That figure ranked third on the NBA’s all-time list in games played, trailing Robert Parish (1,611) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560). He also finished his career with 19, 711points for the 28th spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Stockton was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.