Utah has a love affair with John Stockton. I give my reason's for why he is one of my basketball heroes...
John Stockton is about to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. One of the greatest point guards ever will join David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, and Michael Jordan in what could be the best hall of fame class ever.
I only ever watched John Stockton as a fan. I have never meet the man, and frankly I almost would rather not. I don't know about John Stockton off the court, I only know what I saw him do on the court. His performance for the Utah Jazz is what makes him one of my sports heroes.
As I grew up watching John Stockton play, it was like getting a free lesson in how the game of basketball can be played by a master. I don't ever remember a single game in which John Stockton took a night off. Even on those rare nights that the Jazz were getting blown out, Stockton was still fired up on the bench. In the fourth quarter of blow outs you could tell he still wanted to get in the game and compete. He would stare off at the end of those blow out games with a look of shame. That look is one of the things that Stockton did, and you knew as a fan that whatever the problem with the team it would be resolved before the next game.
Stockton never liked to do interviews or be recognized for his accomplishments. When he set the record for the most career assists and the Jazz stopped the game to recognize him might have been the most awkward I saw him look. Stockton's assist record will never be touched, it is a huge accomplishment, and all Stockton wanted to do was keep playing the game. The only time that Stockton ever looked truly happy and celebrated was after he hit "the shot" in the 1997 Western Conference Finals. That celebration though was about the team.
Stockton took over that 1997 Conference Finals game. Malone may have been the work horse that the Jazz rode to set themselves up with the opportunity to go to the finals, but Stockton was always the player that put the team over the top. Stockton could not be denied in the closing minutes of the game against the Rockets. He was hitting amazing shots from strange angles, and destroying any player that would try to defend him. When Stockton got the ball at the top of the key, thanks to a "friendly pick" from Malone, Stockton was shooting to take the Jazz to the next level. After he hit the shot he wasn't running around banging his chest, or acting like he knew it was going in as soon as it left his hand. No, Stockton was jumping around happy to celebrate the moment with his team.
That was the best trait of Stockton, his game was about helping the other players on his team to be better. Looking back at the teammates that Stockton and Malone had during their run together on the Jazz is looking at a list of NBA mediocrity. Jeff Hornacek was the best player that Stockton and Malone had as a teammate. Yet, Hornacek really wasn't anything amazing. I know this is sacrilege to say, but Hornacek was really mediocre at best when he joined the Jazz. He was past his prime, and only had one good leg the entire time he was in Utah. John Stockton took these mid-level NBA talents and made them great. He would get players the ball in situations where they could get easy buckets. He was the best help defender the league has ever seen. He didn't care who he needed to help on the defensive end, Stockton had no fear, and would challenge any player.
The go to John Stockton story of former Jazz players is always the first conversation they would have with Stockton. Legend holds that Stockton would ask where they want the ball when he passes it to them, and that Stockton would hit that spot with pinpoint accuracy.
Stockton would also do the small things during a basketball game that would spring a guy for an easy layup. Many NBA players would always refer to Stockton as the dirtiest player they ever faced. This was due to the back screens that Stockton would lay on big men. This complaint always killed me. Power forwards and centers complaining about the screen of a little point guard. It was like hearing a rhino complain about a fly running into his side. The reason big men always complained about Stockton was because Stockton was the only player that would man up and set the screens.
He wasn't afraid of any big man. I still remember Stockton taking David Robinson by the jersey and body slamming him into the basket support. I also remember Stockton getting up off the court after receiving a vicious cheap shot from Chris Webber. Stockton was not going to be intimidated by any other player, ever.
The vision which Stockton possessed seemed to be magical. He could find ways of fitting passes into non-existent passing lanes. Stockton was always three or four steps ahead of the defenders. Stockton knew which way the defender would break, his own players preferences, and the right pass in each situation. He was also the master at drawing in defenders to him, and finding a way of passing the ball through traffic. His favorite target of course was Malone.
How Stockton played with Karl Malone was a thing of beauty. It was the best of both worlds. Stockton would reward teammates who worked, and nobody has a work ethic like Karl Malone. It is hard to separate the two of them in order to judge one without the other. Yet, Stockton's style and grit, matched with Malone's power and hustle was a winning combo. Also, it is not noted how Stockton was able to appease Malone's ego.
Karl it seemed would have some type of spat with management every year. It was said one year Malone was angry that the team voted for a team MVP, and Stockton won. That was the last year that the Jazz did a team MVP award, because Malone was that angry over being thought to be the second best player on the team. Stockton never challenged Malone for control of the team, he never thought of himself being overshadowed by Malone. In every interview he has done he always says how grateful he was to be paired with such a great player as Malone, and it seems they were friends on and off the court.
Another thing that people forget is how underrated Stockton's stats were when he was playing. Stockton's best statistical season was the 1989-90 season. Take a look at his numbers versus Steve Nash's first MVP year 2004-05.
Stockton(PPG 17.2 APG 14.5 SPG 2.6 FG% .514 3PT% .416)
Steve Nash(PPG 15.5 APG 11.5 SPG 1.0 FG% .502 3PT% .431)
Stockton's numbers were alway impressive, especially because he was able to sustain quality stats right up until he retired. There were too many other players who were seeking the spotlight, and deserved massive amounts of credit when Stockton was putting up his best numbers. Stockton just never received the praise he was worthy of during his playing career because he didn't seek the limelight. Utah, the media black hole, was the perfect place for Stockton to be great in peace.
It was amazing to see that Stockton could have played a score first game, and he could have increased his personal scoring every year. Yet, in increasing his own numbers and value he would have been hurting the team. Stockton was great because he was what a point guard was suppose to be, he was a leader. He humbled himself and accepted that if he took a personal hit on his stats, the Utah Jazz would win more games.
Stockton also knew when to get out of the game. He didn't go looking for a title, he didn't stay in the game too long, when it was clear that he lost a step Stockton walked away. He exited the game in the same way that he played, he simply said to reports, "I think I am done." He left his locker and called it a career. That is just the way that Stockton was when he played basketball. He played in his short "Stockton" shorts, and just because the fashion of the game changed didn't mean that Stockton would change the way he played or dressed. Stockton was one of a kind.
As Stockton goes into the Hall of Fame, he is taking with him the franchise that he helped to create in Utah. He is taking with him all the happy memories that he created in so many fans that watched him play. He is also taking with him the knowledge that he played the game the right way, and he made the game better while he was a part of it. Stockton might be overshadowed by Michael Jordan's enshrinement, but it seems that Stockton will be just fine with that. He will go about his business and let everything else play out around him.
Stockton taught a generation of Jazz fans to know what great basketball looks like, and the value of playing as a team. If my children ever want to learn how to play basketball, I will be showing them videos of Stockton leading the Jazz on the court.
I guess what I am trying to say is thanks John.