It is often said that John Stockton was uncomfortable with his
superstar status. On the contrary, the NBA's alltime assists and
steals leader was one of the most comfortable athletes I've ever
known. The lines between what he would do and what he would not
do were, to him, as clear as the angles on the thousands of
pick-and-rolls he ran with Jazz teammate Karl Malone. He spent
not a spare second figuring out how to act--he knew how he wanted
to act. He knew the Stockton code.
He would not draw attention to himself, which is why his
retirement announcement last week had all the pomp of a firehouse
ham dinner in his native Spokane--to where Stockton will retreat,
rarely (in all likelihood) to surface publicly again. "I think
I'm finished," the 41-year-old told reporters last Friday after
meeting with Jazz owner Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan. "I
informed those guys, and that's the direction I'm heading."
Beyond a dispute with a referee from time to time, another thing
Stockton would not do was show emotion, which is why, when he
felt himself tearing up, he walked away.
He dealt with the press according to his own schedule. Approach
him in the locker room before a game and he might introduce you
to any or all of his four polite, impossibly Stocktonesque sons,
but then he'd walk briskly away. After a game, though, win or
lose, he was there. "In 19 years he never refused anything I
asked him to do after a game," said Jazz public relations
director Kim Turner.
Stockton would not dip a toe into anything that smacked of
controversy or criticism of another player. Once I asked him to
give me the five players on his all-hustle team; he looked at me
as if I had asked for a deconstruction of Restoration comedy. "I
can't do that," he said. "I'd leave somebody off." He wasn't
being unfriendly--weeks earlier he had given me a 20-minute
interview for a relatively small radio station. That's something
he could do.
Throughout all those seasons of flawlessly conducting the Jazz
offense, he never claimed to know more than the coach. To the end
he looked over at Sloan on most half-court possessions. "Why
wouldn't I?" he said, giving me that Restoration comedy look when
I asked him about it last season. "He's the coach. He runs the team."
Malone, Stockton's longtime accomplice, is not done, and barring
injury, he's likely to become the NBA's alltime top scorer during
the 2004-05 season. Whomever Malone is playing for then should
give Stockton a 10-day contract so he might give the assist on
the record-breaking point. That's probably something Stockton
would not do, but I hope he keeps the option open.
COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY BOLANTE/REUTERS PASS MASTER Stockton ranks first in assists, with 15,806.