For John Stockton and Matt Stantangelo, next season starts in Gonzaga's gyme
The players arrive at The Kennel at 3:30 p.m. sharp. This is a rat ball game they don't want to miss. It's early September, classes have just started and summer's vibe still fills the air. Most of the guys are shirtless. They wear friendship bracelets and beaded necklaces
and three-day-old stubble.
As they gather around Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, there is little to suggest that this crew of middle-class suburban kids stormed the elite eight last March. or that any of them can even hope to hang with the guy swishing jumpers off to the side, the guy with his socks pulled up high and his crisp white T-shirt tucked neatly into his purple Utah Jazz shorts.
After a quick word, Few leaves (per NCAA rules) and John Stockton joins the group to make teams. Senior point guard Matt Santangelo picks one five. The NBA's all-time assists leader picks the other. A third bunch shuffles to the side, but some of the freshmen and walk-ons are still joking-and moving a little too slowly. The clock is pushing 4. Stockton wipes his shiny white sneakers against his white socks, tugs at his waistband and pounds a dribble into the floor. "Let's go!"
It's been like this every September for the past 16 years. Stockton, Class of '84, returns to Spokane and his alma mater for some serious conditioning. The Bulldogs get a two-week crash course in intensity from a future Hall of Famer. But this year there's a sense of urgency to the workouts. The 37-year-old Stockton is running out of chances to win that elusive NBA title. The 22-year-old Santangelo is trying to prove he's a first-round draft pick and erase the memory of his last game, a 1-for-9 performance in a 67-62 loss to UConn.
So here they are, a pair of 6'1" overachievers, shooting every morning, chasing each other all over the court in the afternoon, getting the most out of every possession before Stockton leaves for Salt Lake City and Gonzaga heads toward Midnight Madness. "I've been sneaking into this gym since I was a kid," says Stockton. "This is the place I've always been very comfortable."
The Stocktons are a Spokane institution. John's father, Jack, has spent close to four decades pouring beer for the campus community as owner of Jack & dan's Tavern. John's sister, Leanne, now works as the Zags' assistant trainer after spending the past few summers patching up the WNBA's Utah Starzz. John's older brother, Steve, plays pickup with Zags assistant Billy Grier-and could still handle 2-guard for the Bulldogs, to hear Few tell it. "Gonzaga and the Stocktons go hand and hand," says richie Frahm, a first-team West Coast Conference wing who tended bar for Jack last summer. (Zags center Axel dench lives above the tavern.) "This is a blue-collar school. And the Stocktons represent that."
Few and his assistants can often be found eating lunch at Jack & dan's, a place where everybody knows your name, your beer and your sandwich. No veggies for this crowd-just meat and cheese piled so high you can barely get your mouth around it. When the Bulldogs were making their run through the '99 Tourney, Jack got the city to extend his liquor license and put TVs in the parking lot. "It was bigger than St. Patrick's day," he says. "We had 20-year-olds hugging 70-year-olds." Somewhere in the middle of it all was Jeff Condill, John Stockton's best friend and former teammate. After his career fizzled in europe, Condill returned to Spokane and went into business with Jack. He understands better than most just how important the Stockton-Santangelo bond has become. "Matt's learned a ton from John," Condill says. "Things don't come easy to either of them, but, with hard work, they get it done."
At the afternoon pickup game, Stockton glides up and down, making long crosscourt passes and dishing out candy like it's Halloween. No wonder new assistant Leon rice, fresh from a Yakima Valley juco, can't stop smiling. "You look out your office window," he says, "and there's John Stockton working with your guys."
Game is to 7, and the hypercompetitive Stockton doesn't play favorites. He whips passes to Zag subs Mark Spink and Zach Gourde like they're Karl Malone and Bryon russell. When Spink tosses an airball, Stockton goes right back to him for a lay-up. Nobody needs to tell these guys to fill the lane and keep their hands up. "If you don't, he'll knock your teeth out," says starting forward Casey Calvary. When frosh point Germayne Forbes gets the ball stolen by a Stockton teammate, Stockton yells at Forbes to give chase at the other end. "They told me on my recruiting visit this would happen, but I was skeptical," says Forbes, a native of London. "This is the biggest thrill of my life."
Stockton's team wins the first six games, as the other two squads rotate in and out. In the seventh and last game, Stockton beats Santangelo with a shoulder-driving jumper, but Santangelo answers with a 15-footer to even the score. A few plays later, one of his teammates nails a bucket for the mini-upset. "After the first week," Matt says, "the awe is gone, and John's just a guy on the floor you're trying to beat." of course, when Stockton loses his footing and slides into the wall, Santangelo is the first one there to help him up.
The similarities between the two are obvious. recruited out of Portland's Central Catholic High, Santangelo is about as low-key as they come. "Matt's very private," says Few, the long-time assistant who took over when dan Monson left for Minnesota. "But the games are different. There's a drive in him." Stockton has worked out with other Gonzaga point guards in the past, but none showed the promise-or commitment-he sees in Santangelo. "You don't have to call him out of bed in the morning," says No.12. "He's here early and stays late."
Santangelo rearranged his class schedule so he wouldn't miss any morning workouts. Stockton's routine is the same every year. After spending each summer at his nearby lakehouse, he moves his family into Spokane a month before they head to Utah. He owns the house next door to his parents, and he walks his five kids to the same Catholic day school he attended 30 years ago. Then he's off to lift weights with longtime Zags trainer Steve deLong before meeting up at the gym with Santangelo and Condill.
This year, the coaches have asked Stockton to include Frahm, a 6'5" Washington native who has the goods to shoot himself into The League. each player takes a turn firing 25 jumpers, 25 three-pointers and 25 in-the-lane leaners with a hand in the face. It's here that Stockton shows Santangelo how to use every inch of his body. "He's so good at getting that shoulder by you," Santangelo says. "once he does that, you're done." Gonzaga's two leading scorers sure look spent afterward.
(When Stockton's not around, they do sets of 10.) As Stockton heads outside to run sprints with deLong, Frahm ices his knees in the training room while Santangelo hits the fridge to chug a sports drink.
There is very little small talk before or after the morning shoot. even after three years, Santangelo is cautious about overstepping his boundaries with Stockton. The two chat during the winter if Santangelo is in the training room when Stockton phones deLong. And when the Bulldogs won the West Coast Conference tourney last March, Stockton left a message on Santangelo's hotel voice mail. But it took Santangelo two years to introduce his girlfriend to Stockton. Cathy Ascione grew up in Logan, Utah, rooting for the Jazz. "When I finally got up the nerve to ask," Santangelo recalls, "John's response was: 'Matt, if you're going to introduce her to your parents, introduce her to me.'"
For a guy who's able to be around only a few weeks each fall, Stockton plays a major role in setting a tone for the season. When he misses a five-on-five session for a golf outing with his eighth-grade hoops coach, the Zags crash to earth in a hurry. "Without him," says senior guard Mike Nilson, "we're doing behind-the-back passes and stuff."
That's when Santangelo takes over. He gathers the players together and reminds them that Stockton could walk in at any second. The threat works, because the Zags know Stockton spends his last day on campus giving the coaches a scouting report on each player. But Santangelo doesn't need any threats. The Bulldogs' schedule is scary enough, with december games against Cincinnati, Temple, UCLA and Washington, all away from home. Last year Santangelo shared the ballhandling duties with backcourt mate Quentin Hall, who has since graduated. This year he'll need to run the whole show and knock down jumpers like he did at the World University Games in July. After shooting 37.5% last season, he hit 51.5% in Spain, including 12 of 23 threes.
As for Stockton, a reluctant star in the twilight of a 16-year NBA career, these workouts matter just as much. It's not easy to find this kind of competition in these parts. Sweating it out with all those fresh legs gives him a running start on the NBA season. It might even explain why he always walks off with the Treadmill Award -given each fall to the Jazz's best-conditioned athlete. This season, Utah will need every ounce of that muscle, because Malone isn't getting any younger either, and Jeff Hornacek has said this season will be his last.
"His game and his competitiveness haven't changed," says Santangelo of his pal. "It's the same every year. He comes in and he's the player to beat. We have to get after him. If you win against Stockton, you've accomplished
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