Commentary

Stockton let his game speak for him

Jazz point guard John Stockton announced his retirement in typical fashion. Quietly.

Updated: May 3, 2003, 12:51 AM ET
By Sam Smith | Special to ESPN.com

Right to the end, John Stockton was the perfect point guard.

He ended one of the greatest careers in the history of American professional sports with an assist, having someone else say he was retiring. He mentioned in a team meeting with owner Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan on Friday that it probably was time, and a Jazz spokesperson broke the news to the media. Stockton then spoke briefly with reporters in the Jazz locker room and left.

Just perfect. No celebration, though there could be. We won't demand one because Stockton would hate it. No arena filled with admiring fans coming to their feet in appreciation. No gifts. No series of interviews and press conferences. It's said no one will ever surpass the records for assists and steals that Stockton has established. I'm saying no one ever breaks his record for boring interviews. Stockton was never rude. He never was mean or unfriendly. It's just that no one ever mastered the art of making inquiring reporters go away like he did. There always was an answer, but never personally revealing, never with a glib one-liner or clever anecdote.

Karl Malone and John Stockton
Next to Karl Malone, left, anybody is considered quiet. But John Stockton really was.
Eventually the reporters just stopped asking. No good story there.

I never believed it was calculated. But I'm sure it was understood, just like where a teammate would be for a pass. Stockton knew teammate and running buddy Karl Malone loved the media attention, reveled in the media hanging on his many soliloquies on life in rural Louisiana and the NBA today. So the less the media hung around Stockton, the more they could hang around Malone and jot down what he had to say. It made both happy -- Malone pleased to score with the media and public and Stockton satisfied he could make his teammate look good.

John Stockton retires as one of the most accomplished players in NBA history, 19 years after coming from Gonzaga as a slightly built point guard considered too small and slow for NBA stardom at about 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds in the era of the big Magic Johnson guard. He was a reach at No. 16 overall in the 1984 draft, but went on to play for two U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning basketball teams, including the immortal Dream Team. He made the unofficial top 50 all-time team, was an All-Star 10 times, shared an All-Star MVP award with Malone, set the single-game playoff record for assists and led the NBA in assists nine straight seasons on the way to establishing the DiMaggio hitting streak of NBA records with career assists. He set single-season records for assists. He had one of the highest shooting percentages ever for a guard. He was a productive, starting guard for a playoff team at 41 years old. Only Robert Parish, 21 seasons, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 20 seasons, played longer. He rarely missed games and played in 609 straight from 1990 through 1997. He was All-NBA 11 times and All-Defense five times. The records will gain him first-time eligible admission to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But lots of guys are there. Lots of guys get there right away. Stockton was different because he lived his life as a point guard. It was always about the other guy. You figure he was a neighbor who kept the noise down, a guy who walked his dog with a cellophane bag. You know he never drove slow in the left lane, never chatted aimlessly in the grocery checkout line with five people behind him, didn't talk in movie theaters or use a cell phone while in an elevator.

The notion these days is Stockton was some sort of throwback, this "old school" guard. However, it was more than that. He defined the position.

This is a different era, and the position reflects the times, self involvement, ego, personal ambition, sort of the Enron era of point guards: Get your own first. It's what the point guards of this era do. They score. They look good. The best coaches, like Larry Brown, make them shooting guards, like he did with Allen Iverson. They don't think about others first. They are just products of their times. In a world screaming for attention, Stockton hits the mute button.

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.

Hall of Fame coach John Wooden says Stockton is the NBA player he enjoys watching the most. Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay calls Stockton the best point guard ever in the halfcourt as the ultimate team player.

So much a team player, really, that some of the toughest picks set in that famous pick-and-roll were by Stockton. Don't tug on Superman's cape? Forget it. Stockton picked on the supermen of the NBA, his baseline screens on centers freeing Malone for thousands of his points.

So much a team player, really, that some of the toughest picks set in that famous pick-and-roll were by Stockton. Don't tug on Superman's cape? Forget it. Stockton picked on the supermen of the NBA, his baseline screens on centers freeing Malone for thousands of his points. Stockton could frustrate everyone, not just the reporter looking for a good quote. They'd accuse him of holding, grabbing, anything to get his teammate free. All these 275-pound guys whining. You never heard Stockton complain.

You never really heard much of anything from him, just the intent look amidst the hard, bony features and his neat Prince Valient haircut in place. I think I saw him smile once on the floor, when he hit that 3-pointer in 1997 in Houston that got the Jazz to the NBA Finals for the first time. Everyone ran out to hug him. He smiled and then looked like he wanted to find a practice court. Malone did all the post-game interviews.

Actually, Stockton has a wry wit that's economical like his play. Once riding in the team bus in New York City, it was stopped and someone saw a homeless man. Stockton wondered aloud if it was a sportswriter. His daily routine at games was to shake the hand of the security guard. John Stockton reveled in anonymity.

He was known for dead-on imitations of coaches and teammates, though always behind closed doors. Never detract from the stars. He didn't need bodyguards. He loved to be able to wander unnoticed, like he seemed to on the basketball court.

Walking into an arena once with the massive Malone, as big in body as personality, the security guard pointed out Malone to Stockton, saying, "I don't know if you're a basketball fan, young man, but that's Karl Malone." Stockton pressed the woman on what Malone was like, what he said, if he was nice and how one day he hoped to be lucky enough to meet Malone as she had.

Once Gonzaga brought a young high school guard named Steve Kerr in to play against Stockton. Kerr didn't even have a scholarship offer at the time, but even Gonzaga didn't know what they had and how good Stockton was. He slaughtered Kerr in a game. Kerr, who went on to a long NBA career, knew.

He fought through basketball preconceptions just as he fought through screens. He wasn't supposed to be good enough, so he became one of the all-time best. He was so casual and unassuming, few noticed how spectacular he was. His hands are large, so he could make the full-court baseball pass with ease. Always, there he was brushing past Malone, dropping the ball back for a jumper or ahead for a layup, diving to the basket himself when necessary, always challenging the big guys as well as the conventional wisdom.

When he broke Magic Johnson's assist record, Johnson was thrilled. "Nobody distributes the ball and reads his team like John Stockton," Johnson said. "No one knows how to get everyone involved like John. But what sets him apart is his toughness. He gets knocked down and gets right up." Just like Johnson always did. He was proud to be second to John Stockton.

John Stockton
John Stockton took less money to stay in Utah.
Stockton is married with six children. He never wanted to play anywhere but in Salt Lake City. He even said so. It's not necessarily good for contract leverage. He said the Jazz took a chance on him, so he'd be loyal. And he was. There never was a question. Malone, certainly, was his opposite in personality and behavior. They meshed on the court like gears in harmony. They were a jazz band and a slow dance off the court. Malone's contract negotiations were common and contentious. Demands were transported in the media on threatening 18-wheelers. There were emotional scenes with management, bringing enough intrigue for a soap opera.

Stockton said he would only play for the Jazz and then would meet with the owner and sign a deal. He made a demand in the summer of 1996 when tens of millions of dollars were flying around for free agent guards. He'd sign a $5 million per season deal, less than half of what other free agent guards were making, but he wanted to guarantee ice time in the Delta Center for his seven-year-old son's hockey team.

Stockton and Malone became a magical pairing, like Mantle and Maris, Montana and Rice, Kareem and Magic, Spade and Archer, Tracy and Hepburn, Fred and Ginger. Their magic was on the court, though, like the rest. They thought alike only on the basketball court. They once went fishing together. Malone was the avid hunter. Stockton made him throw back all the fish they caught. Give someone else a chance. One doesn't change a philosophy of life.

Even as the season wound down and questions about his future continued, Stockton talked about the journey more than the prize, about remaining a contributor and helping the team. He still could, which is remarkable. He didn't win a championship, but he played in the NBA Finals twice. He made the journey memorable, and that's really the reward.

He didn't wait to say goodbye. It was just time to pass it on to someone else.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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