Ball Don't Lie - NBA

September 09, 2009

On John Stockton

It wasn't a bar that I particularly enjoyed being in, despite the fact I was 22 and should have felt right at home amongst the other 22-year-olds, to say nothing of all the sports memorabilia that lined the walls. It was also just a 45-second walk from the theatre I bartended at, and across the street from a rather convenient late-night gyro stand.

That said, I would have rather been some place with fewer baseball caps, if you catch my drift, and because I was throwing a bit of a fit with the two mates that led me into this dungeon (I mean, my Dad called the place "Geek-keeper's," and when your Dad makes fun of a place you're trying to have fun in, years prior, look out), I absconded within the pub's confines and tried to find the nearest cathode tube ray featuring NBA TV. Gave the bar a bit of stick, but they did show NBA TV on occasion.

Upon finding that TV, that channel and that ticker, things got much, much worse. John Stockton was retiring, the ticker read. He wasn't going to give the 2003-04 season a try, at age 41. He was hanging it up, despite averaging a little under 11 points and eight assists per game, in under 28 minutes a contest. And for some reason, this depressed the hell out of me.

I'd never really felt that, with any player. Not even with Michael Jordan's (by then) three retirement announcements. And it was strange that I felt it the most with Stockton. A guy who I had rooted against, quite a bit. A guy who played until he was 41, giving me plenty of chances to steady myself for the inevitable.

Perhaps it was the surroundings that aided in my dour tone, but the news bummed me out. And my co-workers, the people who dragged me to this awful bar who had never seen an NBA game in their lives, weren't much help. Neither was the fact that, at this particular time, I didn't have a writing gig to lean on to express myself, for the first time in years.

I still don't get why it did depress me so much, to this day. I didn't associate Stockton with any part of my youth. There was nothing about his game that really left you all warm and fuzzy - he was a calculating, precise player to the end. A good chunk of it may have had something to do with the fact he could have played, damn well, in 2003-04 and likely beyond. I think it did feel, even at age 41, a bit of a waste.

Think about that. The two men he's being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame with, Michael Jordan and David Robinson, were awfully creaky in their final season. Jordan (who entered the league in 1984, same year as Stockton) got the benefit of missing nearly all of the 1985-86 and 1994-95 seasons, while missing all of the 1993-94, 1999, 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons. Robinson entered the NBA a full five years after Stockton did!

And yet, there Stockton was. Coming through with a 21 PER at age 40. Better than Jordan, in his last year, at the same age. Better than Robinson, who was about three years younger. And this was about a year before I learned to remember just what the hell PER meant. I paid attention to per-minute stats, sure, but this was a natural reaction to watching this guy play all season, knowing he could go on for (much?) longer, and getting way way down about t'ings.

And for Stockton, no less. He was based out of Utah his entire pro career, but short of Jordan's Bulls and various permutations of the New York Knicks, no team seemed to be on national TV more than the Jazz. Sure, they were supposedly steady and unspectacular, but they were consistently brilliant, easy for TV executives to rely on as they pick-and-rolled down the stretch on their way to another 50-plus win season. Toss in the long playoff jaunts and the (well-earned) hype behind Stockton's owning of the total assist and steals record, and you weren't exactly dealing with a diamond in the rough. Some unseen giant.

We treated him roughly, too. After Stockton sent the Jazz to the Finals in 1997, and after Utah's opening game loss to the Chicago Bulls a week later, I remember watching my father rail against Stockton's seemingly unassuming presence on our TV, during a postgame podium turn. "Look at him, look at those bangs! He has to stop himself, right when he's coming out to meet the press, and purposely comb those bangs down! He has to want to look like that! He's that aware of his bangs!" Obviously, enmity wasn't hard to come by.

Especially if you played against the guy, apparently. He set tough, elbow-first, sometimes dirty screens, meant to make a power forward or shooting guard think twice about the relative health of their kidneys as they fought to meet Malone as he flashed to the post, or Jeff Hornacek as he worked outside to grab the pass needed to then make the entry pass.

You heard me. He developed a dirty reputation just so his teammate would have an easier look at grabbing a pass to then make an easy pass to someone who may or may not shoot the ball 10 seconds later. That's valuing winning over friendship and I ... I kind of like that.

I kind of liked his hands. Gargantuan, Erving-sized, able to treat a basketball in the way it was meant to be treated. I loved his ability to try and go for the absolute most efficient way of scoring in any situation, regardless of how it looked, what people thought of you, or how little you've "mixed it up" in terms of decision-making. I loved that, like all the great ones, he didn't care what you thought of him.

That's to be admired. You don't get a lot of that these days.

It isn't nice to rip on people for not wanting to be liked. Superstar athletes these days are such major corporations to and of themselves that any sort of misstep (like LeBron James(notes) weaseling his way out of shaking hands with the Magic last spring, Kobe's ... issues) can set off a series of butterfly flaps. Any small portion of fandom gets haughty, a few fewer shoes or starter jackets are sold, and (sorry for going over the top, ‘ere, but you know I'm right) people's livelihoods are thrown around a bit.

Back then, you just didn't get that. We consider Michael Jordan to be the most shielded, most image-aware athlete of his generation, and yet we still consider him sort of a jerk (to put it truly, truly mildly) when it comes to his on- and off-court style. And he's Mr. Teflon!

Stockton didn't care, and I dug that. He also played his ass off, won heaps of games, rarely let his effort wane in the face of games that didn't matter, and he could have played longer. It speaks to his own brilliance that, after close to 1,700 regular season and playoff games, I still wanted a bit more from the man.

Over six years later, we're all a bit grayer, Stockton is long gone and about to be enshrined somewhere, and I'm still ticked he called it quits. Still a little bummed.

I still think he's the one with the problem.

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