Stockton’s legacy: Small in stature, big in heart

If Michael Jordan was Pegasus, the winged stallion galloping across the sky, then John Stockton was the sturdy plow horse who relished putting on the yoke each morning for another trip through the fields.

If Jordan’s brilliance was impulsive and rule-breaking like the artistry of Salvador Dali, then Stockton’s was as relentless and single-minded as the stone masons who constructed the great pyramids.

For nearly two decades they were the yin and the yang of the NBA, each one the counterweight to the other. While Jordan soared over the game, Stockton bored right through it like a diamond-tipped drill bit.

It is then quite fitting that the pair should be inducted into the Hall of Fame together, Class of 2009. But with so much attention focused on the highlight-reel career of Jordan, it is easy to overlook the down-to-earth exploits of Stockton. And quite foolish.

The sheer numbers are mind-bending. Stockton is on top of the NBA career list for assists with 15,806, and that’s more than 5,000 ahead of the No. 2 man, Mark Jackson. He’s also the league’s all-time leader in steals with 3,265, and that is ahead of the runner-up – Jordan – by more than 700.

Stockton owns five of the top six assist seasons in NBA history, holds the record for most seasons and most consecutive games played for one team and he’s third behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish in total games played.

In 19 grueling NBA regular-season marathons, he missed only 22 of 1,526 games, 18 of those in a single year when doctors told him he needed knee surgery, but Stockton chose merely to sit out a few weeks and returned to finish out the schedule.

“He worked harder than you,” said Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. “That was his secret.

“He’s one of the most unique players you’ll ever run across. You can talk about all the things he tried to do. But first of all, you’ve got to look at his stature. He’s not a very big guy. And yet he played as strong and tough as anybody could.”

The son of a Spokane, Wash., saloon keeper chipped the flinty edge to his game on the rough-and-tumble driveway of the family home against older brother Steve and friends, who showed no mercy on the elementary school kid, the smallest player on the court.

Stockton was only 5-5 as a ninth grader at Gonzaga Prep when he’d phone his freshman coach, Ed Smith, on Sundays after church.

“He’d say, ‘Open the gym and bring your fat friends,’ ” Smith told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “He’d play his butt off and get mad if he got beat by a 25-year-old man.”

Brick walls are stubborn and unforgiving, just slightly less hard and unbending as Stockton. While Jordan changed even the style of the game, ushering in the era of the long and baggy shorts, Stockton’s sartorial simplicity showed off his legs at mid-thigh from his rookie year to his final season. As Jordan progressed from curly-haired youngster to shining bald marketing icon, the guy-next-door Stockton wore the same hairstyle from junior high. Did he even get his hair cut? Did it ever grow?

In the hip-hop world of the 21st-century NBA, he was a throwback as quaint as bobby sox and penny loafers.

All the while and all the games and all the seasons, he and Karl Malone lived and thrived on the most basic play in the game, the pick-and-roll, and they did it again and again and again because it worked. Nothing fancy. No need to change.

While Jordan seemed to always challenge the rules of physics each time he stepped onto – and floated above – the court, Stockton was all about the geometry. He saw every angle for every pass and every play that constantly unfolded in his mind’s eye ahead of everyone else.

“I try to take what the defense gives me and never think ahead that I’m going to try to get this or that,” he said. “I just do what I have to do. I try to keep it simple.”

When somebody once asked him why he never dunked the basketball, even in an open-court, breakaway situation, Stockton merely looked back with those piercing eyes, shook his head and grinned. If you had to ask, you couldn’t understand.

“There absolutely, positively will never be another John Stockton,” said Malone.

Black and white. Short and tall. Poetry and prose. For all of their differences, what Stockton brought to the game was as singular as Jordan’s bag of tricks. The raw talent was never as important as the raw determination.

Jordan used to wear teammates out, and literally beat them up on the practice court. Sloan’s favorite memory of Stockton also is in practice.

“He was beaten one time in 19 years running laterals, suicide drills, across the floor,” Sloan recalled. “That’s after he was 40-some years old. It wasn’t about him proving that he was still the best. He just wanted to do everything the best he could to try to help the team, try to win.”

All that was ever required to be Ground Stockton was attitude. Yet he’s the only one and that speaks volumes.

If Michael Jordan was as spectacular and jaw-dropping as a Maui sunset, John Stockton was as relentless as the tides, no less a force of nature.


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Updated Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009