» John Blanchette
/ Staff writer
He entered laughing and exited with tears in his eyes.
In the 19 years between those emotional extremes, John Stockton set unbreakable records and cuss-worthy picks, and defined the essence of both the position he played and the city from which he came.
No, he never won a championship ring - but he managed a feat far more difficult.
He made his old man's tavern on Hamilton one of the most famous saloons in the United States.
John Stockton walked away from professional basketball on Friday at the age of 41, or rather he hurried away before the tears started fast-breaking down his cheeks - the flinty toughness and stubborn stoicism that carried him through 19 National Basketball Association seasons now stripped bare by a single word.
He said it to Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan, and then to a few reporters. He didn't make it sound as final as it most certainly is, allowing that “I can't think of what would change my mind at this point” - though it's seemed the prospect of telling his teammates face-to-face might just do it. So he didn't.
For once, someone besides Stockton had to pass it on to Karl Malone.
When someone asked what he'd miss the most, Stockton couldn't take it any more and headed out the back door - the same way he came into the league.
Yes, he was a first-round draft choice in 1984, but he was plucked from some school called Gonzaga University - that is, at least by some. Former NBA great Nate Archibald once called it Gondola State, and in a basketball sense, it was up the Spokane River without a pole. This, naturally, was long before all that Sweet 16 business.
“The best thing about the draft,” Stockton chuckled that June day in 1984, “was watching the guys on TV flipping through their notes trying to find out something about me.”
Nineteen years later, you need a forklift to flip through those notes.
He is, of course, a 10-time All-Star, twice an Olympic gold medalist, one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history as selected in 1996 and the league's all-time leader in steals and assists. No player spent so many years and games with the same team, and no player of his size and position lasted so long, period.
“I thought he was the Energizer Bunny,” said Craig Ehlo, himself a 14-year NBA veteran, who made Spokane his home. “I thought he was going to go forever, and he probably could.”
When Stockton broke Magic Johnson's career assist record with No. 9,922, Miller declared at the post-game celebration that the new passingest point guard should aim for 15,000. Stockton winced at the prospect.
Friday, he retired with 15,806.
“The incredible thing is that he probably should keep playing,” said Dan Dickau, the GU point guard who joined Stockton in the NBA this year. “We played Utah and he was still the best player on the floor. He had more influence on the game than anybody out there.”
This continued to confound. Smallish and squareish - even into Y2K he refused to give up his 1980s short shorts - Stockton controlled the court with the league's most horizontal game.
“Yet that's what has bothered me the most,” said Dan Fitzgerald, the coach who recruited him to Gonzaga and who has tracked Stockton's career as closely as anyone. “They talk about how intelligent he is, but they've downplayed how good he is.
“He made a play just the other night - the ball's headed out of bounds, he's bumped out on the baseline and gets all screwed up and not only saves it, but it's a bounce pass to (Greg) Ostertag for a basket. That's an athletic play a bunch of guys in that league can't make.”
If it involves passing, a bunch of guys in that league don't want to make it.
“John,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan once noted dryly, “tries to play the game with other people.”
Not everyone appreciated Stockton's style. About midway through his career, a small man setting a hard pick in the key suddenly became dirty; Stockton kept setting them anyway. His determination and will were something more easily satisfied teammates couldn't always fathom.
But no one who ever was on the receiving end of one of his passes could complain.
“My favorite pass of his is not the feed on the fast break,” said Ehlo. “It's when he first catches the outlet and before he takes a dribble, his head is up looking down court and he's throwing that baseball pass to the guy streaking for the basket. Someone's busting their butt, and he's rewarding them.
“You know, Michael (Jordan) said he's leaving the league in good hands - and that's because there are some great players in the league with his mentality, the scorer's mentality. But I don't think John has anyone to say that about.”
“There will not be another one,” he said.
It's unlikely he will miss the shift in attitude or orientation that has inflicted itself on the NBA, and possibly it's one of the things that drove him to his decision. Of course, Stockton's attitude shifted over time, too. He was more gregarious in his 20s than in his 40s - would you believe he made the media's All-Interview team as a rookie? - and pulled down the blinds on every window save the one through which he could be viewed on the court. Which is not to say he turned to stone.
Ken Anderson played with Stockton at GU and now coaches at his old high school, Gonzaga Prep. His father played football at Louisville with Johnny Unitas, and Anderson remembers going to Colts-Rams games with his dad in Los Angeles and being introduced to the great quarterback - who treated an old teammate's son like his own.
“A few years ago, I took my son to the training room at GU and introduced him to John,” Anderson said of Stockton, “and John was wonderful to him. He probably gets that kind of thing all the time, but it made me feel the way my dad must have felt - an all-time great being nice to an old teammate's son. I think it spoke volumes about the guy he is.”
And so does this: On Friday, someone asked Stockton when he might pick up a basketball again.
“Tomorrow, probably, out in the yard,” he said. “It's still a great game.”
Played right. Let it be said that John Stockton always did that.