» John Blanchette
/ Staff writer
Barely a page separates milestone from millstone in the dictionary - except in John Stockton's copy, where they're the same thing.
With him poised to pass another one Tuesday night, we dialed up the Utah Jazz to learn if anything special was planned by way of commemoration.
“We'll do,” club spokesman Kim Turner sighed, “whatever the little creep will let us do.”
He meant it in the nicest way.
If John Stockton does not stand on - or for - ceremony, he is very big on give and take. Indeed, the little guard from Spokane is now the biggest the National Basketball Association has ever seen.
The give record - for career assists - became his 55 weeks ago. He added the take - for career steals - when he slapped the ball away from Boston's Eric Williams with 8:21 to play in a 112-98 blowout of the Celtics on Tuesday night.
There was considerably less hoohah about this achievement - and rightly so, since it is of considerably less significance. What was SportsCenter's lead story a year ago will amount to just a note in most newspapers this morning.
Not that it wasn't another warm moment at the Delta Center. The ovation was loud and vertical. Teammates and minicams swarmed to him, and in the stands the Stockton children triggered a salvo of Silly String - a nice touch, though it may have been for the didn't-count 60-foot basket their dad threw in after a whistle moments earlier.
And the movie crowd was there - Elliott Gould and Wilford Brimley, anyway.
You were expecting Uma Thurman, perhaps? Stockton's platform on records and statistics is a shade to the right of Pat Buchanan's on everything else, but finding a context for the steals record would be a challenge even without his input.
Assists are different. The NBA has been tabulating assists going back to 1946, if not always in a consistent fashion. In some arenas, just inflating the game ball to the proper pressure gets you an assist.
Still, Stockton has more than 10,000 of them now and continues to pull away from the field, and the numbers suggest he has changed the very nature of his position - or at least extended the trail blazed by Magic Johnson.
The NBA's bookkeeping in that department goes back only to 1973-74, though we have it on good authority that defense was played before that.
So some of the NBA's more renowned thieves Walt Frazier in particular - have been shorted. For the accountants out there, Frazier averaged 1.94 steals per game during his last four seasons when stats were kept. Maurice Cheeks, whose record of 2,310 Stockton passed Tuesday, averaged 2.10. Stockton's career average is 2.49.
But the statistic is just as noteworthy for what it doesn't measure.
You can be the team matador and still rack up a slew of steals. Rick Barry, for instance, led the NBA in steals one year. The single-game record-holder - with 11 - is Larry Kenon, who sometimes needed opera glasses to read his man's number.
In college at Gonzaga, Stockton amassed scads of his steals simply by stripping his man in the open court. But he's noted that “in this league, most of the players are too good” to get many that way.
So they come other ways - by guessing and gambling in the passing lanes, or out of double teams.
Take Tuesday. In the second quarter, Williams was driving the baseline and flipped the ball out to Eric Montross about 10 feet from the basket when Stockton, having ditched his man, flicked it away from the blind side and into the hands of Antoine Carr.
In the fourth quarter, Williams had gathered a pass on the left block when Stockton darted in.
Both steals led to baskets - though with the Jazz leading by 10 points and then 30, it hardly mattered. His 14 assists were more consequential in the outcome.
And everything comes at price. Stockton is routinely assigned to double down on the post player when the pass goes inside, and on the very first play Tuesday night Boston's Dino Radja found Stockton's man, David Wesley, open for a long jumper before the Jazz guard could recover.
So maybe the steals are Stockton's due for what he gives up playing team defense.
The fact is, Stockton's steals numbers are down this year to 1.68 per game, second on the team behind Karl Malone. With the 3-point line having been moved in - and with more point guards looking to score - Stockton tends to gamble less.
“If anything, steals in this day and age can be counterproductive,” he's said. “If you're out there running around and trying to get them, you can put your team in a tough position.”
For John Stockton, the toughest position is facing another ceremony for another record.
He'd rather just steal away.