Facts and figures

"The best pure
point guard
who ever
the game"

Jazz fans give Stockton regal sendoff
Tears flow freely as Utah bids farewell to a future Hall of Famer

» Steve Bergum / Staff writer

SALT LAKE CITY -- This was the day Larry Miller and John Stockton both dreaded -- but for very different reasons.

Miller, the owner of the Utah Jazz, never wanted to think about the day his NBA franchise would have to move on with someone other than Stockton as its point guard and floor leader.

And Stockton?

He never wanted to think about the day he would have to squirm on a makeshift stage in a packed arena and let his legion of adoring fans express their gratitude, respect and love for the 19 wonderful seasons he gave them.

Yet there they both were Saturday, perched in director's chairs in the Delta Center, as close to 20,000 people laughed, cheered and cried during an emotionally charged 90-minute tribute to the 41-year-old Stockton, a 10-time NBA all-star, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

Among the highlights were speeches by NBA commissioner David Stern and former teammate and fellow NBA all-star Karl Malone, along with the "Dear John" letter of all time -- a congratulatory note from President George W. Bush.

And afterward, the ultra-private Stockton, who might be the most reluctant superstar in the history of the NBA, admitted he even kind of enjoyed the entire ordeal.

"There was a fair amount of dread and a lot of tension," he said, when asked how his big day had unfolded. "And it was very, very uncomfortable out on that stage. But I thought it went well, and by the end of it, it was fun."

The tribute, billed as a "Salute to John Stockton," was open to the public free of charge. The doors to the Delta Center didn't open until 4 p.m., and the program didn't start until 6. But people were lining up to get their first-come, first-served seats as early as 10 in the morning.

By 3 p.m., the crowd outside the arena has grown to close to 10,000, prompting a police officer who was guarding the main entrance to say, "They've got more people here than they had at most of their games this year."

And once inside, none of them seemed disappointed.

The warm-up included a video of Stockton's greatest on-court moments, along with testimonials from some of the people who influenced him most on his unlikely journey from a modest middle-class home in Spokane to the pinnacle of the NBA, where he became a 10-time All-Star and the league's career leader in assists (15,806) and steals (3,265).

On the video, former Jazz coach Frank Layden called Stockton, a former standout at Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University, the "Michelangelo of point guards." Also weighing in on the video screen were Stockton's former high school coach Terry Irwin, former GU coach and athletic director Dan Fitzgerald and a host of NBA stars that included Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Gary Payton and Danny Ainge.

As the start of the formal program neared, the lights in the Delta Center dimmed, the music kicked up and Jazz play-by-play radio announcer Rod Hundley introduced Stockton, who emerged from a cloud of smoke to a deafening roar and standing ovation.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder came out wearing a wrinkled white shirt and tan slacks and looking more like a door-to-door salesman than one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He acknowledged the applause with moist eyes and then took his seat on stage, where he fidgeted throughout the program.

Stern, who flew in between games of the NBA Finals playoff series between San Antonio and New Jersey, recalled how he and most of the league's owners had greeted Miller's decision to put a franchise in Utah with a great deal of skepticism.

He admitted, however, that they had all been wrong.

"And no one has done more to make this franchise the pride of the NBA than John Stockton," Stern added.

Miller and current Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, both expressed dismay over Stockton's decision to retire.

"This is the day we all knew would come, but hoped it wouldn't," Miller said.

"I really thought you were going to be able to go forever," Sloan added, fighting in vain to hold back tears. "It's been an unbelievable run."

Malone, the second-leading scorer in NBA history, thanked Stockton for being both a teammate and understanding friend for the past 18 years.

"I hoped this day would never come," he said. "John taught me more than the game of basketball. He taught me things, as a person, that will follow me the rest of my life.

"I came from the South, and in the South there are colors. I came here with a lot of doubts; a kid from the South, coming to Utah. But I met John Stockton, and from Day 1, he never saw colors."

Stockton, like he had done with the previous speakers, stepped off his chair and embraced the 6-foot-9 Malone. Both were crying as they turned away.

Stockton's wife, Nada, who was watching from the bleachers with their six children -- Houston, Michael, David, Lindsay, Laura and Sam -- also took the stage to speak.

She marveled at standing in front of such a large and attentive audience.

"At home, there are only eight of us and nobody listens to me," she said.

She also apologized to her husband for all the times she yelled at him from the stands for missing a free throw.

"Looking around," she said, nervously, "I realize you might have been under quite a bit of pressure."

And then she elicited one of the loudest cheers of the evening when she glanced back at her husband and said, "His greatest steal was when he stole my heart, and his greatest assists were when he handed me each of our newborn children in the hospital."

Stockton closed the program by thanking those who attended, including a dozen or so of the 204 teammates he played with after joining the Jazz as the 16th overall pick in the 1984 draft.

"I've always been surrounded by great people," he said. "And contrary to some beliefs, that didn't end when I got into the NBA."

Stockton refused to discuss his future plans, saying only that he and has family will return to their home in Spokane -- for the summer at least.

"I imagine I'll do my fair share of coaching," he explained. "But it may be soccer, or volleyball or football -- at the kids level."


Utah Jazz guard John Stockton, right, looks to pass against pressure from Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash during an April game in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson)

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