» John Blanchette
/ Staff writer
He is a 10-year man now, a badge of considerable distinction in a league that pioneered the 10-day contract.
John Stockton makes the usual concessions to age - a more gradual regimen for working himself into shape, more ice for the knees, etc. - and some not-so-usual. This fall, the family's annual move back to Salt Lake City in advance of training camp for the Utah Jazz uprooted Houston, the oldest Stockton son, a month into first grade at St. Al's. He'll finish out the year in Utah.
Which just gives Stockton more incentive to keep playing until June.
Sounds a bit optimistic, Stockton admitted.
“People don't give us much credit as a team,” he told an audience in Spokane before making tracks last weekend. “They don't consider us a contender.”
And yet two of the past three NBA seasons, the Jazz has been in the Western Conference finals - your basic heartbeat away. Three years ago, Portland put Utah away - catching a break when Stockton had to sit out the second half of Game 5, blinded by a poke to the eye. Last spring, the bad break may have been of Utah's own making.
Up 3-0 in the second round against Denver, the Jazz let the series go seven games before prevailing - and then ran out of gas against eventual NBA champ Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon.
“That series was over. We knew it was over,” Stockton said. “If we could have won it in four, I think we'd have given Houston all they wanted.”
But the Jazz couldn't and didn't and - as Stockton pointed out - can hardly be expected to last as long again.
There's Houston, after all (“as long as Hakeem's healthy - and as soon as he's not, they drop off the table,” Stockton predicted). And the league's two most talented teams, Phoenix and Seattle, were busy adding firepower this summer - the Suns getting Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale, the Sonics landing Sarunas Marciulionis and Bill Cartwright after whiffing on Scottie Pippen.
The Jazz? Hitchin' those hopes to Adam Keefe.
The big clunk from Stanford came in a trade for Tyrone Corbin, one of Stockton's closer friends on the club but part of a logjam at small forward and expendable “because he's a little older,” said Stockton.
Ty's 31 - 9 months younger than Stockton.
And don't think Stockton doesn't hear the clock ticking, both for the Jazz and himself. The NBA's dinosaurs are backup centers, not front-line point guards. His contract has 2 more years to run - and while he keeps his own counsel on the future, he will drop hints.
“I admire Michael Jordan being able to get out of it when he did,” Stockton said. “I'm not so worried about my contract as I am about things not hurting everyday.”
He is even less concerned that his contract allows him a window to make NBA history.
Stockton enters the 1994-95 season just 538 assists behind Magic Johnson - the leader on the NBA's all-time list. By averaging 12 a game - his pace the last couple of seasons - Stockton will become history's most prolific passer of the basketball Feb. 2 in Houston.
Seventeen nights later, in Phoenix, he'll top 10,000 assists.
And sometime the following season, he'll overtake Maurice Cheeks as the all-time leader in steals.
Already, he dreads the attention and the questions about milestones he never bothered to aim at. As he nears the record, he will again become a target for younger rivals, the measuring in the NBA now done by the woof. The physical abuse - as dished out last year by Dennis Rodman - Stockton can take. The attitude, he can't.
“What's scary about the league - and what makes me feel good about the stage of my career I'm in - is it's becoming punk-like,” he said. “Guys want to get in guys' faces. They want to talk trash and stick their chests out. They're not putting basketball up front. It's a horrible trend. It's what brought the NBA down before Bird and Magic brought it out of the doldrums, and it's something they have to stop.
“Hopefully, they can - but if they don't, that'll be about the time I'm done anyway.”
With some distinctions more impressive than mere longevity.