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"The best pure
point guard
who ever
played
the game"
--Charles
Barkley


 
6/8/2003
20,000 tell Jazz legend 'thanks'
Stockton fans get the assist

» Steve Bergum / Staff writer

SALT LAKE CITY _ Megan Ross showed up outside the Delta Center Saturday morning at 10 o'clock.

Later in the day, there would be free hot dogs and pop, and live music. But she would have none of it.

She was there for one reason: to save a place in line for herself and several friends in order to land prime seats for the Utah Jazz's "Salute to John Stockton."

"It was worth it," she said about six hours later as the doors opened and a legion of Jazz fans started filing into the arena to say farewell to Stockton, one of the greatest point guards in the history of the National Basketball Association and, arguably, the most successful athlete to come out of Spokane.

"We just love him," said Louise Bezdjian, one of Ross' friends and another Jazz season-ticket holder. "It's going to be hard to watch the games without him 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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