The Assist – The John Stockton Effect
In a third year unit, PWP320 – Writing the Past, I was able to focus upon my childhood hero, John Stockton. I was going to write a scathing feature article on the negative effects of Michael Jordan’s professional career – of which I believe there to be many. However, I made the realization early in my piece that arguably without Jordan I would never have fallen in love with the greatest passer of all-time, John Stockton. Thus, the direction of my article changed direction and I instead put my energies into writing the best work that I could do on Stockton rather than waste it on Jordan, who still accomplished a lot of incredible things for professional sport (among what I can identify as negatives).
The Assist: The John Stockton Effect
I believe it is in every child’s heart to aspire to one day become wealthy beyond their means. Popular Hollywood movies have been created based on this very subject, such as Macauley Culkin’s Richie Rich. I, myself, certainly aspired to be famous or at least wealthy enough to support my family and friends. However, I did not start out with clichéd ideas such as a lemonade stand or a paper run. Instead it began with two-and-a-half inch by three-and-a-half inch pieces of paperboard. I was thirteen years old; not yet old enough to truly comprehend the scale of what I was getting myself involved with.
What I vividly remember of the time was that I needed to collect and hoard these pieces of paperboard. I naively believed that one day that they would become my ticket to riches. I failed to comprehend just how mass produced they were. Depicted upon these paperboards were larger than life superheroes; the type of men that my peer group of sports obsessed youngsters dreamed of one day becoming even though the chances of that were less than winning the lottery. I still have not won. These paperboards were NBA basketball trading cards. Thanks to Michael Jordan and his 1992 Barcelona Olympics ‘Dream Team’ basketball had become the latest craze to take off around the world.
Australia too had been bitten by the hoops bug. Although the sport never, and will likely never, displace Australian Rules football in the southern states or rugby league in the north in terms of popularity, interest in basketball skyrocketed. Australians adored our locally grown hoops heroes; most notable of the time was Andrew Gaze. Though he was never comparable to a member of the Dream Team he was without doubt our best player. He was also incredibly media friendly making it no surprise that in his post playing career he has been a key member of the Australian sporting media. His charismatic persona combined with his relationship with his father Lindsay, who coached him throughout his career with the Melbourne Tigers, made it easy for the public to become enamoured with him.
Australia’s patriotic love affair with our national team, known as the Boomers, initially opened the eyes of many to basketball. However, it was the Dream Team phenomenon that truly captivated us. The artistic manner in which many of their players flew high towards the hoop, often soaring above it, to slam the ball was a sight to behold. Certainly, Australians had become accustomed to seeing the likes of Warwick Capper jumping onto the backs of opponents to take spectacular marks, or ‘speccies’, but somehow the Dream Team was different.
Most of my friends were very quick to select their favourite player. For many the choice came down to Michael Jordan, perhaps the game’s greatest player, Magic Johnson, the charismatic superstar who competed in the Olympics after having been forced into retirement from playing in the NBA after being diagnosed with the HIV virus, or Larry Bird who is arguably the best Caucasian player in the history of the game.
I have never been a follower and I was not going to select my favourite player based upon a popularity contest. In order to become my favourite player they had to have qualities that made them the ultimate team player rather than the greatest individual player. That decision was remarkably easy once I understood the fundamentals of the sport. The player that stood out as the most team oriented player was John Stockton.
The backs of the basketball cards that I collected almost always had the players statistics printed upon them. I have always been statistically minded when it came to sports as it provides a foundation for understanding the game. Every statistic has a reason for being recorded. With basketball the majority look first and foremost at scoring – both totals and averages. The aim of the game is to score the most points so it goes without saying that if a player has a good scoring average it means he’s a good player.
However, that was not good enough for me. There had to be more to the game than simply scoring. What about the players that help the other players score? What about attempting to stop your opponents from scoring? There are statistics for those players too. Players who get the ball to the player who scores directly from that pass record an assist. Defensively, players who obtain the ball without fouling from their opponent record a steal. A player who manages to gain the ball from a missed shot records a rebound whilst a player who swats the opponents shot records a block. Of course, there are other recorded stats – turnovers, fouls, shots made and attempted – but I took a closer look at assists and steals.
In considering all of the statistics I discovered that John Stockton was the king of both assists and steals. It was clear that he changed the game as much as any scorer by enabling his teammates to score and by being adept at stopping his opposition. Though I had yet to watch him play this was something to be deeply admired. By statistics alone I was able to comprehend that Stockton was a player who excelled in terms of having the fundamental all around skills of the game. On top of his passing and defensive abilities I had noticed that Stockton was a very skilled scorer – he was often the second leading scorer on his team but more so he always had tremendous shooting percentages for his position. What this told me was that he was truly unselfish. Stockton would refuse to take poor shots and instead work towards getting his teammates into the best position possible to score and only when he himself was open would shoot it himself.
My mother had noticed early on that the basketball bug had bitten me quite hard and she offered to let me play at our local stadium. It was the first sport that I was quick to show potential in. To assist me in becoming a better player she invested in a collection of videos featuring NBA basketball games. A significant number of the games that I requested were Utah Jazz games – Stockton’s team. I soon discovered that Stockton and I had something in common. While on a common level he would be considered a great athlete he wasn’t nearly as athletically gifted compared to the other players in the NBA. He was a short, average looking white man in comparison to the freakish athleticism displayed by a great number of African American athletic freaks.
It was quite clear that in my assessment of his statistics had been correct. Stockton was arguably the most fundamentally skilled player in all of basketball. Certainly there may have been better players and a number of flashier players but through hard work, perseverance and an adherence to the way the sport was intended to be played there may have been none better than John Stockton. He became the player that I moulded my game around and soon he became my sporting hero. I became obsessed with Stockton. ‘Be Like Mike’? No, I had to be like Stock!
John Houston Stockton was born on March 26th 1962 in Spokane, Washington in the Pacific North West of the United States of America. Stockton’s father, Jack, raised the Stockton household to have an appreciation of sports. Jack was a saloon keeper, by trade, owning Jack and Dan’s sports bar in downtown Spokane.
Basketball ability was rich in the Stockton family genes with John’s older brother, Steve, and three cousins all playing collegiate level basketball. As one could quite well imagine the competitive nature of the extended family provided a constant source of rivalry for the young John to develop his game. However, he was the youngest of the five of them and as such was always battling a size and strength disadvantage. The commonly held belief is that this taught John invaluable lessons that strengthened his resolve as he never backed away from a challenge, a trait that would hold true throughout his professional career.
Unfortunately for Stockton he was a basketball player who starred for a renowned football school. Although he shattered a number of the school’s records the fact that the school was football-first meant that he was not nearly as coveted a graduate as what he may have been had he played for a school that focused on basketball. Without having a nationwide reputation he failed to rate a blip on the radar for most of the top basketball colleges in the country. Instead Stockton’s choices remained closer to home with Idaho, Montana and Gonzaga University showing interest. Stockton who had been brought up with strong family values determined that it would be best to stay in Spokane and to play under Coach Dan Fitzgerald at Gonzaga University.
Stockton enjoyed a prolific collegiate career but similar to his high school profile he accomplished it at a school that lacked a tremendous basketball reputation. It is reasonable to suggest that had he accomplished what he did for Gonzaga at a school that garnered national attention he would have had a bigger reputation when he entered the NBA Draft. Those that did watch Stockton, however, witnessed how talented and how much he was a team player. He enjoyed his greatest season as a senior when he averaged 20.9ppg and led the Zags to their best record in 17-seasons winning 17 games in all. Individually, Stockton led the West Coast Athletic Conference in scoring, assists, and steals demonstrating an ability to lead a team on both ends of the court.
Following his collegiate career he was invited by the legendary coach Bob Knight to try out for the 1984 United States of America national Olympic Team. However, he was one of the final players that Knight cut from the roster. However, the experience enabled Stockton to play with a number of future NBA stars including Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Terry Porter and Chris Mullin. It would also be the arena in which he was introduced to future Hall of Fame teammate Karl Malone.
Although he had failed to make the cut for the Olympic team it proved to be an invaluable experience for Stockton. It enabled him to strengthen his belief that he could play at the level required to become a standout player in the NBA. However, teams weren’t nearly as sold on the 6’1” short Caucasian point guard believing that he would potentially struggle once it came to competing against bigger, stronger and faster professional players.
It was the Utah Jazz who found enough belief in Stockton’s potential to make him the 16th overall selection of the 1984 NBA Draft, arguably the most talented class to ever enter the NBA. Hakeem Olajuwon was the first pick by the Houston Rockets, the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan third, and Philadelphia selected Charles Barkley with the fifth pick. Those were just some of the names drafted that year. In Stockton’s Hall of Fame speech he reiterated the story that long time Utah Jazz radio play by play announcer ‘Hot Rod’ Hundley had told him about the reaction the arena full of Jazz fans had when he was selected. Hundley claimed that the Jazz faithful had a mixed reaction full of “huh?” and “who?” Such was the unknown reputation that Stockton entered the draft with.
The Jazz did not expect Stockton to become their starting point guard in his rookie season. The organization already had a very solid player at the position in Rickey Green. Green was a well-respected floor general who at 30 years of age was in the prime of his career. This enabled the Jazz to develop Stockton at a natural pace. It wouldn’t be until Stockton’s fourth year in the league that he became the Jazz’s starting point guard.
Following Stockton’s rookie season, a successful playoff ending campaign for the Jazz the team headed to the NBA Draft hoping that they could capitalize on the steal that they believed Stockton would become. With the thirteenth pick of the 1985 NBA Draft the Utah Jazz selected Karl Malone from Louisiana Tech. Together Stockton and Malone would become one of the most prolific Hall of Fame duos in NBA history. Together they played eighteen seasons together and became inseparable. One could not mention Stockton without also naming Karl Malone. Stockton may have been the short, by NBA standards, Caucasian point guard, in contrast, Malone was the 6’9” hulking beast of a man whose physicality would be one of the dominating forces in the NBA for the better part of the next two decades
Though Stockton had been no slouch in the assists category as a backup point guard, he dominated the league in the statistic immediately upon becoming a starter. For the first nine seasons, a league record, as a starter Stockton led the league in both total assists and on a per game basis averaging double figures each year. He also led the NBA in total steals and steals per game twice throughout this span. Stockton was forever conscious of being a team player and his field goal percentage was always among the league’s leaders at his position. He had become a triple threat – a capable scorer, statistically the NBA’s greatest passer and a tremendously undervalued defender. Malone, on the other hand, was an incredibly gifted scorer thanks in part to Stockton while always ranking among the league’s leaders in rebounding. Malone was also among the NBA’s best at getting himself to the free throw line, constantly putting the opposition under enormous pressure. It was little surprise that the Jazz became one of the league’s elite teams during the Stockton-Malone era.
After Stockton and Malone enjoyed gold medal success with the 1992 USA men’s basketball Dream Team at the 1992 Olympic Games the duo would enter the 1992-93 NBA season with a renewed vigour. The city of Utah and the Jazz played host to the 1993 NBA All-Star game. As was usual both Stockton and Malone were selected to represent the Western Conference. For Stockton it would be the fifth of ten All-Star appearances while for Malone it would be his sixth of fourteen. The dynamic duo led the Western Conference to an emphatic overtime victory with Malone scoring 28 points and Stockton dishing out 15 assists. At the culmination of the game the two were selected as co-All-Star MVP’s marking only the second time in NBA history it had happened (it has since happened twice more) and the first and only time to this date that two players from the same NBA team had won the award together.
On February 1st, 1995 in a game between the Jazz and the Denver Nuggets Stockton established the NBA all-time record for assists breaking Magic Johnson’s record. In what had become typical of Utah Basketball, Stockton passed the ball to Malone who nailed a mid-range jump shot. On Malone being the teammate to help set him the record, Stockton stated “He’s been responsible for so many (of the assists) it does seem fitting. Like I’ve said all along, this isn’t my record. These guys have had to make the shots, and Karl has made a zillion of them.” To honour Stockton, the Jazz had Magic Johnson make a pre-recorded video message in which he congratulated him by saying, “John, from one assist man to another, you are the greatest team leader I have ever played against.”
On February 20th, 1996 in a game that pitted the Utah Jazz against the Boston Celtics Stockton set his second all-time record when he stole the basketball from Eric Williams. The steal was number 2,311 for his career breaking Maurice Cheeks’ NBA career record.
Before Christmas in 1996 my family moved from the house I had grown up in the western suburbs of Melbourne to the northern suburbs. We moved to an area that had access to both Foxtel and Optus cable television. As both of my parents were retired they decided that it would be a wise investment. The great thing about it for me was that both networks carried ESPN – the American sports channel that aired NBA games in Australia. This enabled me to watch games live for the first time. As the Jazz were always a good team it meant that they would get at least a few nationally televised games in the United States. These were the games that were aired live in Australia. Therefore I watched Stockton play whenever the Jazz games were aired. I was truly appreciative to gain the ability to watch live games and that first season would be one to remember.
Despite being a playoff team for the entirety of the Stockton and Malone era the Jazz had always failed in the playoffs. Other teams always had greater depth of quality players on their roster than the Jazz. Subsequently the Jazz had never made the NBA Finals. That season the Jazz made it to the Western Conference Finals where they had to compete against a red hot Houston Rockets team that featured all-time greats Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley. The Rockets sans Barkley won the two NBA championships whilst Michael Jordan was out of the league so as a fan I was pessimistic that the Jazz had what it took to beat the Rockets.
The Jazz were 3 games to 2 up on the Rockets when the series moved to Houston for Game 6. Thus, the Jazz needed only one more win to make the NBA Finals for the first time in team history. The playoffs aired live in Australia so I was fortunate enough to watch the game. Unfortunately, however, the Rockets played their hearts out leading for the entire game. It took a tremendous effort by Stockton and a couple of others to keep the Jazz in the game and to fight back bravely from the precipice of a stinging deficit. Stockton and the Jazz found a way to level the game and have possession of the basketball with just 2.8 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Even the commentators had been inspired by the amount of heart displayed by Stockton and co. It appeared that unless the Jazz lost the ball that the worst that would happen was that the Rockets would push the Jazz to overtime. Regardless, with the game being on the Rockets home floor that appeared to be a perilous situation.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan called John Stockton’s number for the final play of the game. Bryon Russell passed the ball into Stockton, who received an outstanding block from Karl Malone to create a wide open shot and Stockton nailed the biggest three point shot attempt of his career. It was one of the most incredible moments of my sports following life. We lived in a huge double storey house and all I remember is screaming, running up the steps, sitting on the top step and bursting into tears for several minutes. I was ecstatic for my hero. Sadly, the Jazz weren’t quite good enough to beat Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and their Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. However, Stockton’s buzzer beater against the Rockets will forever be etched in NBA history.
My own personal highlight of Utah’s charge to the NBA Finals was being a contributor to the online discussion on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) in the Jazz chat room and on the Jazz fan e-mail list. I became such a frequent contributor that fans local to the team called me ‘DU Jazz’ which was short for Down Under Jazz. This ultimately led to a journalist from the Deseret News, Utah’s major newspaper, writing an article about Jazz fans following the team – the lifelong fans, ones who had covered the team on the Internet and me a fan who got up in the middle of the night in a faraway country to support our team.
The Utah Jazz made it back to the NBA Finals once again the following year playing off in arguably one of the most famous and best NBA Finals series of all-time. Once again their opponent was Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. This time the Jazz appeared headed towards their first NBA championship. That was until Game 6 when a flu ridden, or food poisoned, Jordan put the Bulls on his back and carried them to the championship. In this decisive game Jordan scored 45 points including the legendary game winning jumper having questionably offensively fouled Bryon Russell before pulling up and draining a mid-range jump shot. It would prove to be Jordan’s last championship and sadly for Stockton, Malone and the Utah Jazz it would be their last trip to the NBA Finals. The Jazz have yet to make it back to the NBA Finals since Stockton’s retirement.
Stockton retired as one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA never to have won an NBA championship. Whenever the question of who the greatest point guards is raised Stockton’s name is invariably mentioned amongst the leaders. Stockton amassed a career total of 15806 assists and 3265 steals. Both records remain unbroken to this day and most basketball aficionados believe that they never will be. This is not only because Stockton played nineteen seasons, an incredible feat by itself, but also only missed a total of 22 games in his entire career. Stockton not only took care of his teammates on the court by passing the basketball but he maintained his physical health both on and off the court in order to give his very all to his Utah Jazz.
On top of the ten All-Star game appearances, 1992-93 NBA All-Star Game MVP award Stockton was also selected to the NBA’s All-NBA First Team twice, Second Team six times, Third Team three times, All-Defensive Second Team five times, and was selected to two Basketball USA Olympic Men’s Basketball teams in 1992 and 1996. In 1996 Stockton was selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. As of this writing he is currently ranked as the ninth greatest player in NBA history, as voted by the fans, on Basketball-Reference.com, a tribute that demonstrates just how widely appreciated he was despite never having won a championship.
Stockton was inducted as a first ballot player into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 along with Michael Jordan and David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. Also inducted that year, as a coach, was Stockton’s head coach of all but four of his seasons, Jerry Sloan. In his enshrinement speech Stockton questioned why he was standing on the stage; selfless to the end, Stockton’s speech was as humble as they come. He was eager to thank his family, teammates, friends and everybody else who had assisted him to enjoy the prolific career that he had. It is really unsurprising how many unsung heroes he relied upon along the way but Stockton’s speech demonstrated just how important it is to understand that nobody succeeds alone.
When heated rival and legendary trash talker Gary Payton was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 he requested that John Stockton induct him because he, Stockton, rather than Michael Jordan or anybody else was the most difficult person for him to guard. In defending his decision he explained, “[Stockton] is the only guy, when I got in the NBA and I wasn’t as good as I thought I was going to be for the first two years, I watched him. And when I watched him, he’s a player that all kids should watch right now. I might have been more athletic than he was, but he did it the same way every night. Every night. For him to only play thirty-two minutes, come in and shoot the ball twelve times, make nine or ten of them shots, shoot eight free throws and make seven of ‘em, and then have fifteen assists and four steals, that’s the reason why he’s the hardest person I ever had to guard. And that’s why I respect him very much.”
What Payton has said holds significant value. John Stockton is a perfect example of a player that young up and coming players should watch. He has important values to impart simply by watching and studying him. Although I myself never made it to the professional level my decision to mould my game and aspects of my life around Stockton’s example has been one of the best decisions I have made. The most important lessons that I have gained from Stockton is that if you pour forth the hard work in the fundamentals, persevere through trying times and be as selfless as possible you will ultimately succeed. At the end of the day I do believe that is a significant component of what life is all about.
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