by Daniel Olsen
In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, many tourists knew Michael Jordan from a mile away. However, someone like John Stockton might have been mistaken for an accountant. Little did they know they were looking at one of the best point guards in the world. At only 6’1” and weighing 170 pounds soaking wet, he didn’t look like a typical NBA player. He was an old school player who refused to adopt baggy shorts or anything of that nature. His game, however, was a sight to behold on both ends of the court. The high level of assists, pick and rolls, and steals were something the NBA has never seen before and may never see again. Let’s take a look at how he got to this point.
Stockton is known as a tough NBA player. Some have gone as far as to call him dirty. As the NBA leader in career steals, Jazz nation refers to him as tough and scrappy. He learned this at a young age while playing one-on-one with his older brother Steve. Their games usually resulted in blood, sweat and tears. A young smaller Stockton almost always came out on the losing end. However, going against bigger players would prepare him to survive in a bigger world at every other level.
Stockton enjoyed life as a Bullpup at Gonzaga Preparatory school. At five feet and 100 pounds as a freshman, he hadn’t yet grown into his NBA body, much less a high school basketball one. He made up for it with hard work and confidence that he could find ways to be productive for the team. He was the starting point guard for his freshman team and continued to climb up to the varsity ranks as he grew, having the chance to play some top talent across the country in AAU ball, as well. Despite being known in the NBA for his passing, he broke the city single-season scoring record in his senior year in 1980. This prepared him to make the transition from Bullpup to Gonzaga Bulldog.
Before the recent era of dominance, Gonzaga wasn’t a nationally elite team but they were a good team. Stockton knew all about it as he was a third generation Gonzaga student. His grandpa played football there and his dad also attended there.
In his senior year, Stockton averaged 20 points a game. Stockton was the first Gonzaga player to be awarded Conference Player of the Year, thanks to leading the West Coast Athletic Conference in points, assists and steals. Now Gonzaga seems to have a player win this award every year. While Gonzaga had a decent team, they never got to the postseason in Stockton’s college career. They came close but a couple costly losses prevented them from going to the NIT.
Stockton went from booed to beloved by Jazz fans everywhere. The Utah Jazz selected him 16th in the 1984 NBA Draft. Many fans didn’t know his name as well as some of the other big names coming out of college. Stockton had a keen sense of awareness. He seemed to have a vision of the full court and it’s moving parts. Compared to him, everything else probably seemed like it was moving in slow motion. This is one of the reasons he was so good at assists on the offensive end and steals on the defensive end.
Another reason Stockton was great is that he had a great player in Karl Malone to pass the ball to. It’s tough to say who was the most valuable but that’s like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first. This dynamic duo fed off each other. In this era, they were perfect for each other as they perfected the pick and roll. Malone would usually set a screen for Stockton and roll to the basket where Stockton landed a perfect pass for a delivery by the Mailman that was even quicker than Amazon Prime two-day shipping.
They benefited off the era where zone defense was illegal the same way shooters like Stephen Curry benefited off an era where the three-point shot has never been more valuable.
Stockton and Malone became co-MVPs of the 1993 NBA All-Star game in Salt Lake City. He set the assists record in a game vs Denver in 1995. Although he is famous for assists and steals, his most famous moment was the game-winning shot over the Houston Rockets in 1997 that sent the Jazz to the NBA Finals.
While the Jazz would lose to the Bulls in six games in consecutive years, Stockton and Malone were still beloved by the Utah Community. The streets by Vivint Arena that intersect where the Jazz play are called Stockton and Malone. Statues of Stockton and Malone stand on the southeast corner outside the arena.
Stockton can hardly be mentioned in the same sentence without Malone but it’s important to recognize the good he individually did for the team. If it wasn’t for him, The Mailman wouldn’t have received so many passes for easy deliveries. There is a reason Stockton has recorded thousands more assists and hundreds more steals. It was crucial for him to help his team score and keep the other team from scoring in any way possible. Stockton’s greatness will not be forgotten in Utah.
Featured image courtesy Andy Lyons/Getty Images ©