It might seem like a stretch to lump Stockton, Utah's stoic floor leader, with such recognized hotheads as Starks, Miller and Maxwell, and to be sure, he has nothing approaching their rowdy images. But he was stamped with a dubious seal of approval by Rodman during Utah's first-round series against San Antonio. "Stockton's as mean as they come," the Worm said admiringly. "Everybody might think he's a choirboy, but he'll slip you an elbow when the refs aren't looking, or he'll talk some junk. I like that in a guy."
Not everyone puts such a positive spin on Stockton's style. "To me, he's one of the dirtiest players in the league," former journeyman center Scott Hastings, now a Denver broadcaster, told the Rocky Mountain News during Utah's series against the Nuggets. "He's Danny Ainge"—the Phoenix Suns' belligerent guard—"without the [bad] reputation."
To that, Stockton replies, "That's ridiculous. I hope I'm an irritating player. But dirty? Not even close." Prickly is probably a better way to describe him. There is a toughness in Stockton's game that one might expect from a tavern owner's son. Look closely at that stone-faced expression, and it begins to resemble a scowl. "He's got a lot of street in him," says teammate Malone. Indeed, in Game 1 of the San Antonio series Stockton drove the lane, lowered a shoulder into Spur center David Robinson and sent him flying out of bounds, conveying the message that the Jazz would not be intimidated inside. And in Game 2 he got into a trash-talking exchange with Rodman after the San Antonio forward kneed him in the thigh.
But Stockton, who this season averaged 15.1 points and 12.6 assists and was voted to the All-NBA first team for the first time, steered the Jazz into the Western Conference finals not with his talking but with his ball handling and passing (he led the league in assists for the seventh year in a row). His style is beautiful in its simplicity, and he is a model of consistency, which could be a key factor against the Rockets' unpredictable backcourt. He also has the perfect partner in off-guard Jeff Hornacek, who came to the Jazz in a Feb. 24 trade with the Philadelphia 76ers for guard Jeff Malone. With Stockton in foul trouble and struggling with his shooting in Game 7 against Denver, Hornacek shifted to the point and ran the offense smoothly, finishing with 18 points, seven assists and only one turnover in Utah's win. Indeed, the only drawback to the Hornacek acquisition is that coach Jerry Sloan and his staff still confuse Stockton and Hornacek—both pale and dark-haired—when they examine game films.
The Houston coaches have no problem mistaking Maxwell for anyone else. They just look for the fellow with the shaved head and the flapping mouth. Maxwell has been known as Mad Max since high school in Gainesville, Fla., but lately the nickname has begun to grate on him, and he wasn't pleased to see the "Mad Max" T-shirts that dotted the Summit for last Saturday's Game 7 of the Western semifinal series against Phoenix. "I don't want to be Mad Max anymore," he says. "I'd rather have people call me anything but that. It was good in the beginning because it gave me an identity, but over the course of time, it's something that messes you up. You get caught up in that image, and it starts to take over. Call me Vernon."
It was Mad Max who labeled Rocket fans "the worst" when they failed to fill the Summit to capacity in the opening game against Phoenix, the first of two home losses. It was Vernon who helped lead the Rockets back to take the series. He scored 34 points as the Rockets revived to win Game 3 in Phoenix 118-102. And on defense he was instrumental in making Sun guard Dan Majerle miserable in the final four games. Majerle averaged a mere four points in that stretch and hit only six of 34 shots.
Mad Max emerged again in Game 6, a 103-89 Sun victory, when he drew a technical foul for elbowing Ainge and was ejected in the fourth quarter after being hit with his second T. His kindred spirit, equally feisty backup guard Sam Cassell, tangled with Ainge in the Rockets' 104-94 Game 7 clincher, when Cassell and Ainge were slapped with a double technical for a first-quarter tussle. Cassell is as brash as Maxwell or any of the other guards left in the playoffs. "I'm an important part of this team," Cassell said before Game 7. "I'm like a coach on the floor." Bold talk for a rookie, but he backed it up with 22 points and seven assists.
Cassell has some work to do before he can match Maxwell in ejections, however. After his heave-ho from Game 6, Mad Max got into an altercation with a television cameraman and had to be restrained from pursuing the matter further as he made his way to the locker room. He earned the thumb again late in Game 7, this time for going nose-to-nose with Phoenix forward Charles Barkley after Sir Charles had committed a hard foul on Olajuwon with 7.4 seconds left and the outcome decided.
Mad Max has been battling Vernon all season. It was the former who in March pleaded guilty to illegally carrying a gun after police found a .38-caliber pistol in his car following a traffic dispute. But it is the latter who seems to be winning the battle, in part because of two events that have helped him—maybe forced him—to mature. One was an irregular heartbeat that was detected in January, a condition now treated with medication. The other was the stillborn baby girl delivered by his wife, Shell, last October. Before he takes the court for games, Maxwell often writes his daughter's name, Amber, on the back of his shoes. "It's something I do to keep her in my thoughts," he says. "It reminds me that I want to do things that would have made her proud."
Perhaps that's why, even though he still has his wild moments on the court, Maxwell has been solid when the Rockets have needed him most. "Max is tremendously underrated," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He's right there with Hakeem as one of the main reasons we've had such a great season, and it's like nobody outside of our team notices it." That's not true anymore. It has become common knowledge that the brilliant Olajuwon is the Rockets' constant, and the mercurial Maxwell, who averaged 13.6 points this season, is their key variable. When Vernon is on his game, stretching the defense with his outside shooting and making a nuisance of himself as a defender, the Rockets are a team in perfect balance. On the other hand, when Mad Max is yakking at the referees and opposing players, and hoisting up ill-advised jumpers, Houston is exceedingly vulnerable.