To borrow one of John Stockton's favorite phrases, it was simple, really. It was all about faith—the faith that a team has in its system even after the team appears to have met its master; the faith that two brilliant players have in each other after 12 years together; the faith that fans have in their heroes, a belief so strong that when matters looked bleak they put a sign on a cemetery gate with a picture of Stockton and the words DON'T BURY US YET. The Utah Jazz was built on faith, and that conviction was never more evident than it was on Sunday, when the Jazz clawed its way back into the NBA Finals against the defending champion Chicago Bulls. Utah's 78-73 victory in Game 4 at the Delta Center tied the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
This idea of faith probably couldn't take hold so firmly in most other places, where people fancy themselves more sophisticated (but in truth are probably just more jaded). The Jazz and its following couldn't care less if anyone considers them corny or old-fashioned. Their faith is a powerful thing, and it shook the Delta Center rafters when Utah, which appeared all but dead after losing the first two games of the series in Chicago, was scoring 12 of the last 14 points of Game 4 to stun the Bulls. When Stockton, the feisty Utah point guard whose toughness is matched only by his cleverness and daring, found power forward Karl Malone with a length-of-the-court pass that gave the Jazz the lead for good with 45.1 seconds remaining, well, suffice it to say that there was no more joyful noise on Sunday than the unholy din raised by the true believers in attendance.
In the end, of course, it had to be the 6'1", 175-pound Stockton who led Utah's resurrection. The regular season may have belonged to Malone, the NBA's 1996-97 MVP, but the postseason has just as surely been owned by his diminutive partner. Stockton's three-pointer that beat the Houston Rockets at the buzzer and sent the Jazz to the Finals quickly became legend in Utah, but with his heroics on Sunday he topped himself. The final minutes of Game 4, when he sealed the Bulls' fate with a basket, a steal and an assist, should stand for the ages as the ultimate example of how complete a point guard he has been throughout his 13-year career. He buried a critical three-pointer to stem the tide after the Bulls had taken a 71-66 lead and appeared ready to pull away. Then, with the score 73-69, he stole the ball from the master himself, Michael Jordan, and took it the length of the court before being fouled by an airborne Jordan and sinking one of two free throws. Twenty-eight seconds later, Stockton hit two more free throws to make the score 73-72. Finally, Stockton made the play (hereafter immortalized as The Pass) that serves as a worthy counterpoint to Jordan's buzzer-beating jump shot that won Game 1 for the Bulls on the previous Sunday.
It's fitting that the Jazz point guard, the NBA's alltime assist leader, won the game not with a shot but with The Pass. Stockton, who finished with 17 points and 12 assists, sneaked near the basket, grabbed the rebound of a Jordan miss, turned and fired the ball down-court. For a moment the Delta Center floor became a football field, with Stockton the quarterback, Malone his intended receiver and none other than Jordan playing free safety, racing to get to The Pass before Malone did. To describe it as a risky play is like calling Jordan a fairly decent leaper. "Would I have made that pass?" Jazz forward Bryon Russell asked rhetorically afterward. "I'm not John Stockton."
Stockton realized the danger in the play even as he was making it. "If you could have suspended time right then, when the ball was in the air," he said, "[Utah coach] Jerry [Sloan] probably would have strangled me."
But Stockton threw the ball because of his faith in Malone, who has been on the receiving end of Stockton's passes for the last dozen seasons. Stockton admitted after the game that if any other teammate but Malone had been downcourt, he would probably have held on to the ball. "I saw Karl had position, and when he does, he's the best at getting the ball," Stockton said. "I had great faith that he would fight for the ball and come down with it."
Malone, meanwhile, was thinking similar thoughts about Stockton. "I knew Michael was back there, lurking, but I also knew that if anybody could get that pass to me, it was Stock," Malone said. "When he threw it, I thought, Well, Stock doesn't throw bad passes, so I must be open." He was, but just barely. Stockton's pass sailed over Jordan's head and settled softly into Malone's hands, and he dropped in the layup that gave the Jazz a 74-73 lead.
Malone added a pair of free throws with 18 seconds left to give the Jazz a three-point lead, redeeming himself nicely after his two crucial misses from the foul line at the end of Game 1. Bulls forward Scottie Pippen had warned Malone before those Game 1 free throws that "the Mailman doesn't deliver on Sunday"; but Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek stepped between Malone and Pippen when Malone stood at the line in Game 4—do the Utah guards ever stop setting screens?—to prevent a replay of that incident.
As for Stockton, after he finished playing the hero, he changed back into his pink polo shirt and navy blue Dockers, looking like anything but a future Hall of Famer. He is the ordinary man, the antithesis of the stereotypical star athlete. Some players push for contract clauses that allow them to ski or ride motorcycles, but when Stockton, who has three sons and a daughter, negotiated his current three-year, $15 million deal last October, he asked for and received a clause protecting his freedom to roughhouse with his children.
On the court Stockton's style is as simple as his wardrobe. "He's as steady as the ticktock of a clock," says Malone. "Other [point guards] come into the league, and they've got the flashy moves and the endorsements. Then they come play against John, and he teaches them that you can play this game without putting the ball between your legs 20 times before you do something with it. He just keeps making the plays, game after game, year after year."