He has no look-at-me gyrations, no shimmy, no shake. He doesn't drag his finger across his throat or push his hands toward the rafters to play to the crowd and the cameras, and the only time he talks trash is when he has to take it out at home. Maybe that's why some people want to rush him off the stage—he seems old-fashioned, out of place, an island of humility in a sea of self-promotion.
But Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton is in no hurry to leave. In fact he's amused by all the talk of his age and supposed infirmity. He's 36, and history shows that, even among the league's greatest guards, few have reached his age without suffering a severe decline. But when it's suggested that his advancing years have robbed him of a step or two, or that he's more susceptible to injury, Stockton smiles slyly, like a magician who knows his audience is looking at the wrong hand. Go ahead and check the calendar, Stockton seems to be saying, while I beat you again.
Stockton didn't beat the Los Angeles Lakers by himself in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last Saturday at the Delta Center, but he had a hand in Utah's shockingly easy 112-77 win—both hands, actually. He dished out nine assists in just 22 minutes on the court and helped set the tone for the Jazz's defense against Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal by swatting at the ball whenever O'Neal was foolish enough to put it on the floor. Two days later Stockton was even more masterly. Just when his team was on the verge of being blown out, the Utah point guard got hot, scoring 14 second-quarter points. He finished with 22 and added six assists, directing the Jazz to a 99-95 win and a 2-0 lead in the series, which will move to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Friday.
Stockton's performances in the games at the Delta Center were typical of most in his 14-year career, the kind he must maintain if the Jazz are to keep the more athletic Lakers from flying past them into the NBA Finals. Stockton quickly showed that he's one of the keys to Utah's hopes of containing O'Neal better than the Seattle SuperSonics did in the Western semifinals. Instead of double-teaming O'Neal as soon as he got the ball, which was the Sonics' tactic, the Jazz often used only one defender against him until he made his move to the basket, at which point one or more other defenders quickly collapsed around him. In a sense Utah deceived Shaq into thinking he had an easy chance to score, so O'Neal was eager to go to the basket. That kept him from making the decisive passes he had made against Seattle and bogged down the Los Angeles offense.
There's no one better at sagging inside to pester a big man than Stockton, the all-time NBA steals leader. He was credited with just one theft against O'Neal on Saturday, but he got his hand on several more balls and helped harass Shaq into seven turnovers. Meanwhile, Stockton committed only one turnover in 22 minutes, which was one of the reasons the vaunted L.A. fast break was never a factor.
This is all Utah is asking Stockton to do in the series: run the offense with his customary efficiency; take the punishment that comes with setting picks on the Los Angeles big men; double-team O'Neal near the basket on occasion; contain speedy Lakers point guards Derek Fisher, 23, and Nick Van Exel, 26; and keep the pace of the games slow enough to blunt the Lakers' break yet fast enough for the Jazz to get some easy transition points. "Hey, he was named one of the 50 greatest players of all time, wasn't he?" said Utah forward Antoine Carr after Game 1. "He can handle it."
How much Stockton can handle has been increasingly open to question. He sat out the first 18 games of the regular season after surgery on his left knee to repair cartilage damage, and his statistics dropped from 14-4 points and 10.5 assists per game in 1996-97 to 12.0 and 8.5, respectively, this season. But opponents saw the greatest signs of slippage on defense, where the whispers grew louder that Stockton was vulnerable to quick point guards. Before Game 1 one Laker said his team's strategy against Stockton was simple. "Attack him," he said. "He'll have a hard time with Derek and Nick." In Game 1 Stockton survived the attack: Fisher and Van Exel combined for nine points on 2 of 12 shooting, and five assists. In Game 2 the two Lakers, throttled by Stockton and his backup, Howard Eisley, were only sporadically effective, totaling 21 points and disappearing for long stretches in the second half.
Before the series opener the Jazz almost welcomed the L.A. tactic of targeting Stockton. "I've been here four years, and every year I've heard that John is slowing down and I keep waiting to see the evidence," say? Utah forward Adam Keefe. "It's the annual question: Has Stockton lost a step?" Stockton is so used to this line of inquiry that he has developed a standard answer: "I don't think about my age, I just play. If other people want to worry about whether I've lost a step, that's up to them. I don't really listen to a lot of that stuff." Stockton's opinion is matched by that of Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "He's not 19 anymore, but he still plays the game with as much intelligence as any point guard who's ever played," says Sloan. "I'll take Stockton at 36 over a lot of point guards in this league at 26."
Still, Sloan has gone to greater lengths to keep Stockton fresh this season than he has in previous years. Stockton averaged 29.0 minutes per game in the regular season, the first time in the last 11 years he has averaged less than 34.7. As Stockton's playing time has declined, Eisley's minutes have increased to the extent that the two now split time almost evenly. In Game 1 Eisley also played 22 minutes, contributing 14 points and nine assists while not committing a turnover.
Eisley, 25, is in many ways the perfect understudy for Stockton. He, too, plays a no-frills game, and off the court not only does he have even less to say than Stockton but also the few words he does utter are spoken barely above a whisper. Stockton and Eisley are so reserved that you have to wonder what their conversations are like. "Probably short and to the point," says forward Karl Malone, who led the Jazz in Game 1 with 29 points and in Game 2 with 33. When Eisley was struggling from the field—he had made only 21 of his 69 shots (30.4%) in the playoffs before hitting 6 of 8 in the opener against L.A.—he received some typically concise encouragement from Stockton: "Keep shooting."