The interviews, the agents, the autograph seekers he's been known to duck—Stockton doesn't avoid them because he's shy. He avoids them because they complicate things. "You know, people say to me sometimes that John looks so serious out there, like he's not having any fun," says Karl Malone. "I tell them not to worry about John. He's enjoying himself on the court, and I don't know anybody who's happier with his life than he is. That son of a gun has it all figured out."
It's an April night at Arco Arena in Sacramento. Stockton's playing time may be down, but it's a tight game in the fourth quarter, and the important minutes still belong to him. Down the stretch he steals a pass from flashy Kings rookie point guard Jason Williams, takes off on the fast break and gets to the foul line, where he holds up for a beat, freezing two Sacramento defenders. That split second of hesitation he created makes it impossible for either Kings player to do anything about Malone, streaking to the basket from the wing for a layup. It looks as if Stockton has just made an elementary pass that any point guard in the league could have made, but if he had not timed it perfectly, he might have led Malone into a charging foul instead of a layup. Moments later Stockton leads another break. This time the two Kings take away the pass to the wing, so Stockton casually drops the ball off to the trailer, forward Greg Foster. Another layup. The Jazz wins 105-100.
It's the kind of performance that he has been giving for 15 years, the kind that long ago persuaded Utah coach Jerry Sloan to trust him implicitly. You get the feeling that if Sloan needed a triple bypass, he'd let Stockton perform it. Sloan is known for calling timeouts far less often than most coaches, especially late in close games, and the reason is Stockton. "What do I need to call one for?" he says. "I got a guy out there who knows more about what we need than I do."
Opponents hold him in the same high regard. Although Stockton and Malone are thought of as a tandem and, if there's any justice, will enter the Hall of Fame together one day, many insiders believe that Stockton is the Jazz's engine. Peers may gripe that he sometimes gets a fistful of jersey when he sets a screen and that his sharp elbows too often stray below the belt, but even those whose style is nothing like Stockton's bow to his mastery of the position. "He's the best," says Seattle SuperSonics point guard Gary Pay-ton. "When I came into the league, he was the guy who took me to school. I'm still looking for a weakness in his game."
Stockton's game is structured, measured. After 1,175 games in the league, he has created precious few moments appropriate for video montages. If Dominique Wilkins is the Human Highlight Film, Stockton is the Human Instructional Video. There are guys playing pickup at the Y who can give you a flashier show, if that's what you're looking for. "I think I saw him go behind the back against Bobby Hurley once, a couple of years ago," says Foster. "That's about as show-time as John gets." His work has to be seen over long stretches to be truly understood, because it's the cumulative effect of all those perfectly timed decisions, one after another after another, that illustrates his greatness.
Stockton has never liked a fuss, especially when it was over him. When he was in high school, he wouldn't even let his parents buy him a letter jacket. In fact, he never wore anything that would let people know he was an athlete. When he got married he made sure that the wedding announcement in The Spokesman-Review said only that the groom was "employed in Salt Lake City." When Stockton surpassed the NBA career record for steals in February 1996, the game was stopped and he was presented with a plaque. Kelly went out onto the court to help with the ceremony, and as soon as Stockton saw him, he thrust the hardware into the surprised Kelly's hands. "I remember my wife saying how nice it was of him to choose me to trust with the trophy," Kelly says. "But you know what? He was just looking for the first familiar face to take the thing off his hands so the game could start again."
He was at the top of his profession, but Stockton might as well have been back in the pickup games of his youth, when the action would stop for an injury or an argument and he would urge everyone to get on with the game.
As you walk down North Hamilton Street in Spokane, the red lettering on the white sign is visible in the distance: Jack and Dan's Tavern. As you get closer, you can see the tiny shamrocks that dance around the letters. It's the sight that Little Johnny, as some of the neighborhood old-timers still call him, saw every day as he pedaled over from school to see his dad, the Jack of Jack and Dan's. First he came from grammar school at St. Aloysius, a few blocks away on East Boone Avenue, and later from high school at Gonzaga Prep, about a mile away. "When he was small, he'd show up at that door at 4:30 every day, and sometimes I'd give him a quarter to get french fries from the Dairy Queen across the street," Jack says, coming out from behind the bar and wiping his hands on his apron. "When it was time to go home, he'd sit on the handlebars of the bike, and I'd ride him back to the house." His eyes look off into the distance for a moment as a slight smile crosses his face. "Those are some good memories," Jack finally says. "Thanks for bringing them up."
Connect the dots on a Spokane city map—St. Al's, Jack and Dan's, Gonzaga Prep, Gonzaga University and the Stockton family home around the corner from the tavern on North Superior Street—and you have the borders inside which the first 22 years of John Stockton's life were neatly contained. The neighborhood is nicknamed the Little Vatican for its preponderance of Catholic residents. Jack Stockton, his wife, Clementine, and their four children, Steve, John, Leeanne and Stacey, were regulars at Sunday mass. John and Steve, who is four years John's senior, were altar boys, but they weren't choirboys. The weathered wooden backboard and faded orange hoop still hang above the carport at Jack and Clemmie's house, where the intense competitions between the brothers often led to loud profanity that gave the good sisters at the girls' school across the street cause to shut their windows. Watch those tenacious picks Stockton sets on bigger players today and you are seeing the combativeness he developed in the driveway against his big brother and friends.
There are a couple of pieces of Jazz decorations in Jack and Dan's—one sent by a fan in Utah and another made by one of Jack's neighbors—but there's no picture of John, no memorabilia that indicates the co-owner has a famous son. "I know he wouldn't like it," Jack says. "I don't even have to ask him." This way John can walk into the tavern when he comes to town and feel like he has stepped back into Spokane, circa 1975. When he made it to the NBA, John told the owner of the house next door to his parents' to let him know if he ever wanted to sell. A few years later the owner did, and now John and his family spend much of their summers in an unassuming home on the same street where he grew up.