During the season the locals crowd into Jack and Dan's to watch the Jazz play, cheering as though their voices will somehow help little Johnny make it in the NBA. They're not above praying for the luck of the Irish to help him. Years ago Jack wore the purple Jazz polo shirt that John gave him on a night that Utah beat San Antonio. He still wears the shirt whenever the Jazz face the Spurs. "Just a little superstition," he says. "Every little bit helps."
John takes the same approach to improving his game. Every off-season he goes back to the gym at Gonzaga, where he worked out so often on his own as a college student that he was given a key, and hones his subtle skills. One summer he wanted to work on shooting over and making entry passes around big men, so former Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald brought some of the Bulldogs' centers and forwards in to drill with him. It's the kind of preparation that Stockton feels lost without. Last fall he was available to play in the Gonzaga alumni game for the first time, because of the NBA lockout. "He said to me, 'I've never been so ill-prepared for a game in my life,' " says Jeff Condill, a former Bulldogs teammate who's also co-owner of Jack and Dan's. "There were no plays, no sets, no nothing. He didn't know where guys were going to be on the floor. It was almost unnerving for him."
But Stockton will surely play again someday, because his devotion to his school and his hometown is as great as their devotion to him. "Earlier in his career, he kept to himself even when he was here in town," says Condill. "He'd rather have a barbecue at his place with a few friends than go out and have everyone cause a commotion. But people tend to give him his space now. It's more like he's just Johnny, coming home for a visit. It's coming back around to where he was in college, when Spokane was the most comfortable place he could ever be."
Stockton sums up his hometown as precisely and efficiently as he does most everything else. "I feel very lucky to have grown up where I did, and the way I did," he says. For him that is a testimonial. "You know what?" says Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley. "The day Stock retires, I bet he'll be back in Spokane by nightfall."
The quick, young point guards are getting by him with greater frequency now, and the day is coming when Stockton will take his permanent leave. He's in the last year of his three-year, $15 million contract, but that doesn't mean his departure from the NBA is imminent. He will know when he is playing his last game, but don't be surprised if he doesn't tell anyone until afterward, until he's back home in Spokane or relaxing with Nada and their kids at their cabin in Idaho. When he's at a safe remove, he'll probably send word: By the way, I'm not coming back. There's nothing he would like so much as a quiet exit. Don't bother with the obligatory highlight reel set to a syrupy sound track. You want to honor him in a way that he will appreciate? Don't make a speech, don't give him a plaque, don't block his exit, even if it's just to shake his hand. Just hold the door for him. Just watch him as he leaves.