Watch him as he leaves. The buzzer sounds, and by the time your eye finds him, he's already in the tunnel leading to the locker room, like a base stealer who has gotten a good jump. He's walking swiftly, taking long, purposeful strides, as though he has just remembered something elsewhere that requires his immediate attention. The eyes that moments earlier were darting, taking in every movement on the court as he directed the Utah Jazz attack, are staring straight ahead now, meeting no one's gaze. The game is over, so there's nothing left here for John Stockton, nothing that interests him in the least. The court is filling with peripheral people—photographers, sideline TV reporters, nameless folk with credentials around their necks and no function he remotely cares about. Stockton is a man at a party who realizes it's not his kind of crowd.
Follow him to the Jazz's Delta Center locker room, and stay alert because he'll try to slip away again. He's not as reclusive as he used to be, when he would hide in the trainer's room, waiting for reporters to drift away out of frustration or deadline pressure, but he still usually dresses in an area off-limits to the press after the game. When he finally emerges, almost always attired the same way—a golf shirt, khakis and sneakers as close to plain white as he can find—he pauses at his stall to put a few things in a canvas duffel bag. "I can't remember ever seeing him in a suit," says Mark Kelly, the Jazz's media relations manager, "but I've only been here 4½ years." Look at the 37-year-old Stockton now and you see him as a teenager back in Spokane, getting ready to head home after a game at Gonzaga Prep.
He stops only for a moment, obviously hoping the media will be so busy interviewing his teammates that he can slip out unnoticed. It seldom happens, and once spotted, he's rather cordial, which often surprises people who have heard so much about his aloofness. Years ago Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times columnist, found Stockton at his locker, ringed by a half circle of empty chairs. "What's this?" he asked Stockton accusingly. "A fence?" Stockton quickly explained that other writers had been sitting there and had left the chairs in that arrangement. He invited Murray to sit down, and they had a long conversation.
"Some people think John's cold, but he's not," says Utah forward Thurl Bailey. "It's just that if he could take away all the accolades, all the hoopla, all the nationally televised interviews and just play basketball, he'd be in heaven. John might be the one player who really wouldn't miss it if the fame went away tomorrow and all he was left with was the game."
But it is precisely because he shuns attention that Stockton attracts attention. He seems like an artifact from a less egodriven age, and there's a tendency to want to preserve him and study him. It's often said when a great player retires that there will never be another like him—no one with Michael Jordan's combination of talent and will, for instance; no one with Magic Johnson's mix of size, playmaking skills and joie de vivre. The truth is, those players are far more likely to be replicated than Stockton, if only because so many others will try. There are far more kids out there trying to fly like Kobe Bryant or crossover dribble like Allen Iverson than there are trying to perfect the bounce pass and set tenacious picks so they can become the next Stockton. Everything in the culture militates against the emergence of another point guard so brilliant and so uninterested in being praised for it. Sports these days are about form, not function. Players are all glowering or goofing for the cameras, raising the roof or slashing the throat or flashing the choke. Another player like Stockton emerging is about as likely as a rose blooming in the desert.
It isn't just his retro persona that will make Stockton a tough act to match. In his own way he's as much of a physical marvel as players half his age with twice his vertical leap. At 6'1" and 175 pounds, he's the same size he was when he joined the Jazz as a first-round pick in 1984. He has hands the size of a power forward's, and his resting heart rate is in the mid-30s, about half that of an average male. Stockton is an unimposing man of unprecedented accomplishments. The 13,076 career assists and 2,701 career steals he had accumulated through Sunday are NBA records, and though his average points (11.0) and assists (7.4) have dropped off this season along with his minutes (28.3), his steady and larcenous handiwork is a primary reason that Utah will be a favorite as the playoffs begin this Saturday.
"I'm not much of a numbers guy, and yet that's the way I'm defined a lot," Stockton says. "There was a lot of attention when I was nearing the [assists] record, and that wasn't comfortable for me. Everybody asked about it. But I've never paid attention to that stuff. People who watch have to have their fun, too; I understand that's part of it. They have to have something to talk about. If they can enjoy it that way, looking at the numbers, that's fine, but that's not what I'm seeking."
So we try to understand him, while he tries to understand why we want to understand. He's so obsessed with protecting his privacy that his wife, Nada, would only consent to do a 1997 TV interview if the Salt Lake City station with which she did it promised to air it while John was at the All-Star Game in Cleveland. John often refuses to reveal what seems like the most harmless information. What did he learn from playing against Magic Johnson? "I won't tell you that," he says. How has he improved his game over the years? "Oh, in certain general ways. I don't really want to get into specifics."
No one can do more than guess at Stockton's world view, because part of his philosophy is that he doesn't articulate his philosophy. If we had really been paying attention, no questions would be necessary. We would know that he hasn't changed—not his hairstyle, not his wardrobe, not his personality—because there has been no need. We would know that what he's all about is stripping away the excess, getting down to what's important. "When you're doing it right," he says, "it looks simple."
He's talking about basketball. Or is he? The reason he doesn't go in the air for a no-look, behind-the-back fancy dish when a simple chest pass will do is the same reason he makes other choices. If simple works, why change? If the Jazz franchise fits you like your favorite pair of khakis, why even think about playing anywhere else? Why even have an agent? Just figure out a salary you think is fair, tell the owner to do the same thing, and meet somewhere in the middle. If you've always worn your shorts a little snug and no longer than mid-thigh, why change just because everyone else is letting them billow down around the knees? If the hometown girl you began dating in college will give you a lifetime, no-cut contract, why go looking elsewhere? Marry her and settle down. If you've never been happier than you were in the neighborhood you grew up in, why not get yourself a house right next door to your parents' and re-create your childhood for your five kids? "You don't do anything just because other people do," Stockton says. "My father taught me that."