It is often said that John Stockton was uncomfortable with his superstar status. On the contrary, the NBA's alltime assists and steals leader was one of the most comfortable athletes I've ever known. The lines between what he would do and what he would not do were, to him, as clear as the angles on the thousands of pick-and-rolls he ran with Jazz teammate Karl Malone. He spent not a spare second figuring out how to act—he knew how he wanted to act He knew the Stockton code.
He would not draw attention to himself, which is why his retirement announcement last week had all the pomp of a firehouse ham dinner in his native Spokane—to where Stockton will retreat, rarely (in all likelihood) to surface publicly again. "I think I'm finished," the 41-year-old told reporters last Friday after meeting with Jazz owner Larry Miller and coach Jerry Sloan. "I informed those guys, and that's the direction I'm heading." Beyond a dispute with a referee from time to time, another thing Stockton would not do was show emotion, which is why, when he felt himself tearing up, he walked away.
He dealt with the press according to his own schedule. Approach him in the locker room before a game and he might introduce you to any or all of his four polite, impossibly Stocktonesque sons, but then he'd walk briskly away. After a game, though, win or lose, he was there. "In 19 years he never refused anything I asked him to do after a game," said Jazz public relations director Kim Turner.
Stockton would not dip a toe into anything that smacked of controversy or criticism of another player. Once I asked him to give me the five players on his all-hustle team; he looked at me as if I had asked for a deconstruction of Restoration comedy. "I can't do that," he said. "I'd leave somebody off." He wasn't being unfriendly—weeks earlier he had given me a 20-minute interview for a relatively small radio station. That's something he could do.
Throughout all those seasons of flawlessly conducting the Jazz offense, he never claimed to know more than the coach. To the end he looked over at Sloan on most half-court possessions. "Why wouldn't I?" he said, giving me that Restoration comedy look when I asked him about it last season. "He's the coach. He runs the team."
Malone, Stockton's longtime accomplice, is not done, and barring injury, he's likely to become the NBA's alltime top scorer during the 2004-05 season. Whomever Malone is playing for then should give Stockton a 10-day contract so he might give the assist on the record-breaking point That's probably something Stockton would not do, but I hope he keeps the option open.