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Not a Passing Fancy
Jack McCallum
April 25, 1988
Utah's surprising John Stockton is the NBA assist leader, and he can score and play plenty of solid defense, too
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April 25, 1988

Not A Passing Fancy

Utah's surprising John Stockton is the NBA assist leader, and he can score and play plenty of solid defense, too

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For the first 22 years of his life, John Stockton's movements could be plotted on a small section of a Spokane, Wash., city map. He walked the five blocks from his house on North Superior Street to his parochial grammar school, St. Aloysius, on East Mission Avenue. After school he would stop in at Jack & Dan's, a tavern on North Hamilton Street, to visit his father, co-owner Jack Stockton, and cadge a quarter to buy french fries across the street at the Dairy Freeze. It was a one-mile drive from his home to high school at Gonzaga Prep and just a four-block walk to Gonzaga University, where he would sneak into the gymnasium for pickup basketball games. In 1980 Stockton completed the cradle-to-free-throw-line journey by accepting a basketball scholarship to his neighborhood university.

"I never consciously thought about going all the way through the 'Gonzaga farm system,' but that's the way it happened," says Stockton today. Needless to say, no incoming freshman had less trouble with the pronunciation of the school's name. "The second syllable is like the 'zag' in 'zigzag,' " says Stockton. You get the feeling that he has been through the drill before.

In fact, an understanding of John Stockton has required a lot of orientation since he first attracted national attention after his senior year of 1983-84. Where is Gonzaga? (You know that now—it's three blocks from Jack & Dan's.) Who or what is a Gonzaga? (St. Aloysius Gonzaga is the patron saint of youth.) How did someone from Gonzaga nearly make Bob Knight's Olympic team? (By outplaying, according to many observers, every point guard at the trials, including the two who did make the team, Indiana's Steve Alford and Cal State-Fullerton's Leon Wood.) And how did somebody who stood only 6'1" and looked like an altar boy wind up as a first-round draft pick of the Utah Jazz in 1984? ("Because he has all the right qualities," said Jazz coach Frank Layden at the time. "And he's Irish.")

Stockton, 26, is still only 6'1" and still looks like an altar boy, but as Houston Rockets coach Bill Fitch says, "He's answered all the questions." In this, his fourth NBA season, Stockton has established himself as one of the league's top point guards. He also is the best-known Gonzagian since Bing Crosby, the former Bulldog second baseman who never graduated but whose statue, complete with pipe, stands on campus in front of the Crosby Library.

"Stock," as in rising, is compared most often with Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks. Both are excellent dribblers with either hand—"John's dribbling skills make us practically press-proof," says Layden—but rarely do anything fancy. Both slither through small openings to create scoring opportunities near the basket, hit the open jump shot and, on defense, make life miserable for opponents with their quick hands and passing-lane anticipation.

Stockton, like Cheeks, does not have a discernible weakness, unless you're counting inches. "Every year he's just gotten better," says Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald. "It's like he's on a ladder, going one step at a time."

Which makes one wonder what rung Stockton is on now. Through Sunday, with four regular-season games to go, he had locked up the NBA assist title with an average of 13.5 per game; the Lakers' Magic Johnson had 11.8.

For Stockton, last week was one to savor and remember. He had 16 assists against Golden State on April 11 and 20 against the Clippers the following night, to go over 1,000 for the season. Only two other players in NBA history, Isiah Thomas of Detroit in 1984-85 with 1,123 and Kevin Porter of the Pistons in 1978-79 with 1,099, had done it. Then last Thursday in a game against Portland, Stockton had 26, the league high—and franchise record—for the season. On Saturday, he added 16 more against San Antonio, giving him 1,056 for the season and increasing his chances to break Thomas's record.

Stockton was also third in steals and fourth in field goal percentage (.576). In fact, Stockton's shooting percentage is likely to be the second highest ever by a guard, behind Mike McGee's aberrational .594 for the Lakers in 1983-84. During a 24-game span that began on Feb. 17, Stockton averaged .663 (161 of 243) from the floor and shot better than .500 in every game, a staggering achievement for a point man.

Now, numbers need some interpretation. Stockton gets a lot of assists because the point guard in the Layden system has the ball most of the time. "Stockton controls it as much as any point guard in the league," says Houston's Sleepy Floyd, whose defense was primarily responsible for breaking Stockton's plus-.500 shooting streak during a 113-107 Rocket victory on April 7. And there are two other major reasons why Stockton gets a lot of assists—Karl Malone posting up on the blocks and Karl Malone steaming downcourt on the fast break. An assist man needs a "finisher"—Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and now he has both James Worthy and Byron Scott—and it's no secret that Stockton is looking for the "Mailman" most of the time, both in the half-court offense and in transition. As veteran point guard Rickey Green, now Stockton's backup, puts it, "People tend to get out of Karl's way, unless they want their careers to be over."

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