Just as one can't always see the forest for the trees, there are times in the NBA when the distracting clutter of streaks, hype, records and tantrums obscures some fundamental movement in the firmament. That's how it was last week for the Utah Jazz, a team awash in anticipatory hoopla concerning guard John Stockton's imminent seizure of the NBA career assist record. Fifty-four times in four Jazz victories, Stockton found the open man for a score—via bounce pass, touch pass, baseball pass, lob pass—everything but arterial bypass. By week's end Stockton, the self-effacing tavernkeeper's son from Spokane, had passed Oscar Robertson and moved into second place on the all-time assists list, a mere 25 shy of Magic Johnson's 9.921.
But even more was happening. Last Thursday night the Jazz took a 10-game winning streak and a 14-game road winning streak into the Tacoma Dome against the Seattle SuperSonics, who were defending their own 10-game victory string and a run of 17 consecutive home wins. To almost everyone's surprise, the Sonics—who matched up well with Utah tree for tree, but sometimes fell short in the forest department—crumpled under a fourth-quarter assault by the Jazz's bench players and lost 120-108. The victory inched Utah, which will play its next away game this Thursday against the Houston Rockets, to within one win of the NBA record 16-game road streak of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. The streak helped the Jazz build a 15-4 road record at week's end, the league's best, which augurs well for Utah because in 11 of the last 14 seasons the team with the best record away from home has gone to the NBA Finals.
All the fuss over the streak prompted Jazz coach Jerry Sloan to loosen his tie and say, "So what? Nobody cares."
That was not precisely true. In the long NBA winter, fans and pundits allow themselves to care moderately about all sorts of ephemeral events. On Jan. 20 the Jazz celebrated forward Karl Malone's 20,000th point, which came on a free throw at Salt Lake City's Delta Center. ("It's a nice bump in the road," said the Mailman. "I'll stop for a second and look at the bump, but I won't get out of the car.") Next, on Jan. 25, the 10-millionth fan in the franchise's 21-year history passed through the turnstiles; that same day Sloan signed a two-year contract extension.
Then you get a genuine milestone, like Stockton's assists record, and the man of the hour smiles shyly and says, "I think it will mean something later on. Right now, I just want to play."
Malone, having benefited from nine-plus seasons of Stockton's largesse, feared that his teammate's achievement would be undervalued. "What's amazing to me," the Mailman said after last week's 130-88 hammering in Salt Lake City of a bone-weary Sacramento King team, "is when you talk about great guards in history, his name never comes up. And I don't understand that."
Actually Stockton's name does get mentioned with the likes of Johnson, Robertson, Isiah Thomas (fourth on the career assists list) and Maurice Cheeks (fifth). Before taking on Utah last week, Seattle coach George Karl said, " Stockton is, right now, as good as any point guard that has played the game." But Stockton is the only one among the top five who has not won an NBA title.
So what was most compelling last week was not the steady accumulation of Stockton's assist total, but the accumulation of evidence that the Jazz, the whole team, might be for real. With Saturday night's 111-94 home victory over the New Jersey Nets, Utah finished the week atop the Midwest Division, 5 Vi games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and six in front of the defending champion Rockets. Most preseason forecasts had the Jazz chasing both those teams to the playoffs and maybe bowing out in the first round. Twenty thousand points, the cynics noted, is a good time to trade in your 31-year-old Malone on a new model, and surely the 32-year-old Stockton's odometer is ready to flip over to straight zeroes. But the Malone-Stockton machine has purred through the early schedule.
"Have Karl and John showed any signs of slowing down?" Utah forward Adam Keefe asked at a practice last week—and then answered his own question with a shake of his head. "I played with Dominique Wilkins at Atlanta, and with him 1 saw signs of slowing down. But these guys are playing better and better."
Still, Stockton and Malone have never been able to drag the Jazz closer to the NBA title than the Western Conference finals. What buoys Utah's hopes this time around is a supporting cast more formidable than the journeymen of yore. Maturing David Benoit gives Sloan a swift, slashing small forward. John Crotty supplies a reliable backup to the durable Stockton (who has only missed four games as a pro). And eight-year veteran Jeff Hornacek, an undersized (6'4") shooting guard acquired last year from the Philadelphia 76ers, provides the outside threat—at week's end he was averaging 17.6 points a game.