Step inside the Jazz locker room, take a hard left around the corner, and there where John Crotty hung his street clothes for three seasons, sits Howard Eisley. But you'll have to look close or you may not notice.
In an era in which young players talk, sign contracts, talk some more, and then - maybe - get around to playing, Eisley is an anomaly. He's as quiet as a mortician; a player just waiting to be ignored.It isn't that Eisley is lacking confidence. He's just missing the requisite bluster. Ask how he feels about his game and he's likely to launch into all of a two-word answer - if he's feeling expansive. Otherwise, he'll just say "OK."
"He has a quiet demeanor, but it's a sign of mental toughness," said Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa.
Compared to his peer group of self-promoters and trash-talkers, Eisley is a throwback. He'd have fit in better with, say, K.C. Jones than Shaquille O'Neal. You want a good quote, you're going to have to get it from someone else.
"I just go in and try to play well and give 100 percent," said Eisley.
Such insights are about the sum of what you're going to learn from Eisley. He's as colorful as Al Gore. When they had signups for Trash-Talking and Self-Promotion at Boston College, Eisley was nowhere to be found.
"In the day of 90s rookies, all high-fiving and slamming and jamming and trying to do their own thing, Howard is a refreshing throwback," said Chiesa.
In Eisley's case, keeping a low profile is probably a good idea. He has inherited one of the lowest-profile jobs in pro sports: backing up John Stockton. In 12 years, Stockton has missed only four games. Consequently, Eisley's job is to spent a few minutes a night trying to keep the team from losing ground when Stockton comes out.
There are easier jobs, to be sure. Eric Johnson, one of the early Stockton backups, got discouraged waiting and went to Europe. Eric Murdock brooded until he got traded. Delaney Rudd had some good-scoring nights but couldn't keep the team from slipping when Stockton was out. Crotty lasted three years but wanted a point guard job of his own, so he left as a free agent last summer.
There are two problems that come with backing up Stockton. First, you don't get to play all that much, and second, when you're in there you inevitably get compared to Stockton. "You play behind Stockton, everyone expects you to be Stockton," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "And then the player starts to expect it."
So far, Eisley has managed to avoid falling into that trap. He doesn't try to throw one-handed passes around the double-team. He doesn't drive the lane, leap in the air and kick a no-look pass back out to the perimeter. He doesn't take the last shot of a one-point game.
"He gets us in our offense so we can execute," continued Sloan. "He doesn't go crazy and start taking 20-foot jump shots. He just gets us in our offense."
That Eisley would be getting any NBA team into its offense this late in the season was questionable a few months ago. After spending 49 games in Minnesota and San Antonio last year, he was the last player cut in Jazz training camp. It's no coincidence that all the players who made the opening-day roster were on guaranteed contracts, except Eisley.
The original plan was to use Jamie Watson and Jeff Hornacek at backup point guard. But when Watson went down after 16 games with a sprained ankle, Eisley got a call. He had been playing for the Rockford Lightning of the CBA. Since then, Eisley has made Watson's return a relatively moot point. Not only is Eisley better suited to playing point guard, but he has spent significant minutes at 2-guard. He averages 16 minutes, 2.2 assists and 4.7 points. Were Watson to return, it's unlikely he would be able to play himself into shape in time to help in the playoffs. Thus, it appears Eisley has a job through the rest of the year.
Wednesday night's 101-94 Jazz win over Indiana was a fairly typical performance. He logged nine quiet minutes, scoring one point, collecting two assists and committing a turnover.
In the last 4 1/2 minutes of the first quarter, the Jazz maintained their lead while Eisley was in, going from a 22-10 lead to 30-17. But in the final 4 1/2 minutes of the third quarter he didn't fare so well. He missed a 12-foot jumper, committed a turnover and drew an illegal defense penalty.
Still, at the night's end, nobody was complaining. Eisley had done his job without either falling to pieces or going wild trying to prove himself. Which was just the way the Jazz like it. When you're backing up Stockton, the idea isn't to get noticed. It's to make sure nobody notices when Stockton is gone.
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