John Stockton, who will be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, could be difficult to work with for the media.
The Utah Jazz's point guard hid out in the training room after games and gave only cursory answers to questions. He never would sit down for profile interviews. He reserved his great wit and warmth for teammates, friends and family only.
Still, watching him from a distance for years, I couldn't help but admire him, and here's why: John Stockton was and is his own man. He never ran with the herd. Like Clint Eastwood and Willie Nelson, he was an original.
Most crave fame; he genuinely didn't want or need it. He was Garbo in shorts, ducking cameras and interviews and publicity. He strived for normalcy and privacy for himself and his family (and pulled it off).
He wore short shorts when the crowd followed the Jordan-inspired, baggy knee-length style. He didn't care that he was out of fashion.
He didn't shave his head a la Jordan or start combing it to attention in that carefully disheveled look that became fashionable. He wore the same boyish, Opie Taylor hairdo he had always worn.
It's not because he was a rebel; he wasn't. He simply made up his own mind about what felt right to him and didn't care what everyone else was doing or what they thought.
He didn't hire an agent. He handled all his negotiations with owner Larry Miller face to face. Who does that?
Or this: He played for the same team during his entire 19-year career.
He didn't conduct his business in the newspaper a la Karl Malone and so many other stars; he never aired his gripes in public. We don't even know if he had any.
He was, above all else, remarkably self-contained.
He was not like most people. He didn't hunger for validation through awards, statistics, publicity or fame, although all of it came his way. He was the antithesis of Terrell Owens and Kobe Bryant and the rest of them.
Miller, the Jazz's late owner, marveled that Stockton never looked at the stat sheet — not at halftime, not even after the game. Miller knew this because he used to visit Stockton in his postgame training-room hideout as the latter iced his feet, and Stockton never looked at the stats. Most players check their points, rebounds, assists, etc., but this was of no interest to Stockton. The only stat he cared about was whether his team won or lost.
When he learned the Jazz planned to stop a game immediately after he broke the NBA records for steals and assists, he tried to talk them out of it. Ditto for a retirement ceremony in his honor. He didn't need it, but he got it anyway.
He was not motivated by personal recognition in any way, which is ironic now that he is about to receive the most conspicuous of all individual recognition — induction into the Hall of Fame.
Watch him squirm.
Many years ago, Lee Benson, the Deseret News columnist, asked Stockton to name his favorite moment from the Barcelona Olympics, where the first Dream Team romped to the gold medal. Stockton didn't miss a beat. Of all the memorable things he experienced there, the first thing that came to mind was this: One afternoon, he was out walking through a crowded street in Barcelona with Charles Barkley and other Olympic teammates when a female tourist tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a camera.
"Excuse me," she said, "would you mind taking a picture of me and Mr. Barkley?"
Stockton loved being mistaken for another tourist, just a face in the crowd.
Almost nothing Stockton did occurred through happenstance or the emotion of the moment. He was too calculated for that. He thought things out and made decisions about how he would behave and what his limits would be.
After several embarrassing public incidents with overly aggressive autograph seekers, including a woman who screamed at him in a hotel lobby for refusing to give her more than one autograph, he decided he would no longer give autographs except through an endorsement deal he had with a card company. That was that. He drew a line in the sand and rarely, if ever, made exceptions, even if the request came from Miller himself.
For a time Stockton was rather lax during the playing of the national anthem before games, as so many NBA players are, barely paying attention, shaking the kinks out of their necks, chomping on gum and so forth. When Stockton's kids noticed this and asked him why he didn't put his hand over his heart, he thought about it and made another decision. He realized kids were watching him — including his kids — so from then on he placed his hand over his heart during the national anthem.
Stockton was so guarded, if not a little uptight, that, in a way, fans never really knew him. The only time anyone can remember seeing him cut loose was when he sank the shot that beat Houston in the Western Conference Finals to send the Jazz to their first NBA Finals.
He was always the calm, steadying presence on and off the court. During a 1994 playoff game, Miller was steamed about the team's poor effort in the first half, at one point shouting at Sloan to bench Karl Malone. At halftime, Miller entered the locker room with steam coming out of his ears, only to be intercepted by Stockton, who told him, "If you're too mad to be here — don't."
Miller turned around and headed for the training room and cooled down. Miller later recalled, "After Stockton gave me his words of wisdom, I thought, 'I'm OK. I've got a grip.' "
Because of all of the above, Stockton won everyone's respect, even, or especially, the owner's.
"People ask me all the time what kind of person John Stockton is," Miller said last year. "I tell them he's exactly the kind of person you hope he is."