Next month, John Stockton will come home. He'll organize pickup basketball games, play shortstop for the Jack & Dan's Tavern softball team, run his basketball camp and fix up his house. Just like always. "If you sat around our dinner table, you'd think he'd never lettered in grade school," says his father. "He's just another guy," says one friend.
Saturday night, the Regular Guy broke the NBA season record for assists in the last game of a year when he had people around the league shaking their heads. Which is nothing new. Stockton's surprised folks at every level, although the latest word in Spokane is yeah, we saw this coming. When Gonzaga University Coach Dan Fitzgerald hears that around town, he responds, "Sure, you did."The unofficial John Stockton Boyhood Tour covers only a few blocks: The home on Superior Avenue where Jack and Clementine Stockton raised two boys and two girls and still live; the house next door no kidding that John later bought; Jack & Dan's Tavern, the neighborhood bar that shares the brick building on Hamilton with University Pharmacy and was known as Joey's until Jack Stockton and Dan Crowley formed a partnership in March 1962, 10 days before John was born; and three Catholic schools, St. Aloysius, Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga U.
The Stockton package is intriguing. Is this the perfect makeup or what?
Here we have a guy mild-mannered, but accused of cheating in pickup games; refusing to read newspaper stories about himself and genuinely embarrassed by awards and attention, but so confident that he wrote a letter after his first day of NBA training camp and said, "They're not that awesome"; profiting from meager meal-money allotments in college and buying a car only after his second NBA season, but quietly helping old friends; valuing privacy more than ever, but willing to talk to kids in a hardware store until their mothers pull them away; and publicly shy, but spontaneously clever and always looking to tease his friends unmercifully.
Some people love to play basketball, and then there's John Stockton. Kerry Pickett, his grade-school coach, remembers opening the gym at 6 a.m. in the summer. "I didn't really think anybody would take me up on that," he said. Stockton did, every morning. When he comes from a 100-game NBA season, he'll unpack and immediately be on the phone, setting up a game of hoops.
Competitive? The word is tossed around a lot. But consider the Stocktons: The driveway basketball battles with his brother, Steve, four years older, are legendary. Even now, says their father, "If they both took a lawn mower and started mowing the lawn, they'd find a way to race."
"He's probably the most competitive human being I've ever met," says Steve, who makes sure he and John are on the same team in city-league softball and basketball because, he figures, "It saves arguments."
The Gonzaga U. gym is the summer gathering place for pickup games, and Stockton holds court all day long. And usually wins. Players have complained to Fitzgerald that Stock calls too many fouls and can't count, but he tells them, "You argue with him."
What's this? John Stockton, the meek, little lamb, refusing to lose? "There's the mentality of a street fighter," marvels Fitzgerald, "that will cut your head off to win. He doesn't play any harder at Utah than he does here in July."
He's needed confidence, because he's sure never overwhelmed anybody. He was 5-foot-5 when he started high school and Coach Terry Irwin aroused controversy by keeping Stockton, a sophomore, and only one senior on the varsity. Fitzgerald, who became GU's full-time athletic director after Stockton's freshmanyear and has since returned to coaching, had to convince an assistant to back off another player and give a scholarship to the hometown kid. "There weren't a lot of guys beating down the door," he says.
Even after Stockton lifted himself from about a fifth-round draft choice to a first-rounder with his play in college all-star tournaments and the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, Jazz followers were skeptical. Really, the only guy who knew any of this was possible was Stockton himself.
"He's sure not humble," says Jack, smiling. "I know he's very confident in his abilities. He's had to be, because people have always raised their eyebrows."
In that letter from camp, Stockton told Fitzgerald, "I definitely feel confident playing against them."
In his fourth season, the confidence really shows. He was Rickey Green's full-time apprentice as a rookie, then started through the first half of the 1985-86 season before wearing down and being replaced by Green. He would later say, "I've never felt lower as a player."
Last season, Green continued to start but Stockton had a strong season, finishing in the NBA's top 10 in assists and steals while playing less than 23 minutes a game. The logic was, he could do those things because he didn't have to pace himself. So much for that idea. This year, taking over as the starter in the fourth game of the year and averaging about 35 minutes, his statistics on a 48-minute projection are even higher. His being named the Jazz's most valuable player was hard to dispute, even if the voting was done by teammates who wanted to keep their passer happy.
His endurance and decision-making have impressed Coach Frank Layden and others in the NBA. "If he was in the East, you'd hear about him all the time," said Detroit's Isiah Thomas. "What if he played for the New York Knicks?"
Cancel the thought. "He really hates the limelight," says his brother. "He likes the recognition, but he doesn't like some of the stuff that goes with it."
But his personality is surfacing in Utah, making Jazz coaches think they just may have a leader on their hands. Stockton is reserved and almost difficult to interview when the subject is himself, but in the right setting, he's a ham.
When Stockton's pass was intercepted in a high school practice, Irwin yelled, "Stockton, will you be creative?" From then on, every time Stockton would make a play, he'd ask jokingly, "Coach, was that creative?" Later, knowing Irwin was present at a camp lecture, Stockton earnestly talked about the importance of being creative.
When he decided to go to Gonzaga, he called Fitzgerald and said, "Coach, I'm going to Montana," and started laughing.
On a college road trip, he approached actress Bernadette Peters for an autograph in an airport and asked if she wanted to come to Gonzaga's game at Pepperdine. "She has other plans," he reported to his teammates. "We're going out."
At a recent Jazz awards dinner, guest speaker Bob Lanier praised Karl Malone for a great season, but advised him, "You ought to give a couple hundred thousand dollars to that little white boy over there." Stockton responded with a one-man standing ovation, which brought the house down.
Informally, the Stockton wit is devastating. His locker-room impersonations well, mimics of teammates are famous. At home, the family's running commentary keeps each other humble. "He's just ruthless; he goes right for the throat," says Steve. "If you don't protect yourself, he's going to get a piece of you," says Fitzgerald. "Their ability to kid each other; that helps," says Jack, approvingly.
Be assured, milquetoast John Stockton was involved in his share of mischief. The wall of the Florentine Academy convent across the street became a balance beam, much to the displeasure of the nuns, and wet cement was always a favorite target. And boyhood friend George Lucas laughs every time he sees John hunch down and dribble away from pressing defenders, reminded of the way John used to evade his mother when a spanking was due.
No doubt, the Stocktons had something going for them in their downtown, Irish neighborhood in Spokane, an eastern Washington town with a Seattle setting, a Milwaukee aura and a valley-wide population of about 350,000.
"His family has brought him up to be exactly what he is," Irwin says of John. And they're keeping him that way. His brother and sisters follow Stockton's career closely, but treat him no differently. Other than game nights, when a worn sign goes up in the window to say the Jazz will be on television via satellite dish, the only indications in his tavern that Jack Stockton is an NBA father are the personalized Jazz drinking mugs he sells and a schedule poster in the corner.
"I don't go home to parades," says Stockton, who will, certainly, be well-received when he walks into Jack & Dan's next month.
But this summer will be no different from any other. He'll play basketball, softball and golf and spend time with his wife, Nada, and their sixth-month-old son, John Houston Stockton IV (at least). Gonzaga's best football player, a triple-threat halfback in the 1920s who went by Houston Stockton, is considered the first, but Jack guesses the name may go back even further.
With his NBA salary, John could have called the sprinkler-system people or the siding man last summer, but that's not the Stockton way. He rounded up his friends to help him on the home improvements, borrowing so many tools that Lucas discovered John knew his garage better than he did.
Stockton's older sister and a sister-in-law live in the house while John and Nada are in Salt Lake City. "They're probably paying rent," laughs Jack. "I don't ask."
That would fit right in with this 26-year-old NBA player who wants to be treated the same as ever. When he worked at a basketball camp in Idaho last summer, nobody recognized him until he was introduced. "He just kind of blends in and doesn't want to make a big deal of anything," says Hugh Hobus, a Gonzaga teammate.
When John and Nada brought the baby to Spokane to be baptized during the All-Star break in February, they walked behind the bleachers to their seats at a Gonzaga game and John was embarrassed to be introduced at halftime. He stopped reading newspaper stories about himself in college because he was afraid of having something affect his on-court thinking, one way or another.
With his modest lifestyle, Stockton will do very nicely in the NBA. He was awarded a new five-year contract in the summer of '86 with one year left on his original deal. Even now, he's a terrific bargain for the Jazz at about $300,000. Will he seek a raise? "I'll just see what happens," he says. "John's a contract guy, and I'm a contract guy," says his agent, Jim White.
Translation: If he has another year like this, yes.
And what's to suggest he won't keep improving? Just like in the NBA, he made big jumps in his fourth year of high school and college, making his coaches wish they could keep him for a fifth or sixth year. Chances are, the Jazz will have him for at least another five or six years.
"It's exciting," says Jazz assistant coach Scott Layden, "because in the whole league, there are very few leaders."
And definitely not many John Stocktons. "If he had never played even a day of pro basketball," said one Gonzaga official, "I don't think it would have mattered to anyone around here who knew him."