The guy still fixes up his own house every summer. In high school, he used to proudly show off a scratch on his leg from Isiah Thomas. He almost went unrecruited by his hometown college. Projected as a fifth-round NBA draft choice, he was still a reserve on his own team when last season started. Until this week, he was 196th on the league payroll, for crying out loud.
So how is Jazz guard John Stockton starting the 1989 NBA All-Star Game?No mystery, really. While all this classic underdog stuff sounds good, the fact is John Houston Stockton III knows he belongs on the Astrodome floor Sunday afternoon. "He really knows where he fits in the whole scheme of things," says one hometown Stock watcher. "He knows how good he is."
Suddenly, so do a lot of other people. The Western Conference coaches voted him to the All-Star team and the Lakers' Pat Riley named him to start in place of the injured Magic Johnson. Did they have any other choice? Not only did Stockton break the NBA assists record last season, he's just short on his record pace again this year and is also second in steals (2.9) while averaging 15.9 points and shooting 53 percent from the field.
Joined in Houston by his parents, Stockton says of the All-Star Game,"I think it's more exciting for them. I don't mean to downplay it . . ."
Stockton, no doubt, would choose an NBA title shot over Sunday's assignment. We know, we know. Everybody says that.
"There are guys that talk that way, but he's sincere," says Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga University's coach/athletic director. "In a heartbeat, he would trade that for a championship."
Indeed, Stockton's personality is surfacing in his fifth pro season. He's the Jazz's front man - Karl Malone is the marquee player, Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton are the co-captains and Stockton is the leader. After waiting until the right moment, Stockton now animatedly instructs his teammates on the court and even makes suggestions to Coach Jerry Sloan in the timeout huddles.
"Now that he is where he is, he's got to do it," says Sloan, approvingly. "He's driven to win basketball games."
That's no news to folks in Spokane, who saw Stockton lead as a senior in high school and college, and marveled about what he'd have been like in a fifth season. "He'll be as vocal as he has to be to win," notes Fitzgerald. "He's plenty strong enough to speak up. He's always been bright enough not to try to do that until he's earned the respect."
Sloan joined the Jazz as an assistant coach in November 1984, as Stockton was starting his rookie season. After only two games, Sloan told a Jazz official, "There's a guy you could build a team around."
Explains Sloan, "The way he saw the game was remarkable to me; I hadn't seen anything like that in a long time."
As the Jazz came to know and appreciate Stockton, they had an idea of his toughness, but really found out last summer when he joined with ProServ attorney David Falk. ProServ's client list includes Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, James Worthy, Boomer Esiason - and Adrian Dantley, which made Falk a Jazz rival. That didn't stop Stockton from hiring him, knowing that Falk could assure him a fair contract.
Before that, Jazz owner Larry Miller said seriously that the team would have to be careful not to take advantage of Stockton, because he's such a good guy.
That's Stock for you. While totally confident, he's also genuinely unaffected by his NBA status - the folks in Spokane make sure of that. "His friends accept him inspite of his success, if that makes any sense," says Fitzgerald.
"It's amazing," says Sloan. "He doesn't want to take credit for anything."
He'll take more money, though. Not because of his extravagant lifestyle; he didn't own a car until after his second NBA season and even after his resounding success of last season, he returned home to spend a week of 18-hour days remodeling his house - the one next door to his parents, of course.
He's just another businessman, like his father, the co-owner of Jack & Dan's Tavern, looking for an honest wage. "You compare yourself to other players," admitted Stockton. "You don't want to be the only sucker in the league."
In the third year of a five-year contract, Stockton was making about $300,000 - the new deal he's agreed to should carry him through the rest of his career.
Stockton will lose an edge by signing the big contract - he loves facing obstacles. "There's something nice about being paid less than the guy across from you, and outplaying him," he says.
Obviously, the contract hangup hardly affected Stockton's play. "I probably worry about it more than he does," Jack Stockton had said.
"He's a very focused kid," says Fitzgerald. "He won't let a lot of things interfere."
Not even starting in the All-Star Game.