John Stockton reacted to the question as if he were being told he needed a root canal. He didn't want to hear it.
"You want me to have to remember back to THAT?" he said.The question put to the Jazz's assist-master was concerning his memories of the last time the Jazz and the Golden State Warriors - who opened the 1989 NBA playoffs Thursday night in the Salt Palace - met in the postseason; namely, in 1987, when the Warriors came back from an 0-2 deficit to oust the Jazz three games to two.
By most measuring standards, that was the last downer period for the Jazz, and for Stockton, too. In 1988 the franchise went on to set new marks for games won and playoff penetration, while Stockton not only won the starting point-guard position from Rickey Green but also set his alltime NBA assist record. Then, during the just-finished 1989 regular season, the team won even more games, and Stockton proved his '88 season was no fluke by dishing out almost an identical number of assists and winning the NBA steals championship.
After all that success, and with Golden State and Utah now about to meet again, talking about that Setback Series in '87 seemed like a natural getting-ready-for-the-playoffs conservation piece.
Stockton thought otherwise.
"Here's what I feel," he said after the Jazz's final full-scale practice Wednesday. "I feel like it's time to look ahead.
That's all I want to think about. What's in front of us."
Stockton never has liked to get overly cerebral about things; or overly talkative. Analysis isn't his game. "It's like if people ask me if I'm shooting well, or shooting poorly," he says. "I say, 'don't ask.' I don't want to think about it."
Beyond that, his idea of motivation isn't to dwell on the past and get stoked up on either vengeance and revenge, or on confidence because of an earlier triumph.
Just tip it up and play ball.
This isn't to say that Stockton doesn't admire confidence. Of the Joe Namaths and Muhammad Alis of the world, who make predictions and guarantees, he says, "I totally respect that kind of attitude. Outwardly maybe I'm not like that. Inwardly, maybe I am."
He just doesn't want to talk about it.
"That's all you need," he says, "stepping to the line to shoot what would be game-winning free throws in Game 5 and knowing you predicted the outcome."
Stockton prefers inward preparation for the playoffs.
"Call it a focus," he says.
To get ready, he does not pay attention to form charts, or expert predictions, or point spreads, or psychological warfare. His locker is not covered with quotes from the opposition. He does not tune into talk shows. He doesn't look how the stars are aligned. He enters the Stockton Zone. Heck, this week he wasn't even aware that his high-scoring teammate, Karl (Mailman) Malone, was creating something of a furor because he wasn't talking to the press as flamboyantly as he usually does.
"Is Mailman not talking much?" he asked Wednesday, honestly surprised.
Finding out that that was the case, that Malone, in sharp contrast to last year's playoffs, when he was a predictor in true Ali fashion, was now doing his public speaking in one-syllables, Stockton immediately empathized with his most valuable teammate.
"I believe he's just focusing too," he said.
For the record, Stockton said that he'd rather focus for the playoffs than just about anything in life.
"The playoffs," he said, "are just more fun, that's all. Do-or-die situations are the best challenges there are. You try not to think about the L word; just think about the W word, and you go out and play.
"To tell you the truth," he added, "it's hard to put it into words."
Or into flashbacks, for that matter. For Stockton, remembering what happened in the past can only get in the way.
It's like that old golf story about Arnold Palmer in his prime, when he was getting ready to putt and a dog ran across the green. People watching were sure that Palmer would be upset, but when they asked him, after he'd putted, about the dog, he said, "what dog?"
Ask John Stockton about the star-crossed Utah-Golden State playoffs of '87, when the Jazz last ran their ship onto a rock, and he says, "what playoffs?"