BARRING A MALARIA attack, John Stockton will start his 604th straight game tonight - the longest startsstreak in the NBA. Such tenacity is rare among NBA players but standard procedure for Stockton. "You're not going to force him to stay out of a game," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "You're not going to force him to do anything he doesn't want to do. He's amazing."

A case in point is last year's playoffs. He resolutely insisted he was fine, that there were no injuries bothering him. Yet his game was below his normal standards.But in an interview last week, Sloan said Stockton's arm "bothered him a great deal" in the playoffs, and that he played until the final two or three games with so much pain he couldn't straighten his arm. Yet when Stockton was asked prior to Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals about injuries, he replied, "No, there's nothing to worry with it. I can't use any excuses." On other occasions during the playoffs, he merely said, "I'm fine."

At the same time, Sloan said, "He's on the floor. He's healthy."

So if you're expecting Stockton to take himself out of a game, or even admit he's hurting, don't hold your breath. The man doesn't like admitting to defeat - to an opponent or an injury.

ROYAL RECEPTION: If there is anything to be learned by President Clinton's meeting with the Chicago Bulls last week, it's that everyone should stick with what they know. Clinton may be a whiz on the domestic policy, but when it comes to the NBA, he doesn't know a tip-in from Tipper Gore.

The first strange comment came when Clinton, recovering from knee surgery, told the Bulls, "Just think of me as another injured basketball player. I want you to know that in six months, I'll be good as new and available for the next draft."

Trouble is, the next draft is in two months, not six. So anyone looking for a slightly overweight backup small forward, who will play for minimum salary, will have to wait until the 1998 draft.

Meanwhile, Clinton referred to the Bulls as "perhaps the greatest basketball dynasty ever" for winning four of the last six NBA titles. All of which comes as news to the Boston Celtics, who won eight straight NBA titles and 10 in 11 years; or the UCLA Bruins who won seven straight NCAA championships and nine in 10 years.

So the next time the Bulls or any other team visits the White House, it may be good to dispatch someone to Barnes & Noble to pick up a couple of books for the President: the NCAA and NBA record books.

LET'S PLAY, EH?: While a work stoppage seems a constant threat in professional sports, don't expect that to happen any time soon with professional hockey.

The NHL, which has spent major dollars fostering its image as a fan-friendly sport, will have players in the Winter Games for the first time in 1998. You can be sure the Games, or the NHL season, won't be sidetracked by a strike. When the league hammered out its collective bargaining agreement in 1995, it included a clause that there could be no work stoppages through the 1997-98 season - in part to make sure no players miss the Olympics.

"This is a physical game that requires great athletic skills," said NHL vice president for public relations Arthur Pincus. "The players are in love with the game."

Which is a clear departure from baseball, where the players are mostly in love with themselves.

RED LETTER DAY: Not that there has been any doubt who owned the Jazz for a long time, but tonight's game marks 12 years since Larry H. Miller purchased 50 percent of the team. For the first 11 years, the team was partially or completely owned by Sam Battistone.

Since then, Miller's teams have won three Midwest Division championships and gone to the Western Conference Finals three times. On Wednesday, they won their 14th straight game, one shy of the franchise-record 15 set earlier this season.

With the Jazz's best chance ever of making the NBA Finals, Miller admits he has invested much - emotionally and financially - in the enterprise. He added that the annual "sense of community" the playoffs bring has arrived early this year.

"One thing I worry about," said Miller, "is that maybe we're spending it all too soon, whether it's on the basketball court or in community support."

However, given the dire financial situation the Jazz were in when Miller took over, he would be the first to admit that worrying about spending all your enthusiasm is far better than worrying about spending all your money.

QUOTEFILE: Minnesota Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale: "When you've got players who are 20, you wish they were 30. And when you've got players who are 35, you wish they were 25."