John Stockton supposedly has a bad back, and now everyone wants one. All over town, middle-age guys are volunteering to do yard work or lift a piano or help the neighbors move, hoping to get one for them-selves.
If having a bad back means running circles around kids and playing like a 19-year-old again, let's all get one.One thousand, two hundred and sixty-five games down the road of his storied career, Stockton put the Jazz on his back and gave a clinic in shooting, passing, intelligence, unselfish play and savvy Monday night for the Lakers, who demonstrated none of the above.
Stockton made nine of 12 shots and collected 22 points, six assists and two steals to help the Jazz claim a 99-95 win and a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals. Along the way, he showed that reports of his demise have been greatly - or moderately - exaggerated, again. He looked like the Stockton of old, instead of the old Stockton.
One play said everything you needed to know about how he wrested control of the game with his veteran's tricks. He had just missed a free throw with three minutes left and the Jazz leading just 90-88. Laker ball. Jazz in trouble. Seconds later, who steps in front of Corie Blount to draw a charge? Right. Him. Jazz ball. Stockton passes to Malone for a basket and buries a 13-foot jumper in the lane for another, and the Jazz are on their way.
That's the way it went all night, the old man giving the kids lessons. He beat them off the dribble for layups, running jumpers in the lane, draw-and-kicks, jump shots. He pushed fast breaks. He directed the vintage pick and roll. Derek Fisher and Nick Van Exel, two twenty-somethings, picked up nine fouls between them trying to guard Stockton, the creaky 36-year-old.
Good thing he's slowing down, or he might have really shown up the Lake Show.
"Sure! He's a step slower," Sloan was saying after the game. "That's not even a fair question. He's 36 years old. He's going to lose a step. But he hasn't lost his intelligence."
Next to the Laker guards, Stockton looked like Albert Einstein out there. By the end of the game, Van Exel was so flummoxed that he was doing his end-of-the-game meltdown, an annual (and highly anticipated) event in the Delta Center.
During one exchange, Fisher drew a charging foul from Stockton. On the Lakers' ensuing possession, seconds later, Stockton fell to the floor to draw a charge on Fisher, favor returned. Stockton leaped to his feet and pumped his fist. Fisher smiled, chagrined. Stockton sank a 15-foot jump shot from the foul line.
Fisher even tried to flop like Stockton. The referee laughed at him.
Stockton's back, so to speak. He has had a quiet, unspectacular performance in the playoffs, and this was his breakout game, although one had the feeling he was just waiting to deliver such a performance when the Jazz really needed it. Stockton was irritated by any suggestion that his performance in this game was any better than his other playoff showings.
"I scored a few points," he said. "I don't know if that means I played better than in any other game."
Bottom line: The Jazz won. If winning meant scoring or passing or taking that charge, that's what he would do. Winning and losing is the only way he measures his performance. Let others get their points and numbers.
As expected, Stockton's play in the playoffs rekindled the he's-too-old talk. Not that it ever goes away. It began when he was about 30 and has resumed annually since then.
"We've heard it for six years," says Sloan. "We get all kinds of advice. How you going to replace him. We'll just let him play as long as he wants to."
Stockton is old for any position, but especially point guard, a young man's job. How many 36-year-old point guards are out there, Sloan likes to say? And how many play the position as physically and aggressively as Stockton? How many charges has he taken in 13 years? He sets crushing screens almost every trip down the court. How many would that be in 13 seasons? He crashes to the floor a half-dozen times every game. He's taken more falls than a stuntman.
This year the falls took their toll. The word is that Stockton has an injured back, and this partly accounts for his mediocre playoff play. Following Monday's game, a Salt Lake woman told a late-night, national call-in show, "Everyone knows that Stockton has a bad back."
Stockton keeps insisting that his back is fine. Everyone else says, no, it isn't, he just doesn't want to use it as an excuse.
"I don't know why people keep saying that," says Craig Buehler, the Jazz chiropractor. "I hear that all the time. There's nothing wrong with his back. During the Houston series he got knocked to the floor by Barkley and sprained his back. He could barely walk. But he's fine now. There's nothing wrong with his back."
So the Lakers noticed.