No crowds cheered and no bands played when John Stockton entered the NBA in 1984. To basketball connoisseurs, he was an intriguing prospect, a pocket Jerry Sloan with incredible passing instincts. But to casual fans, he was simply an obscure player from a small school in a far-flung city. "Is that Stockton from Gonzaga," they cracked, "or Gonzaga from Stockton?"
Soon enough, the Stockton jokes ceased. The point guard of the Utah Jazz holds prestigious NBA records, including most career assists and steals. He's one of three players to pass for more than 1,000 assists in a season, a feat he accomplished seven times. Perhaps most impressive of all, Stockton played in 98.6 percent of Utah's games in his career, and the 22 he missed were bunched into only two seasons -- in 17 of his 19 campaigns, Stockton played a full slate, with a lay-it-out, floor burn approach initially cast in the 1970s by his hardscrabble coach, Jerry Sloan. On the short list of great point guards, his name appears alongside Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas.
In both style and substance, Stockton was a throwback to the days when point guards were looked to for leadership and selfless passing. His ratio of assists to field-goal attempts is among the highest in NBA history, despite being one of the best shooters on his squad (for his career, Stockton's .515 shooting is an anomaly for a perimeter player). In terms of leadership, he was the proverbial "coach on the floor," running the offense, controlling the tempo, rallying the troops. Stockton never made a flashy pass when a simple one would do.
Physically, he failed to impress. He's 6'1'' and 175 pounds and doesn't jump particularly well. Stockton's best tools were his head, heart, vision, and gigantic hands (a trait he shares with Cousy). Stockton had the rare ability to manipulate the ball with his fingers and shoot precision passes off the dribble. He had superb endurance, working long minutes without tiring, and played with a toughness belying his choir-boy image.
Stockton was born March 26, 1962, in Spokane, Washington, where he caught rat-ball fever at an early age. He made All-City as a senior at Gonzaga Prep High School before enrolling at Gonzaga University as a 148-pound freshman. Improving step by step, he bumped his scoring average from 3.1 to 11.2 to 13.9 to 20.9 his senior season, while his assist average peaked at 7.2 per game. The Jazz grabbed him with the 16th pick in the draft.
For three years, Stockton backed up veteran Rickey Green. During the 1986-87 season, Stockton was the only NBA reserve to finish in the top 10 in two statistical categories (assists and steals). After the fourth game of the 1987-88 season, he moved into the starting lineup for good, and that season he set an NBA record with 1,128 assists. The chief beneficiary of his passes was power forward Karl Malone, who had joined the team in 1985-86. Both Stockton and Malone had been cut from the 1984 U.S. Olympic team; together, they forged Hall of Fame careers. Each year from 1987-92, Stockton recorded more than 1,000 assists. Malone averaged 29 points during that span.
As a shooter, Stockton was the epitome of efficiency. In 1987-88, he shot a sensational 57.4 percent from the floor. And in 1994-95, he buried 3-pointers at a 44.9-percent rate. At the free-throw line, he shot over 80 percent. It is no wonder that Stockton was an All-NBA player 11 times in his career.
There is one blemish on Stockton's record: No NBA titles. Yet Stockton's effort never waned. He surpassed Johnson as the leading assist man in NBA history in 1994-95, then broke the 10,000 barrier later in the year. And with his 86th steal of the 1995-96 season, Stockton surpassed Maurice Cheeks (2,310 career thefts) for the all-time steals lead.