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In the final week of the NBA season, we have John Stockton chasing Isiah Thomas, just like always.

Stockton's 18 assists Tuesday night left him 49 away from Thomas' NBA season record with three games left.Stockton and Thomas go back a ways, to a national AAU tournament where Isiah and friends from Chicago taught John and the boys from Spokane a few things. "We were pretty impressed by the way he played," Stockton says, even now.

As Isiah went on to Indiana University the next year, Stockton followed his career. Every time Thomas did something notable, Stockton would proudly show his friends at Gonzaga Prep High School a scratch on his leg that Thomas inflicted. "I'm never washing my leg," he'd say.

Now look at what's happened.

The way he's going, Stockton should have Isiah's record by Saturday night, not insignificant for a fourth-year player who started the season on the bench.

But the ultimate irony about his assists is that unselfishness is causing Stockton trouble. As the assist count climbed past 1,000 last week and continues toward the the attention grows. "I don't know if `uncomfortable' is the word, but I'd just as soon not have to talk about it or think about it," Stockton says. "It's a distraction. I'd rather play and not worry about anything."

In the old prep days, Stockton was a little more willing to rack up the numbers. He'd lobby with the statistics girls for assists and even make his coaches review the 8-millimeter game films to make sure he was awarded the right amount. "Most people count points; he counted assists," says his high school coach, Terry Irwin.

Stockton still kids Irwin about taking him out of a game when he had 37 points with six minutes left, only nine points short of a scoring record. Irwin tells him, "You were never interested in scoring."

Now assists, that's a different story, although Stockton is guarding against passing up shots and creating any appearance that he's selfishly trying for the record. He proved against Portland that by shooting enough to score 25 points, one short of his career high. "If it happens, great," he says of the record.

Notes Irwin, "Inside, it means something to him. His upbringing, his personality or whatever, will not allow to vocalize that."

Monday, all the talk in Jack & Dan's Tavern in Spokane was about the record and the Jazz's playoff possibilities. Serving up a bowl of his homemade chili assists run in the family dad Jack Stockton said, "He won't let it interfere with his play, but you bet, he'd take it if he got it."

The Jazz players are more outspoken about their support of Stockton's quest and so is Coach Frank Layden, who says he'll give him every chance to play. Besides, Tuesday's win means the last three games will be meaningful, anyway. "I like to see our guys get all the credit they can get," Layden says. "Why not?"

And no doubt, Stockton has a terrific chance. He plays tonight against the Clippers in Los Angeles, where he had 21 assists in February. Friday, he'll be playing in front of his family in Seattle, where he had 15 assists last month and where the Sonics' Nate McMillan was credited with 25 in a game last season. Nate McMillan?

Which brings us to the only downside of Stock's rise on the chart. The assist is really the only basketball subject that's subjective and, while Stockton long ago stopped asking for more on the stat sheet, he'll have skeptics about his totals. Two factors give him credibility: Of his 41 games with 15 or more assists, 19 have come on the road. And John Allen, the Jazz stat crew chief, is conscientious. He took home a videotape to verify the 26 assists he awarded Stockton last Thursday against Portland and learned that he actually could have given him one more for the definitive play "a pass leading directly to a basket."

But when Portland's Maurice Lucas read about Stockton's 26 and Terry Porter's franchise-record 19, he said, "That's criminal."

Stockton is sneaky, all right, but nothing should take away from his remarkable season. And after this week, Isiah Thomas will probably be chasing him.