ALMOST AN HOUR after Saturday's practice, John Stockton came out of the training room at Westminster College, looking as good as he said he felt. No signs of trauma. No visible welts, dents, contusions, bruises or abrasions. Nary a bandage to be seen. Just a baseball cap, walking shorts and a sweatshirt that said, "Jack and Dan's Tavern: Where Good Friends Meet."
Since this wasn't Jack and Dan's, and since he has never considered the media his good friends, he made his move to leave. But before he could get out the door, someone asked if his elbow was hurt.No, there's nothing wrong with it," he said. "I can't use any excuses."
If Stockton sounds reluctant to admit anything is wrong with his body, that's because he is. He'd rather spend a week locked in a room with Peter Vecsey and Bill Walton than admit he's actually in pain. He could lose a limb and, like Monty Python, dismiss it as a "mere flesh wound."
"He's on the floor," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, when asked how Stockton is feeling. "He's healthy."
Stockton, of course, is the guy who has missed only four games in his career, all in the same season when he fell deathly ill with the flu. Other than that he's had perfect attendance. He's been there for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. You couldn't get him off the court with a cattle prod.
Stockton is the NBA's least likely player - OK, maybe along with teammates Karl Malone and Jeff Hornacek - to use an injury as an excuse. You want excuses, look up Derrick Coleman in the Yellow Pages under "Excuses". When Stockton totaled his car on the way to practice during the 1993 playoffs, his car went to the junkyard, he went to practice. The same year, Portland's Clyde Drexler put his finger into Stockton's eye up to the second joint, but Stockton returned to play two days later. Though those in the organization knew Stockton played with the injury still bothering him, he insisted otherwise.
So as the 1996 playoffs roll along, Stockton doggedly refuses to blame a sore elbow, a pulled hamstring or a pulled groin for his below-normal play in this series with the Sonics. After an uncharacteristic game on Friday, in which he registered just seven assists and made only 2 of 9 shots, teammate Karl Malone said "95 percent of the guys in this league wouldn't be playing, and he's out there playing like he always does."
To which Stockton responded on Saturday: "No, naw, not true. He's going to stick up for his pal, and I appreciate it, but that's about all there is to that."
Injured or not, Stockton's numbers haven't been good against the Sonics. He was just 2-for-10, with seven assists in a Game 1 loss in Seattle. He went 5-8 from the field but had only seven assists and committed seven turnovers in Game 2. Despite Stockton's off night Friday, the Jazz won thanks to 28 points from Jeff Hornacek and 24 from Bryon Russell.
All totaled, Stockton is 9-27 from the field for the series and averaging seven assists - more than four below his career average.
Though they're down 2-1 in the series and needed an extraordinary performance by Russell to win Friday, Stockton doesn't subscribe to the theory that the Jazz can't win without him playing well. "I don't agree with that," said Stockton. "Obviously it adds weight on other guys, but we're not gonna rise and fall whether I shoot well or not. I like to shoot well, I like to help the team out that way, but this team doesn't rise and fall by that."
At least sometimes it does. In a Dec. 15 game against Orlando he went 3-11 from the field and the Jazz ended up losing 111-99. In January against the Lakers he went 2-6, and the Jazz lost 116-100. Stockton's 2-12 night at Atlanta was part of a 115-89 embarrassment at the hands of the Hawks. And Stockton's 3-9 night against the Spurs in early April was part of a 92-91 loss.
So as the Jazz play Game 4 today at the Delta Center, the questions remain: How bad are Stockton's injuries? Can the Jazz win again without a strong game from Stockton?
"I think the other guys will step up and play well," said forward David Benoit, "and we'll be at home and the crowd will make it easier."
Whether they can win in Seattle, if Stockton doesn't play well, is another matter. "Man," said Benoit. "That's tough. That's a tough question. I haven't really thought about that."
Which is understandable. Nobody wants to think about how long the Jazz can survive if Stockton has a few more bad games. It's an unthinkable thought. But an obvious answer.