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Wounded knee

Howard Eisley, the soft-spoken, unassuming understudy for John Stockton the past two seasons, could have signed a free agent contract with another team a couple of months ago. He may have gotten more money or been in a position to become a starter faster.

Well, scratch that last part. He'll be starting soon enough.Eisley has never started a regular-season NBA basketball game, but he'll get a chance well before he anticipated when he re-signed with the Utah Jazz this summer.

Come Halloween night in Los Angeles - and 25 to 35 more times during the upcoming basketball season - Eisley will likely be in the starting lineup for the defending NBA Western Conference champs.

"It's a good thing for us that Howard didn't sign with someone else," said Jeff Hornacek, whose thoughts were echoed by Jazz players, coaches and fans as word of Stockton's knee surgery got out Tuesday.

Eisley, it appears, will likely pick up the bulk of the minutes normally played by Stockton while the future hall of famer is recovering during the next two to three months. The 24-year-old entering his fourth NBA season made a name for himself nationally for his strong play in limited minutes during last season's playoff run.

Jacque Vaughn, the rookie from Kansas who was slated to be the third-string point guard, will suddenly be asked to pick up the 10 to 12 minutes a night Eisley used to get as Stockton's sub.

"The first thing I said when I got here is that when my name and number is called, I want to be ready," said Vaughn. "This is that opportunity. Unfortunately, it comes because our best point guard is injured, but Howard and I need to step up our games."

Everyone realizes Stockton missing games will hurt the Jazz - the question is how much. Do the Jazz go from a 60-plus win team to one that has fortysomething victories in it?

Who knows? Stockton, in 13 seasons, has missed only four games. There is no precedent to draw on as to what the team will be like without him.

Karl Malone, the reigning league MVP, is fully expecting to shoulder even more of the responsibility, however.

"I have to pick it up another notch - and I will," he said.

Jazz coach Sloan says he's looking forward to seeing how Eisley and Vaughn handle the situation.

"I feel bad for John, but it gives some of our other guys a chance to see what they can do," said Sloan. "Everybody knows how important John has been to this franchise and knows what he's done for us, but life goes on."

The Jazz owned the best record in the Western Conference last season, which gave them home court advantage in the playoffs until the NBA Finals. The Chicago Bulls, with the aid of the homecourt advantage, downed the Jazz by winning four-of-six hard-fought battles in the Finals.

This year - especially since Chicago's star forward, Scottie Pippen, will miss much of the season following foot surgery - Utah was expected to vie for the best regular season record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, including the Finals.

Now, with Stockton out for nearly half the season, that seems like a longshot at best.

Hornacek tried to look at the bright side.

"If John misses 30 games, he'll really be fresh for the playoffs," said Hornacek, who has come back from three knee surgeries himself. "I had one year in Phoenix when I had surgery midway through the year. I think I missed 15 games. When I came back, I felt great. Maybe not having the wear and tear of 110 games will be a benefit to him."

The rest of the team was trying to be positive after practice Tuesday, too.

"We're still going to be a very good ballclub," said Eisley.

Added Malone, the benefactor of more Stockton assists than anyone else on the planet:

"We'll definitely miss (Stockton), without a doubt. But the most important thing now is that it's these other guys' team now. They have to run it like it's their team. That's what we expect."

Malone, Sloan and Hornacek all said it's important for Eisley to not try to do all the things that Stockton does. Eisley agrees.

"I'm not going to go out and try to be John," he said. "I'm going to go out to play my game. I know my coaches and my teammates have a lot of confidence in me. There is going to be a lot of pressure, but I'm a confident ball player."

While Eisley and Vaughn will likely get most of the extra minutes, a trio of players now have hope for making the team: rookie shooting guard Nate Erdmann, rookie point guard Troy Hudson and 7-1 veteran center Greg Dreiling. With Stockton headed for the injured list, one of the three should be on the opening day roster.