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A day in Gonzaga with Stockton good, bad for Kerr

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In a United Center hallway outside the locker room of the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, Steve Kerr leaned against the wall and broke into a grin as he remembered the recruiting trip that, at the time, ranked up there as the worst experience of his life.

The year was 1983 and Kerr was in Spokane, a nondescript city in southeast Washington, where he was the guest of Gonzaga University, a private school run by the Jesuits. They wanted to talk to him about playing basketball for them, and Kerr wanted to listen.A Southern Californian through and through, Kerr would have preferred a recruiting visit to UCLA or USC, or even Cal Fullerton, but he had spent the bulk of his high school playing days overseas, where his father's work took him, and as a result, although he suspected he had talent, a good shooting touch, and decent size (6-foot-3) for a guard, he was nonetheless largely an unknown quantity, a well-kept secret. At least that's what he liked to think.

Bottom line: He had one scholarship offer coming out of high school. This one. To a school he'd barely heard of that played in a small pond conference called the WCAC. What that stood for, he wasn't sure.

But if they wanted him, he sure wanted them.

Thus inspired, Kerr eagerly agreed to join several members of the Gonzaga varsity in a pickup game on campus the afternoon he was to leave - while the coaches looked on.

That's when the trip took a downturn.

Kerr found himself matched against a frail-looking white guy who had no tan, sunken cheeks, was two inches shorter than he was, and in general looked as dangerous as Wally Cleaver.

But then they started to play.

"He kicked my butt," said Kerr, the memory obviously as keen today as it was the day it happened 14 springs ago.

"He worked me over, up and down the court. He was quicker, he was faster. He was nice about it, but he kicked my butt . . . This guy nobody'd ever heard of. I was devastated."

As were the Gonzaga coaches.

They didn't even bother to wait until Kerr flew back to Los Angeles to give him their decision.

"They said thanks but no thanks," said Kerr. "They wouldn't be needing my services.

In the United Center hallway, Kerr paused.

"You know," he finally added, "I wonder if John Stockton even remembers that day?"

Just around the corner from where Kerr was standing, John Stockton stood on the United Center basketball court, about to begin practice with the Utah Jazz - the team currently trying to keep Kerr's Chicago Bulls from defending their NBA title.

Stockton smiled as broadly as Kerr.

Of course he remembered that day.

"That was an, uh, interesting meeting we had way back then," he said.

Told that Kerr remembered "getting his butt kicked," Stockton offered a softer version. "Aw," he said, "back in those days, you were just guarding your turf. It was just rat ball. That's all it was."

In the aftermath of that day, Stockton resumed preparations to play his senior season at Gonzaga, while Kerr returned to Los Angeles, where he played in as many summer league games as he could, hoping to restore his flagging confidence after "the Spokane disaster," and, you never know, maybe catch the eye of a college coach.

He wound up catching a good one, as it turned out. Lute Olsen, just starting out as coach at the University of Arizona, was impressed by Kerr's shooting and offered him a scholarship, no audition required.

It was after Kerr's largely uneventful freshman year at Arizona that he noticed that the 16th player selected in the 1984 NBA summer draft was John Stockton . . . from Gonzaga.

By Kerr's senior year of 1988 he had charted Stockton's progress enough to realize he was emerging as one of the quickest and best point guards in the league.

That was the first year Stockton led the NBA in assists - and the year Kerr made All-American while his Arizona team made it all the way to the NCAA Final Four.

Kerr was drafted that summer by the NBA - the 50th player taken.

The rest is part of the NBA history book.

Steve Kerr has played nine seasons now in the league, the last four in Chicago, where, as a top reserve, he has won one championship ring and established himself as the alltime top three-point marksman ever to play in the NBA.

As for John Stockton, through 13 seasons, all with Utah, he has accumulated more steals and assists than anyone who has ever played the game.

Those two players from the "Gonzaga tryout," then, lead three alltime NBA categories, and comprise a 12th of the 24 players still alive in this year's championship series.

"It's funny," said Kerr, concluding his reverie in the United Center hallway. "The more I saw how good he (Stockton) was, the more I thought, 'hey, maybe I'm not that bad after all.' "

"I thought it was a bad thing at the time it happened, that day at Gonzaga," Kerr said in conclusion. "But it turned out to be a good thing. You know that? It turned out to be a very good thing."