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Stockton stickin’ around with Jazz

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When John Stockton left Utah for his extended summer vacation following last season, the 17-year NBA point guard left Jazz owner Larry H. Miller with a couple thoughts.

One was he probably wanted to commit to playing just one more season, not two or more like so often in the past. The other was that the Jazz simply offer enough money to compensate him fairly.

"He said, 'Look . . . just give me your assurance that you'll do the best job you can,' " Jazz owner Larry H. Miller said. "And then he said, 'I'll sign whatever you put in front of me.' "

On Thursday, when the Jazz signed Stockton to a two-year deal believed to average more than $8 million per season, one more chapter was added to a player-owner affinity perhaps unmatched in modern professional sports.

"It shows the nature of the relationship," Miller said.

Stockton, predictably, downplayed it all.

A paycut from the $11 million earned made each of the past two seasons, Stockton suggested, is no big deal: "It's not like we'll be at the soup kitchen."

The NBA's all-time steals and assists leader is not certain he will play two more seasons. But adding a second year to the contract, he said, will eliminate the need to spend yet another summer as a free agent should he indeed return for what would then be his 19th NBA season, one that would end shortly after his 41st birthday.

"I think this gives us the flexibility that we need — both of us," Stockton said.

Neither the length of the contract nor its financial terms, however, are insignificant.

The Jazz made young Spanish guard Raul Lopez their first-round selection in last June's NBA Draft, but the constraints of a hefty buyout clause from his contract in Spain makes Lopez's arrival date in Utah rather uncertain.

Jazz officials had hoped Lopez could come early as the 2002-2003 season, allowing Stockton's heir apparent to step in just as his storied predecessor steps aside.

Now, they're not so sure.

"When (Stockton) got back," Miller said, "I said, 'I don't want to put you on a guilt trip, but we need you that second year. We don't think Raul's gonna be here yet; we've got to have you.' "

Should Lopez indeed arrive next year, Miller told Stockton, the Jazz can go one of two ways: "I said, 'We can buy out after one (year, if Stockton were to opt for retirement). . . . The worst that happens is you guys get to play one year together, which I would love to have happen.' "

Stockton, anxious to start training camp Tuesday, obviously was amenable to a two-year deal. Money matters also proved to be no stumbling block.

The contract is structured so Stockton will make less in the coming season than in 2002-2003, easing the hit on Jazz payroll relative to the looming luxury tax that the NBA will impose on teams that engage in overspending on player salaries.

After meeting with Stockton early in the offseason, Miller vowed the Jazz will not go over the luxury threshold and be forced to pay the tax.

This should ensure they do not.

"The beauty of it was that by doing the second year, it let a lot of other things fit together," Miller said.

The Jazz even evidently explored signing Stockton to a three-year deal, but NBA officials — suspicious Utah might be attempting to circumvent luxury-tax implications by stretching out pay on a contract that may not be fulfilled — squashed that idea.

"I'm not sure the league would accept any more (than two years)," said Stockton, who turns 40 in March. "I think they raised an eyebrow a little bit already."

Jazz brass, though, had no qualms about signing Stockton to a multi-year pact.

Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's vice president of basketball operations, said, "If you take a look at John's statistics on a piece of paper — and they don't measure, even, what he does for the team — (but) if you look at them, the number of minutes played, the points per minute, the assists per minute, the steals per minute, etc., you'd be thrilled to ask him to sign a two-year contract."

Stats, though, aren't the reason Miller and Stockton came to terms so easily.

"If you go by nothing more than the numbers that John's put up in his career, it's apparent the kind of basketball player he is," Miller, patting his tear-filled eyes, said between sniffles. "And — he won't like me saying this, but — I can tell you that John has greater characteristics about him than just being a point guard."

"You know, it's kind of uncommon in today's world to see someone stay with one employer for 17 years, let alone stay with one basketball team for 17 years," Jazz president Dennis Haslam said. "So it's a credit to John's integrity, and his . . . loyalty to the Utah Jazz and to Larry."

Stockton, predictably, downplayed all that, too.

"I think everybody makes concessions," he said. "They've made 'em; I've made 'em. It's part of why it's special here."


E-MAIL: tbuckley@desnews.com