You had to be there, up close every night, to fully appreciate that John Stockton was more than just a fine point guard.
He was a Rembrandt, Caruso, Nureyev.
Others did great things, flashier things, even more things, but nobody passed so precisely.
Magic Johnson was an aberration who could play any position, each nearly as well as the other. Pete Maravich was a spectacular passer, but much of it was showboating. Isiah Thomas first looked to score.
You had to be there at floor level to see the improbable angles and flawless timing. You couldn't completely tell from the upper tier, or even the 10th row. Television didn't come close, even with slow-motion replay.
It was the difference between seeing a desert storm on film or in person. One leaves you impressed, the other leaves you in tears.
Stockton retired Friday after 19 seasons with the Jazz. Basketball legends from Jerry West to Pat Riley to John Wooden marveled.
Wooden said Stockton was the only player he would pay to watch. One purist admiring another, both knowing the game at its best was never about blinding speed or soaring leaps. Stockton's game was all geometric patterns. It was the result of years of dedication, but it was also a gift. A gift so pure and uncorrupted that others could only wonder.
Some have said Stockton was no athlete. But that is only those who judge by how high one jumps. Stockton's gifts were more rare. A resting heart rate in the 30s and an aerobic system that allowed him to recover from near exhaustion in moments. Abnormally large hands, the size of a seven-footer, so he could pass off the dribble. Eyes that could see well beyond a 180-degree field of vision. A mind that could imagine seams in the defense before they appeared.
But more than that, he was born with desire that only a handful of players ever know. Speed is fine, but Rickey Green was fast, "The Fastest of Them All." Leaping ability is wonderful, but Blue Edwards could leap. Confidence is marvelous, but Eric Murdock had confidence. Enthusiasm is enviable, but Antoine Carr had enthusiasm.
Only one player in Jazz history phoned the day after being drafted and asked for game films to study — Stockton. When he arrived for his first rookie/free-agent camp, the coaches whispered that he seemed to have been running the offense for years.
A player in a lifetime.
You had to be there the night he collected 28 assists, the third-best night in league history, to understand. He shot several times when he could have sought out Karl Malone for more assists. He wasn't chasing a record, he was chasing a win, so he shot when the percentages dictated.
You had to be there the night Stockton threw a late-game pass into the hands of Milwaukee's Larry Kyrstkowiak to know that no mistake went unheeded. He logged them in his head the way a stuntman remembers close calls. When a writer asked him to describe the mistake, Stockton snapped, "How long have you been doing this? You know better than to ask a question like that."
He wasn't going to go over it again, at least not for public consumption. He would go over it on the bus ride back to his hotel room, as he readied for bed, as he drifted to sleep, vowing to never again make the mistake.
You had to be there the night in Portland when Clyde Drexler accidentally shoved his index finger into Stockton's eye up to the second knuckle. Stockton crouched in the locker room at halftime, dribbling the ball and trying to show the team doctors he could still go. Trouble was, he could see two images. All the better — that made two Karl Malones to look for, not just one.
You had to be there after Jeff Malone practiced with the Jazz for the first time. Stockton asked him where he liked to receive his passes, at what speed and angle. They practiced for 15 minutes, one pass, then another, and another, each identical. It was the way Malone would receive virtually every pass, no matter what the situation, for the next 279 games he played for the Jazz.
You had to be there the night he set the NBA career assist record but refused to let team officials stop the game. He only accepted the standing ovation reluctantly, when it was announced during the next time-out. The night he turned 40, he demanded the game be played the same as any other.
You had to be there in Houston, when he landed the most famous shot in Jazz history. He actually let down his guard for one joyous moment as he leaped into the arms of his comrade for the ages, Karl Malone. But by the time the locker room was opened, he was already thinking ahead, not wanting to dwell too much on the past.
You had to be there to know why Jerry Sloan said last spring, "All the time I've been around John Stockton, he's never wavered about what it takes to win. I don't know if we'll ever see another one like him. Not in my lifetime."
You had to be there through the final season as Stockton fought against opponents nearly half his age. The respect was unmistakable. Not an aging star playing beyond his time but a master teacher at his rostrum, the class at rapt attention.
You had to be there that late afternoon in Seattle in 1996, after the Jazz lost Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. The team bus had pulled onto the tarmac to await the charter jet. Most of the players had opened box lunches and begun to unwind at the end of the grueling season. The bus door opened and Stockton got off. He walked 25 yards away and stood staring into the distance for several minutes, hands in pockets, unwilling to walk away from such a loss. A moment later the bus door opened and out came Jerry Sloan.
Two of a kind, hurting worse than anyone else.
They stood in the fading day making silent promises.
You had to be there in Spokane 19 years ago as he headed toward the gymnasium at Gonzaga in the gathering dusk. When a friend inquired why he was wasting a beautiful spring night alone in the gym, instead of enjoying being a college student, Stockton replied, "I've only got one chance to make it in the NBA."
You had to have seen John Stockton's career up close to appreciate it.
A chance in a lifetime. But only one.