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Stockton inspires loyalty

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John Stockton will bid farewell to an enthusiastic audience tonight at the Delta Center. This is how enthusiastic: The sellout crowd will be larger than all but eight home games during the regular season. Fans from the East Coast, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the Intermountain states, will attend.

The event will trigger a lot of memories. But don't expect to gain much insight into his world. People will leave knowing little more than they previously did about his personal life. I can't say I know that much, either. But I do have an idea: He would be a good friend to have, if you actually were his good friend.

In 1997 I traveled to Spokane to write a profile on Stockton (see accompanying story). Two things happened to shape the story. First, I began making calls to friends, relatives, former teammates, coaches, teachers, trainers, etc. I was surprised by the loyalty of his inner circle. Before they would talk to me, several checked with Stockton to see if it was OK.

The second factor is I wrote the story using almost no quotes from Stockton. I approached him during training camp that fall, but after a few questions realized I was wasting my time. He wasn't going to talk at length about himself. I relied on personal experiences and information from others to fill in the rest.

That, in large part, is why Stockton's private life has remained so private for 19 seasons. He doesn't talk about himself in any substantial way, and neither do most of those close to him. That has caused some fans to write him off as a jerk who doesn't want to deal with fame. At times, that's exactly as he appeared. I once saw him refuse to sign an autograph for a kid at an airport, the day before Christmas. I understood that Stockton feared signing a single autograph could start a stampede. I'm just not sure the kid did.

At the same time, I have seen him sign autographs on numerous occasions. Jazz officials say he often visited hospitals or made charity appearances, unbeknownst to the public. He once had an agent, yet ended the agreement. Part of the reason was he didn't want the agent requesting an appearance fee every time he turned around.

One indicator of Stockton's real personality is that teammates loved him. Some superstars are merely tolerated by teammates; I never heard one say a bad word about him. They all seemed to enjoy his quick sense of humor. On road trips, he would compete with Mark Eaton by doing newspaper crossword puzzles. The trash talking was first rate. When he hit upon a word he couldn't find, he would covertly borrow a reporter's laptop to look it up in the thesaurus.

Few rank-and-file fans realize Stockton can even laugh at himself. In the days when the Jazz traveled on commercial airlines, he used to duck his head going through airports, hoping to avoid detection. One time at Salt Lake, while waiting for luggage, he positioned himself behind a collection of large potted plants. I sneaked up on the other side of the plants and stuck a notepad and pen through. In a falsetto voice I said, "Mr. Stockton, would you sign this?"

He jerked his head in surprise.

I popped from behind the plant and said, "Gotcha!"

"You are a sick man," Stockton laughed.

True. But not as sick as I could have been. A few years later my wife and I went to a Salt Lake restaurant for dinner. The host saw us come in the door and said, "Good evening, the Stockton party is in the room to the right."

I had no idea Stockton would be there. He and his family and friends were in a private room, celebrating the first communion of one of his children. The host mistakenly thought I had been invited.

I briefly entertained the idea of popping in and saying, "Hi, John. Got time for a few quotes?" just to see the look on his face. But I refrained.

My experience with Stockton has been that he is a good guy away from basketball and the business of recording it in the newspaper. One year I was with the Jazz in Los Angeles, waiting for a plane to depart. I was sitting in a row of chairs reading a novel. Stockton sat down beside me. We talked about authors and novels for 25 minutes. I never even pulled out a notebook. It was one of the most pleasant exchanges I ever had with him. It might have been one of his best exchanges with a writer, too, for this reason: Neither of us was working.

There were other times when I got a look at his private world. A Thanksgiving Day after practice, talking about our plans for the afternoon. The time he visited me for an interview in my hotel room in Boston. And the morning he called me in my room in Dallas.

"Brad," he said, "this is John Stockton."

I'd known him 11 years at the time and never had him call me for a personal reason. I though it was a prank.

As he continued speaking, I realized it was indeed Stockton. He wanted to borrow my rental car so he could attend Mass. A cab would have meant perhaps waiting in the hotel lobby and for a return ride. Renting his own car would have required time, red tape and extra public exposure.

He struck me again as a good guy who merely wanted to privately attend church on Sunday. Someone most people would want for a friend.

Still, the majority of my experiences with him have been in rushed interviews. A few quick notes with a deadline to meet.

Do I know him well?

Not well enough to be invited to family celebrations. But well enough to talk about books.

Well enough to believe he'd be a great friend to those who knew him before he ever became famous.

E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com