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John's journey: Stockton's first steps to the Hall of Fame

He came down Boone Avenue in the gathering dusk, along the shady sidewalks toward the Gonzaga University administration building, where ancient pictures of Houston Stockton rest silent and venerable. Ahead loomed St. Aloysius cathedral, its twin steeples silhouetted against the fading light. John Houston Stockton had something on his mind.

The smell of spring was thick and sweet in April 1984, the river running high a half-mile away through downtown Spokane, Wash. Everywhere on that Friday evening there were celebrations. Students celebrating the advent of spring, celebrating the impending end of the school year, celebrating being 21 with the world still ahead.

As Stockton approached Jeff Reinert, a Gonzaga teammate, Reinert could see he Stockton was headed for the gym. Perhaps someday Stockton, too, would celebrate, but not that night. Reinert wondered aloud why Stockton wasn't going to a party, why he wasn't with his girlfriend, Nada Stepovich, who was probably wondering the same.

But Reinert had seen that look in Stockton's brown-gold eyes before. He had seen it in pickup games when there was nothing more on the line than Cokes;, seen it in table tennis, air hockey and anything else that could be turned into a contest. It was always there: the need to win, yes, but even more important, the fear that he might go home that night and discover he hadn't given his best.

So Reinert asked just once what Stockton was thinking, with stars kindling in the twilight and so much promise ahead, why he would go to a gym.

"I have one chance. One chance to maybe make it," said Stockton.

Then he was off, turning south toward the gym. The season was over for the Bulldogs, but for Stockton seasons never really end, they just take a detour. He had his chance to play in the NBA, and if he really knew he could one day become one of basketball's greatest players, he was alone. No one else could have dreamed the dreams Stockton held. Only he could have believed his career would take him through 13 phenomenal NBA seasons before finally coming back to the start, back to a time when he would need to summon that same resolve. Eight weeks he waited on the injured list, knowing with each mile on the treadmill, every hour in the weight room, his time would come. Knowing that while others might be celebrating, he was in the gym. Knowing that once again he had a chance.

The rehabilitation after knee surgery was a trademark Stockton production. No press conferences to update his condition, no progress reports through the public relations people, only a stoic silence. Since before he stepped onto the old Salt Palace court for the first time, before he sent Rickey Green hurtling toward retirement, it was never anyone else's business. There is the game and there is his personal business, and in the world according to Stockton, never the twain should meet.

Although the insistence on privacy is largely a desire to protect his family from prying eyes, there is another reason: Cameras and pens, collectors and fans distract him from the task at hand. That hasn't changed through the years. There was always that certainty of purpose only a handful of athletes ever grasp. In large part it is the reason for his success; the reason a 6-1 guard could compile more assists and steals than any player in history. Yet for every Jazz fan who adores Stockton for his grit and unreproachable character, there is one who resents his being among the most inaccessible of celebrities. He can be standoffish when asked for an autograph. He has little time for the trappings of stardom, no tolerance for anything that might bump him off course. It is the reason there were few weekend nights in Spokane when he was free to just be a college student.

"He is the most focused, driven human being I've seen in my life," says his brother, Steve, four years John's senior. "I mean that as a compliment. I wouldn't trade my college experience for his. He's doing something he loves now, and is getting paid very well. He just zeroed in on it early in college and remained very dedicated. I just had more ability to get sidetracked. He'd spend his Friday and Saturday nights shooting balls in the gym."

His determination is the rarest kind, the kind that would drive him to clean out his locker the day after the final playoff game, and by evening have a pickup game going back home in Spokane. It was a similar game in Spokane this fall that doctors say put him on the sidelines for the first time in his career. He came down awkwardly after a shot and felt a twinge of pain. Not until days later, when an MRI was run on the knee, did he realize he wouldn't be there in the starting lineup on opening night for the first time in a decade.

Determination aside, Stockton may be uniquely suited to recover. From a purely clinical standpoint, he is a marvel even to doctors. His resting heart rate is 35 beats per minute — half that of a relatively well-conditioned male. That trait alone allows him to recover while standing at the free throw line; other players must take timeouts or sit out to catch their breath. His body fat is four percent, the same as Karl Malone's and similar to that of world class bicycle racers. His cardiovascular system, lung capacity and blood pressure are far superior to an average person, and even superior to that of most athletes.

"He doesn't sweat," says Jeff Condill, a former Gonzaga teammate and co-owner of Jack and Dan's Tavern, along with Stockton's father.

"His body," says Gonzaga trainer Steve Delong, "is, well, very efficient. His capillaries, how the oxygen exchanges through his lungs, his heart rate, blood pressure — he's taken that and fine tuned it. He's a hell of an athlete as far as the human body is concerned. His body is very efficient."

Dr. Lyle Mason, the orthopedic surgeon who repaired Stockton's knee, concurs. "He could play all day," says Mason. "He wants to play 48 minutes and no doubt he could."

He is, in basketball terms, the patron saint of youth.

In that sense it is no mystery why he played 13 years and missed just four games. He works out two hours a day in July and by August is up to five-hour workouts. He lifts weights, runs, plays in games. There are repetitive shooting drills, stair-climbing sessions, even touch-and-cut drills — where a player touches the floor and slides in a triangular pattern, playing mock defense. It is the most hated drill in training camp.

"If it takes being in the gym at 6 a.m., he does it," continues Condill. "If he has to be at the therapist until 2 a.m. in order to play the next game, he'll do it."

Stockton played in Spokane summer leagues during his early NBA years, but Delong and the Jazz medical staff convinced him it was hazardous business mixing it up with weekend athletes. So in recent years it was limited to a few chosen friends — Condill, his brother and a handful of others.

The reality of being injured hit him on Oct. 13, after undergoing surgery to remove damaged cartilage in his left knee. Mason told Stockton ahead of time they wouldn't know the full extent of the injury until the surgery was under way. Originally, Mason hoped he would be out as little as three weeks. When the news arrived, Stockton was, as Mason would later describe, "lower than a snake's belly."

"I couldn't get two words out of him at first," says Mason. "Yes. No. One-word answers."

For his entire career, serious injuries were someone else's problem. Injuries to two starters when Stockton was a senior in college forced him to shoulder more of the scoring load; it also made him more enticing to NBA teams. But this time it would be Stockton on the sidelines. As Mason was holding a press conference describing the procedure, Stockton was already in rehab, turning back the clock. By mid-November he was working out five hours a day.

So now, after the longest break in his career, it is time. Time to see if he can ward off the coming years once again. Time to leave them gasping while he recuperates at the free throw line.

Time to make them wonder why he never sweats.

The bloodlines were always there. His grandfather, Houston Stockton, is revered as the greatest football player in Gonzaga history. He squints out from gray photos along in the main hall of the GU administration building. A triple-threat halfback, he could run, kick and pass.

While Stockton's father, Jack, scoffs that "exceptional athletic prowess escaped me somehow," his grandfather earned all-America honors and went on to play professionally, prior to the advent of the NFL. His mother, Clementine, was a three-sport athlete at Ferdinand, Idaho, the youngest of 15 children. John grew up in a middle-class Irish Catholic neighborhood with Steve and sisters Stacey and LeAnn, all about two years apart. Steve and Stacey remain in Spokane, he as a sales manager at a B&B Distributing, she as a registered nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital. LeAnn, John's younger sister, is a trainer for Kentucky Wesleyan and the Utah Starzz.

Though none of the siblings were as single-minded as John, they understood. None of the Stocktons could tolerate losing. "His mother's that way, I'm that way, his sisters, we all just hate to lose," says Jack.

Jack's happiest days are still in the summers, when the kids are home, a game is going on, and they're trash-talking. Steve and the old group of friends tease the nine-time All-Star that they could beat him.

"Bring money," Stockton laughs.

Steve's and John's children are nearly the same ages, so games of kickball-baseball in which they kick a soccer ball to reach base — often ensue at family gatherings. "You want to talk competition," says Jack, chuckling. "I used to play first base but I quit. Too rough for me."

Stockton, ever cautious, downplays the competitive aspect. "It's not win or die at my house," he says. "We're all competitive, but it's not the type to get stressed out by it."

It was no different a generation ago, when John, Steve and the neighborhood kids would gather. Stockton joked when he first came into the NBA that the most competitive games he played were during the off-season against his brother. As teenagers, the Stockton boys were playing in the driveway, across from the all-girls Catholic school and next door to the convent, when John split Steve's lip with an elbow. Steve elbowed John hard in the stomach on the ensuing play.

"John went over to the porch and just started yelling every profanity there is," says Steve. "Mom was inside doing the dishes and obviously, John was right there with it in her ear. Dad was just kind of in the window smiling like he liked the idea. Next door you could hear the nuns shutting their windows."

Basketball was more than goofing around in the driveway for Stockton. "John's focus was always that way," his father says. "It was never any different. He was always up for every game. There was always a certain quietness about every game. I don't think basketball was ever a joke for John. I used to watch them in the driveway and his brother and friends and they'd be dinging around and having a good time. Not John. It was always the business at hand."

Jazz owner Larry H. Miller learned as much several seasons ago. After a relatively meaningless game, Miller came in the training room while Stockton iced his legs.

"I saw something I never thought I'd see today," he said to Stockton.

"What's that?"

"I saw you dog it on one play down the floor," chided Miller.

A winter storm warming was suddenly in effect; Stockton's nostrils flared, his face darkened.

"I'm not kidding," Miller says, "he turned as red as a Coke can and he said through clenched teeth, "I never dogged a play in my life.' I thought he was going to punch me."

It was a trait Stockton learned young. Being the tag-along little brother, he was the youngest in almost every game. He knew if he dogged a play, he was out. "At any level, high school, grade school, college, his job was to make sure he didn't screw up, basically," says his brother. "But he was always willing to play."

And play . . . and play. . . .

The summer before his freshman year at Gonzaga he was on the doorstep of then-assistant coach (now Southern Utah University women's coach) Joe Hillock, every night, asking for the keys to the gym. After two weeks Hillock finally turned them over permanently. "I told the security guard I was letting him in. It's either that or he'll get in anyway," says Hillock.

Stockton cherishes his memories of those days; a Richie Cunningham existence with his dad's neighborhood tavern, a cozy home a few blocks down the street, games every night in the driveway or at the gym. It was a life that not only made Stockton a matchless player but formed his philosophy of life — hard work, loyalty to those he loves, competitiveness. Stockton lists only his parents and family members as his heroes. He has said his goal is to raise his family as closely as possible to the way he was raised. Not surprisingly, it is at home in Spokane where he remains the most himself. He bought the house next door to his parents and spends much of the summer there. There he can still be kid who wanted nothing more than be around his family, his friends and a gym.

He owns a home in the upscale Salt Lake suburb of Holladay, a cabin in his own private Idaho on Priest Lake, but it is the home in Spokane that brings him back to his roots and remind him the game is still played for the competition.

And so during training camp, when a writer asked Stockton if he would be happy just playing to an empty arena — if Olajuwon and Barkley, Jordan and Ewing could come to the games, but no television, press or fans — Stockton smiled and looked incredulous. "That," he said, "would be just fine with me."

Stockton's reluctance to be a normal superstar — jewelry, nightclubs, television appearances — comes naturally. He never covered his wall with pictures of sports heroes, never pretended he was Jerry West or Walt Frazier, dribble-driving down the court. The only player he even mentioned to family members was former Sonic Gus Williams, who treated Stockton kindly on a night he worked as a ballboy for an exhibition game in Spokane.

So it is not surprising he has little use for playing the star's role, why he remains the cautious skeptic who only opens up long enough to utter a few oblique phrases. Malone once convinced Stockton to appear with him on the Arsenio Hall Show, but Malone did all the talking. "It wasn't exactly my speed," Stockton said afterward.

Reaching Stockton can turn into competition itself. He has been known to steal out the side door of an arena and catch the team bus as it comes around the block, or walk in a lane of traffic in order to avoid autograph-seekers on the other side of the bus. In the days when the Jazz took commercial flights, he would sequester himself in the Crown Room or lurk in an inconspicuous corner of the boarding area, hoping not to be discovered.

Stockton is neither bashful nor particularly embarrassed by his celebrity. But devotion and adoration, in his mind, belong to a higher source. Likewise, it isn't the attention he despises so much as the distraction. So he complains at going to Boise for training camp; moans when informed a network reporter wants 15 minutes of his time.

His unwillingness to give more is based on the opinion that 15 minutes signing autographs or doing interviews are minutes he could be preparing to face Gary Payton. In Stockton's life everything is prioritized.

"He only lets the media in so far in his life, and that's his choice, because he has more important things to do," says Condill. "That's why when people say he never does this or that, I say what's he doing? He's going home to dinner with his family or taking his kids to do something special. If they want to get on him for that, then they've got to make a little adjustment in their thinking. He's not trying to make more money. He's doing the right thing. If those are his options — and come on, what does he owe a reporter to talk to him for two hours when he could watch his kids playing soccer or see his baby walking or something? It's a no-brainer."

Before he goes on road trips, Stockton gathers his two daughters and three sons to point out where he's going and talk about the cities. When he is in town in summers he will take the family to a game at Franklin Quest Field or a Starzz game, no reporters allowed.

"So I hear other people criticizing him, but he has signed tens of thousands of autographs and talked to kids thousands of times. Sadly, you can't do that for every one of them. But it's hard for me and it's hard for him," says Miller. "He kind of comes across as this stoic, unemotional guy, but he's a great person. People ask, "How is John Stockton?' and I tell them this: He's exactly what you hope he is. He will not let you down. And if they knew his heart and how he feels about people, and the lengths to which he goes, and the quieter it can be kept, they would understand."

Miller understands the reasoning, the thinking that too much celebrity could somehow detract from Stockton's game, or worse, his life. He says Stockton sees things in absolutes.

"I'll tell you what he has a hard time with — and I wish he didn't," says Miller. He'll be at dinner and have one or two kids come up, and his standard answer is, "Later.' Well, there's no way for them to get it later. So in a sense he's telling them no. But what is hard for me is that he always believes if he does it for them, he's duty-bound to do it for everyone else."

At times Stockton's fears were justified. Private moments at weddings that turned into public spectacles, times when his wife, Nada, was washing dishes at their Idaho cabin and saw fans peeking in their windows.

Miller recalls two incidents in which he saw Stockton turn even more private. One was in Chicago, when a woman met the Jazz at the airport, asking Stockton to sign a trading card. When he did, she opened a bag, revealing dozens more of the identical card. Stockton told her he would sign just one, for her, but not the rest because she would sell them to collectors. The woman reappeared at the team hotel, this time screaming at Stockton about forgetting the common fans. "All he wanted to do," says Miller, "was get out of there and go hide."

Continues Miller, "I could almost see him change his level of willingness within a week. I thought it might wear off, but it didn't."

On another occasion a fan wanted him to sign every page of his notebook.

Even when involved in charitable causes, Stockton goes to great lengths to avoid publicity. The night he and Miller drove from Salt Lake to Farr West to visit a 20-year-old Jazz fan with a terminal illness, his first question to Miller was whether the media would be involved. "I said no," says Miller, "and he said, "OK, I'll go if you'll go with me."'

They drove up after practice and were ushered into the young woman's room by her mother. When Stockton walked in, the patient momentarily appeared confused. Stockton gently handed her an autographed ball, pennant, T-shirt and other mementos, calling her by name. They talked quietly for several minutes. She died several days later.

"So when I hear people say John Stockton won't do this, won't do that, I just say they don't have the whole story. He does his share and then some. I'll take John Stockton any day," Miller says.

Indeed, for a player whose loyal fans hope desperately he is a Boy Scout in basketball shorts, there is much to offer. He doesn't smoke, take drugs or frequent nightclubs. He spends most of his road time in his hotel room reading or watching movies. His fourth-grade teacher, Sister Dolores Bauman, remembers him as a child who got exceptional grades and "always did his work."

"He wasn't a rebel at all," she adds.

As a result, he will go to great length to defend what he thinks is right. The night he was drafted by the Jazz, family, friends and neighbors gathered in the Stockton back yard for a small pool party. Partway through the evening, a woman arrived and announced that she was delivering a "strip-o-gram."

Realizing friends had played a trick, Stockton told her she couldn't be there. She scoffed and began taking off clothes. By the time she got to her bikini, Stockton warned her to leave or he would throw her in the pool. "You can't do this. There are kids here and my parents are here," he said. She persisted, but when she attempted to remove her bikini top, Stockton pushed her in the water. End of singing telegram.

"He knows right from wrong. That was characteristic of him," says Dale Goodwin, Gonzaga's public relations director. "That night at the pool there was family, kids and teammates, faculty and he didn't want her to do that."

Right is right, wrong is wrong. You get that when you attend St. Aloysius grade school, Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University. You get it when your father is Jack and your mother Clemmie and they bring you up right. You get it when you attend mass, as Stockton does, even when the team is on the road, and when your wife — the daughter of the last territorial governor of Alaska —comes from a large family of practicing Catholics. There is room for family and friends, but when it comes to infringing on them, there is no room for compromise.

Value system aside, Stockton is far from a humorless grump. He delights in needling teammates and coaches. Anyone close to him knows what it's like to have Stockton teasing them about their haircut, their accent, their hometown.

When the team bus passed a burning car in the median strip along the New Jersey Turnpike one year, Stockton said to former teammate Mike Brown, "Great to be home, isn't it Mike?" Another year, on the same stretch of the turnpike, Stockton called out to assistant coach Gordon Chiesa, also a New Jersey native, "Turnpike's beautiful this time of year, isn't it, Gordie?"

Last year during training camp in St. George, he played golf with Hillock. After several errant shots in a row, Hillock approached the fifth tee. As he settled in to line up his shot, Stockton said quietly, "Hey, Joey, think you can keep it in the fairway this time?"

In his private life, he has never changed from the Stockton who would mimic the characteristics of a professor after he left the room, the same Stockton who discovered a box of cookies John Crotty's mother sent and was passing them to everyone on the team bus when Crotty arrived.

But Stockton has enjoyed few laughs more than the day in New Jersey when the team went through airport security and a guard spotted Malone. The guard excitedly turned to Stockton — whom he didn't recognize — and said, "Say, if you're a basketball fan, Karl Malone just walked through here!"

"Really?" said Stockton. "Think I could get an autograph?"

He laughed all the way to the plane.

So the waiting is nearly over for Stockton. If there is uncertainty as to whether his leg will ever be the same, it is tempered by the surety that he will have the same steely resolve that has carried him through the years. His resting heart rate will still be in the 30s, his eyes will still pick out teammates in places no one else can see.

He will look strikingly the same as the young man who walked down the street to the Gonzaga gym 14 years ago. And if there is symmetry in this story, it is not far from where Stockton passed that night. There at the northwest corner of the cathedral on the GU campus stands a statue of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, for whom the university is named. A 16th-century Italian Jesuit and son of a noble Renaissance family, he died at 23 while assisting the sick during a plague in Rome.

He is the patron saint of youth.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com