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Utah Jazz: Tears and cheers as Stockton, Sloan enter Hall of Fame

SHARE Utah Jazz: Tears and cheers as Stockton, Sloan enter Hall of Fame

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — One is from the second-biggest city in Washington. The other from a tiny town in Illinois.

But what Jerry Sloan and John Stockton — the dream coach and the coach's dream — did when they teamed up for nearly two decades in the small NBA market in Utah helped them earn a ticket to where their legacies belong.

On Friday night, they were welcomed into hoops heaven.

The Utah Jazz legends — synonymous with success, toughness and an old-school work ethic and approach — were granted entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

They both were greeted with standing ovations, including by many of the game's greats.

Stockton and Sloan joined Michael Jordan, who stole the show on this night as he's done so many times before, David Robinson and C. Vivian Stringer in entering basketball immortality in the sport's birthplace with one of the greatest classes in the Hall of Fame's 50-year history.

In heartfelt speeches, the Jazz fixtures displayed a wide range of emotions, excitement and entertainment.

Stockton began his speech with a self-deprecating shot at his size, background and choice of uniform bottoms.

"So what am I doing here?" he asked. "I'm a small kid from Spokane, Wash., that was ... walking around in big shorts and now I'm being inducted into the Hall of Fame in short shorts."

Staying true to their roots, they also thanked a ton of people whom they credit for their success and longevity — including former Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.

Stockton, considered by many the greatest true point guard in NBA history, thanked family and friends who traveled thousands of miles, even from Hawaii and Alaska, for this event.

"Just to support me," he said.

Stockton thinks that's the real reason they came, at least.

"I almost started laughing there," he said, "because I think they actually came to see Michael."

The star-studded audience at Symphony Hall roared in laughter.

"He makes one big shot," Stockton continued about Jordan, "and everybody thinks he's kind of cool."

Turns out, Stockton is almost as good at delivering jokes as he is timely assists.

It was both ironic and fitting that Jordan cast his large shadow over the spotlight that shined on Stockton and Sloan. He stole their thunder in 1997 and '98 when Chicago beat Utah in the NBA Finals, but they were both thrilled to be in this class and fine with the attention being mostly given to Air Jordan.

"This is a long way from McLeansboro, Ill., and I'm honored to be here," Sloan said, referring to his hometown. "Getting inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame is an achievement unsurpassed in my career."

It was also kind of ironic that Stockton and Sloan are considered among the sport's iconic figures, seeing as neither of them fancied themselves Hall-of-Fame material.

Sloan often talks about how he figured people didn't think he'd last long when he became coach of the Jazz in 1988.

And Stockton thought he was "a one-year-and-out guy," something he admitted at a press conference earlier in the day.

After being drafted by Utah in the middle of the first round out of an unheralded school called Gonzaga, the smallish point guard didn't expect his NBA career to last too long.

So, perhaps a bit pessimistic and realistic, Stockton saved his first paycheck, down to the last penny. He rented a furnished one-room apartment, bought cans of chili at a discount grocery store, and made his mom's lasagna and piled up leftovers in his fridge. Instead of living like an NBA player, he lived like a college freshman.

"I thought they'd figure me out pretty quickly. I thought the Jazz would figure out that they had made a mistake, so I saved every cent," Stockton recalled. "I was pretty sure I was a one-year-and-out guy."

So happened, Stockton figured out the NBA game before anybody could figure out that he might not exactly fit the mold of a typical player.

Being hooked up with future Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and Sloan turned out to be a perfect fit. His career lasted 19 years, and he rarely missed a game. Just 22 excused absences, in fact.

Also turns out, Stockton broke the mold on NBA stereotypes. Though lacking flash and above-the-rim athleticism, Stockton went on to rack up more assists, steals and games with one team than anybody in league history. He was named an All-Star 10 times.

"I had several coaches that took chances on a small skinny kid with enormous feet," Stockton said, referring to his childhood coaches, his Gonzaga coaches and former Jazz coach Frank Layden.

Stockton is as humble about his call to the Hall as he was accurate in passing and shooting.

"I played 30 years of competitive basketball ... and all of those years, not once, never, was I the best player on the team," Stockton said, humbly. He added with a laugh: "I had a shot at it one year because two of our best players got hurt with season-ending injuries."

Both had childhood friends in attendance, old players and teammates (Karl Malone was unable to attend due to a family illness but a few Utah guys were there), friends, family and members of the Jazz organization.

In this historic hoops spot, Sloan, the only NBA coach to win 1,000 games with one team, gave the captive audience a bit of Sloan history.

After playing high school ball, where he had to hitchhike to practices, Sloan earned a scholarship to Illinois. He didn't last long his freshman season. In fact, he returned because of homesickness and began working a "tough job" in an oil field.

One day his mom asked him if that's what he planned on doing the rest of his life.

Fortunately for basketball and its fans, it wasn't.

Sloan enrolled at Evansville College, where he played for Hall of Fame coach Arad McCutchan. He loved the basketball part of that experience, playing for a coach he respected greatly. But he thought it was odd that the Purple Aces, the school's official mascot, played in orange uniforms. His coach also made them wear boxing robes before the games.

"Everybody hated to wear 'em," he said to laughter. "To begin with, each of them were a different color."

From there, the feisty and fierce Sloan joined the Baltimore Bullets — where he learned to become a cheerleader, he joked — and then found a home and a decade of success with expansion Chicago as "The Original Bull."

Sloan is still grateful for experiences — especially when the first-year Bulls surprisingly made the playoffs — he learned from the coaches he had in Chicago, including Johnny "Red" Kerr, his longtime, faithful assistant, Phil Johnson, and Dick Motta.

Sloan credits Motta, the former Weber State coach, for instilling a coaching philosophy into him that he still uses three decades later.

"Dick was the coach for most of my career in Chicago. He's a no-nonsense kind of guy, great teacher, a fundamentalist and a great teacher," Sloan said. "His style of coaching seemed to fit with my style of play."

Funny, that's nearly the same thing Stockton said about his coach.

"Now coach Sloan is what the NBA should be about — commitment to your teammate, your coaches, your organization and the game of basketball," Stockton said. "He's never asked for credit; in fact, he avoids it. His record speaks for itself. He's created an environment where his teams can win, and they do. I was fortunate to play for you, coach. Congratulations again."

Sloan's coaching career came about when his playing days ended thanks to a knee injury. Fulfilling his old coach's wish, Sloan accepted the job as the Evansville head coach. Because of personal reasons, however, he resigned after five days.

It's hard for Sloan to talk about that fateful decision, but he recalled Friday how that team suffered a horrific tragedy. Months after he'd departed and joined Chicago's staff, the Evansville team's plane crashed, killing everybody on board.

"That incident on Dec. 13, 1977, made me realize there are a lot more things more important than basketball," Sloan said, "even though I love this game, and I'll always be grateful for what it's given me."

e-mail: jody@desnews.com