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John Stockton – The Quintessential Point Guard

Number 12 was retired just a week ago.  In a special halftime celebration, his jersey rose to the rafters to take its place as the brightest star among the other luminaries deserved of such commemoration by this basketball club.  Ever silent, he took all in with an air of immense gratitude for his adoring fans, standing as they often have for him, applauding for what seemed like an eternity, a fitting tribute to a man that has been a long-time prince of this majestic city.  Personally, you could just tell that the prince, while grateful of this immense honor, was at the same time uncomfortable by the spotlight plunged upon him.  To him, the prince felt that it was all just a tad unnecessary, as he waited for the ceremony to conclude so that life can go on. 

But it is exactly this kind of character trait that has endeared this man to this city.  Always shunning the public eye, this man was all about business and hard work.  He had no need for the glitz and the glamour, the fame and the fortune, the bitches and the bling-bling; what he needed was the perpetual challenge to propel himself to greater heights that others could not have predicted in their wildest dreams.  What this man achieved, he achieved alone on grit, determination, hard work, and a relentless dedication to further understanding the game - all for the altruist purpose of improving the games for his teammates.  Only a handful of players in today’s era of freakishly athletic, self-absorbed, self-righteous, “Show Me The Money” ballers, have the intellect to understand that the “Whole” is more than just the “Sum Of Its Parts”.  Sure, players have memorized that mantra, but very few truly commit themselves to it.  This man epitomizes this motion and he wanted most was just to have a chance to get in the game.         

Who was Number 12?  Obviously he couldn’t have been that great if he hasn’t become synonymously associated with his number.  Think 23-Jordan, 32-Magic, 33-Bird, 34-Barkley, hell, even people know the numbers of contemporaries like 8-Kobe, 21-Tim Duncan and KG, and 32-Shaq over Number 12.  Who is Number 12?  He is arguably the greatest true point guard the game has ever seen, and his name is John Stockton – the quintessential point guard.    

Born (March 26, 1962) and raised in Spokane, Washington state, John Houston Stockton was raised by hardworking parents.  Stockton went on to play for his hometown university, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.  Although not seeing much time in his freshman campaign, Stockton stepped it up the next season as the team’s starting point guard.  In his sophomore year, Stockton averaged 39 minutes, 11.2 points, and 5.0 assists a game.  He would improve on those numbers in his junior year where he averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 assists a game.  He final senior season would be his finest as he averaged 20.9 points and 7.2 assists a game.  For his outstanding season, Stockton was named Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Player of the Year.  Stockton did all his scoring with remarkable precision as he averaged hit an amazing 56% of his shots.  Shooting over 50% from the field is a great accomplishment for any player, but very rarely do guards display this type of precisions.         

Stockton was the first player in Gonzaga history to score 1,000 points and also collect 500 assists.  He left Gonzaga as the all-time leader in assists with 554 and steals with 262.  He was third in career field-goal percentage at 55.9 percent and sixth in scoring with 1,340 points.  A credit to he well-rounded personality, Stockton also excelled in academics posting a high 3.2 grade point average (GPA) en route to attaining his business administration degree.  An equally commendable achievement in lieu of the rigorous time committed to basketball, Stockton was inducted into the GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame.

Despite his impressive collegiate resume, Stockton was hardly known when the Utah Jazz selected the quiet, skinny 22-year-old kid with the 16th selection of the 1984 draft.  That draft was memorable as being one of the deepest in talent in recent times.  The draft included the likes of Hakeen Olajuwon (1st pick-Houston), Michael Jordan (3rd pick-Chicago) and Charles Barkley (5th pick-Philadelphia).  You can just imagine the teams that selected the likes of Melvin Turpin (6th pick – Cleveland), Lancaster Gordon (8th pick-LA Clippers), Leon Wood (10th pick-Philadelphia), Tim McCormick (12th pick-Seattle), Jay Humphries (13th pick-Phoenix), and Terrance Stansbury (15th pick-Dallas), before Stockton.  But at the time, even Utah fans thought that selecting Stockton was a suspect decision.  Stockton eventually proved all his critics wrong, as he became one of the greatest success stories in the NBA. 

In an Athlon Sports article, Stockton's first coach in Utah, Frank Layden, admitted the Jazz did not know what they had when Stockton arrived.  "Nobody thought that he was going to be this good," said Layden, who himself thought Stockton was a project.  "Nobody. But the thing was, you couldn't measure his heart".  Even John Stockton himself was surprised at making it to the NBA.  Convinced that he would not last in the league for more than a season, Stockton wanted only one thing from the NBA - enough money to build a house.  When he was drafted, he held out through rookie camp until the Jazz raised their contract offer from the league minimum of $75,000.  Once the Jazz offered $80,000 he gladly accepted.

In his rookie season, Stockton surprised himself and his coach and management about his ability.  Despite being the backup to the Jazz’s incumbent point guard, Rickey Green, Stockton still managed to set club rookie records for assists (415) and steals (109).  For his rookie season, Stockton averaged just over 18 minutes, 5.6 points, 5.1 assists, and 1.3 steals a game.  He earned a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Team for his season’s accomplishment. 

Despite his relative success, John Stockton maintained a thrifty lifestyle in order to save for the future.  Akin to his basketball game, Stockton maximized his capital for the greatest value.   The stories from his rookie season has since become Utah folklore.  The current basketball legend that once shopped for the cheapest apartment he could find.  He did not feel it was wise yet to invest in a car, and his major purchase throughout his rookie season was when he broke down midseason to buy a television so he could watch the Superbowl.

Stockton still played the role of the backup point guard in his second season behind Rickey Green, although now he was getting a little more minutes.  He responded by posting 7.7 points, 7.1 assists, and 1.9 steals a game all in only less than 24 minutes a game.  Stockton’s second season would also be the rookie season of Karl Malone, together they would forever be synonymously linked as one of the best point guard-power forward duos in NBA history.  Malone, a highly touted rookie coming out of Georgia Tech University, already had a prominent role on the team compared to Stockton.  Malone won NBA Rookie of the Year that season with 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds a game.          

During that season and the following season, Stockton and Malone would go on to perfect the pick-and-roll, the play that characterized the Utah Jazz.  With Stockton’s precision passing and excellent screening (even for a little guy) and the powerful Malone almost unstoppable as he drove to the basket, the Stockton-Malone pick and roll was virtually unstoppable even when opponents knew when it was coming. 

With the departure of Rickey Green, who was selected by the Charlotte Hornets in the expansion draft prior to the 1987-88 season, Stockton was finally given total control of the point guard position, one in which he would elevate to great levels over the next 10 years, when he was in his prime.    

The 1987-88 season was on when Stockton and Malone established themselves as one of the top tandems in NBA history.  Finally given starter minutes, Stockton steamrolled ahead to show that he could produce – and boy did he ever produce!  That season saw Stockton’s numbers increase to 34.7 minutes, 14.7 points, 13.8 assists, 2.95 steals, and a whopping 57.4% field goal percentage.  Stockton’s total assists of 1,128 broke the previous record of 1,123, set by Detroit’s Isiah Thomas in the 1984-85 season.  This would be the first of nine consecutive seasons where Stockton would lead the league in assists.  Malone, the recipient of the bulk of Stockton’s assists, averaged 27.7 points and shot 52% for that season.  For their efforts, both players were named to the All-NBA Second Team. 

For the next few seasons, Stockton would go on to post the best numbers of his career.  Ever the true point guard, Stockton’s assists totals kept piling up as he led the league from 1987-88 to 1995-96 seasons.  In the 1988-89 season Stockton averaged 17.1 points and 13.6 assists; In 1989-90, 17.2 points and 14.5 assists; In 1990-91, 17.2 points and 14.2 assists; In 1991-92, 15.8 points and 13.7 assists; In 1992-93, 15.1 points and 12.0 assists; In 1993-94, 15.1 points and 12.6 assists; In 1994-95, 14.7 points and 12.3 assists; In 1995-96, 14.7 points and 11.2 assists; and In 1996-97, 14.4 points and 10.5 assists. 

Although he made it look so easy for so long, it takes a while to fully appreciate Stockton’s assist numbers.  Assists are usually an indicator of how effective a point guard is at running his team.  The more assists one has, the more he is getting his team involved in the offense, and the better he is at setting up a teammate for a good look for a shot.  Stockton was the absolute master of this.

Never much of a showman, Stockton did it through strict fundamentally-sound abilities, a precocious basketball instinct to read defenses and react accordingly, and his legendary court vision that would allow him to see where each of his teammates were on the floor.  “There's no mustard on the hot dog,” said Jazz teammate Tom Chambers. “He sees you and delivers it.  He sees you a lot of times when other people don't and he knows how to read people and get the ball to them in the right situation”.  Adds Stockton’s long time coach, Jerry Sloan, “He has a sixth sense.  It's not just seeing the floor, it's recalling the floor - remembering who is where and anticipating where they'll be.”     

Stockton’s assist accomplishments in a season are unparalleled.  His numbers are heads and shoulders above what any other NBA player have achieved.  Those numbers are there because he is amazingly efficient at what he does.  Consider this, following Stockton’s last year as the league’s assist leader, Jason Kidd has emerged to become the premier point guard in league.  Kidd was a player, who in the same mould of Stockton, was all about passing and making his teammates around him better.  Kidd would go on to lead the league in assists in five of the next seven seasons.  His highest assists per game average would be only 10.8 assists per game, an amount that Stockton bested eight times! 

During his career, Utah always were one of the top shooting teams in the league, not necessarily because they had good shooters, but mainly because of Stockton’s ability to deliver the ball to a teammate where they are in a position to put up a high percentage shot.         


Another mark of a quintessential point guard is his ability to put pressure on the other team’s point guard.  As much renowned as he was for his crisp, precision passing, Stockton was also regarded among the league has one of its best defenders.  Gifted with good footwork, quick hands, and an almost psychic intuition to predict where his opponent was going to go, Stockton was a master at stealing the ball.  In college, he would often times be able to strip an opposing player in open court.  At the pro-level, players were far too skilled at ball-handling to allow that to happen.  Stockton then honed his crafty defense to include perfecting getting into passing lanes at opportune times and attacking on the double team, along to go with his solid one-on-one defense.  

When all was said and done, Stockton finished his career with remarkable numbers to complement the many things he did on the floor that statistics could not measure.  Stockton played 19 seasons displaying astonishing durability as he played in every game in 17 of those seasons.  Through his entire career, he missed only 22 games.  During his 18th season with Utah in 2001-02, he set a league record for most seasons with the same franchise.  He also became just the 10th player in NBA history to play at the age of 40.  Overall, his total of 1,504 games played ranks third behind only Robert Parish (1,611 games over 21 seasons) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560 games over 20 seasons). 

Stockton will however be best remembered for his assists.  Many may argue that Magic Johnson was a better point guard, but even Magic himself gives that credit to Stockton.  “There is nobody that can distribute the ball, plus lead his team, like John Stockton,” said Magic Johnson. “He is the best at it.”  The Utah Jazz assistant coach, Gordon Chiesa said that, “Magic was more spectacular, but John turned the simple pass into an art form”.  Quite simply, John Stockton was the best passer the game has ever seen.     

Stockton is the sole owner of the all-time assists record of 15,806 assists (a career average of 10.5 assists per game), a record that is widely believed to remain unbroken for a long, long time.  A distant second on that list is Mark Jackson with 10,334 assists.  Closely following is Magic Johnson’s 10,141 assists.  Although to Magic’s credit, he has the higher career assists per game average (11.2), which ranks ahead of Stockton.  The active NBA player that leads in total assists has just over half of Stockton’s assists – and he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer!  That player is the Boston Celtic’s, Gary Payton, who has 8,138 assists over 15 seasons.          

Many people often neglect the fact that Stockton is also the overwhelming leader in the history of the NBA for steals.  In his career, Stockton has tallied up an incredible 3,265 steals.  That is head and shoulders above the guy in second – some dude named Michael Jordan, who has 2,514 career steals, and is often regarded as the greatest defensive guard ever.  The active leader in the steals department is also Gary Payton, who lags considerably behind Stockton with 2,266.  It should be noted that Payton, who himself will be enshrined as one of the games best point guards, has quoted that, “John Stockton is the best point guard in the game.” 

Recently Payton added some comments on Stockton after he had learned of Stockton’s jersey retirement.  “That's a guy I always liked,'' said Payton.  “I understood what he was trying to do, and I respected how he played and what he did to help his team win games.  As gifted a player as Payton was, he was also renowned around the league as the best trash-talker in the game.  Never a game went by when Payton would overwhelm his opponent physically but also psychologically.  Payton believes most opponents are worthy of verbal abuse, but the notorious trash talker drew a line of sorts with Stockton.  He never truly engaged him in wordly battle.  “No, I never tried with him,'' Payton said.  “We got into it probably one time.  He said, ‘Gary, I didn't try to hurt you.  I'm just playing.’ I think that was respect for me.  He didn't have to say anything.  He could have just went on and played, but he stopped and told me that.''    

In fact, Stockton the man, and the player, is widely respected around the league.  Here are some quotes around the league about him: 

 "People say the league is going to miss Michael Jordan.  But the league is going to miss John Stockton just as much."

- Derek Harper, former NBA point guard and current Dallas Mavericks assistant coach

"In my opinion, John Stockton was the greatest. I had the opportunity to see what he was about every single game.”

- Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz coach

"I've always said that John Stockton is one of the five best players I ever played against."

- Charles Barkley, former NBA star (Future Hall of Famer) and current TNT studio host

"I know everybody always talks about Michael Jordan, but there is nobody that ever competed better than John Stockton."

- Danny Ainge, former NBA point guard and General Manager of the Boston Celtics

"He's probably the best pure point guard to play the game . . . He's about efficiency and making people better. That's why he's played for 19 years."

- Kenny Smith, former NBA point guard and current TNT studio host

"He's a tremendous man. . . He brings a lot to the game, he makes you come out and play hard every night. He's probably the best guard to ever play the game, the best point guard to ever play the game."

- Bobby Jackson, Sacramento Kings guard and former 6th man of the year

“He (Stockton) is the NBA player I enjoy watching the most, and the only one I would pay to see.”

- John Wooden, Hall of Fame Coach

“The ultimate team player and best point guard ever in the halfcourt.

- Dr. Jack Ramsey, Hall of Fame coach

“He doesn't dribble behind his back or through his legs.  He doesn't crossover. His highlight reel features primarily bounce passes and layups.  Despite evidence to the contrary these days, that's basketball.  He doesn't practice the no-look pass, but we'll all be poorer not able to watch him anymore."

- Sam Smith, Basketball Columnist with Chicago Sun Times

"John Stockton's unique sense of professionalism, teamwork and loyalty, not to mention his incredible talent, elevated the entire sport of basketball. I consider myself fortunate to have been Commissioner during his extraordinary career. I look forward to his induction into the Hall of Fame."

- David J. Stern, NBA Commisioner 

"He is the best point guard of all-time"

- Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns all-star point guard

"People don't talk about the steals as much as the assists, he plays both sides of the court and that's what makes him the complete player.  For him to hold both records is an incredible achievement and those two records will be there for a long time." 

- Jason Kidd, New Jersey Nets all-star point guard

“When you talk about the classic point guard – it’s John Stockton.”

- Rudy Tomjanovich, LA Lakers head coach

John Stockton Achievements and Accolades:

All Time NBA Leader in Assists (15,806 career assists)

All Time NBA Leader in Steals (3,265 career steals)

All-NBA First Team (1994, 1995)

All-NBA Second Team (1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996)

All-NBA Third Team (1991, 1997, 1999)

All-NBA Defensive Second Team (1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1997)

10-time NBA All-Star

Olympic Gold Medalist (Dream Teams in 1992, 1996)

Named one of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996)

9-time NBA season leader in assists

1-time NBA season leader in steals

Record for most assists in a season (1,164 – 14.5 per game)

Most assists in a playoff game (24)