During his career, if he wasn’t in uniform, you’d be forgiven for not recognising John Stockton as a basketball player.
You wouldn’t be alone. At the height of the fervour surrounding the Dream Team, throughout the wild ride that was the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 - Stockton was able to walk the streets unnoticed, whilst his teammates required constant security when travelling.
Heck, even fans wearing his likeness on their chest didn’t realise who he was.
Even in his Jazz gear, the six foot one and 170-pound white guy from Spokane, Washington looked out of place. Maybe it was the haircut. Maybe it was the short shorts. But as soon as the game began, you knew that Stockton was a baller.
A Misunderstood Villain?
Over his eighteen year career, the Hall-of-Famer averaged 13.1 points and 10.5 assists per game and was the epitome of consistency. Stockton frustrated opponents and inspired hatred from their fan bases. He was labelled dirty by anyone not on his side. He, alongside his team-mate Karl Malone, was always depicted as a villain.
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It’s funny how society will pick holes in people who are successful or that don’t appear to belong. Perhaps Stockton’s dirty rep was a way for people to discredit his continued success?
Certainly, his detractors will point to the numerous YouTube compilations of Stock setting illegal screens and being generous with his elbows to support the theory. They’ll even suggest he was the originator of the much-maligned rise of flopping in the league.
But isn’t that just gamesmanship? Knowing, understanding and being able to take advantage of every single nuance of the game for your team’s gain?
I suppose it’s only natural that you ruffle feathers en route to becoming the all-time leader in steals. Amassing 3,265 throughout his career, Stockton was the NBA version of a kleptomaniac, having 581 more steals than second placed Jason Kidd. The only current player with even a chance of catching him is Chris Paul (sorry Kobe, KG and Paul Pierce). Though that chance is looking very slim for CP3 who, already in his eleventh season, is still 1,508 behind the Jazz legend.
No Nonsense Baller
Stockton operated with lethal efficiency, he didn’t showboat - which is perhaps why he wasn’t a fan favourite outside of Utah. His mantra could have been; do what works – then do it again and again until they figure out how to stop it.
One of the most regularly heard phrases throughout the NBA in the late 80’s and all of the 90’s was Jazz announcer, the late Hot Rod Hundley, saying “Stockton to Malone”. The pair would run, perhaps basketball’s simplest play, the pick and roll, with devastating effect. It’s a shame no stat exists to confirm how many times the two ran it, but it’s no surprise that Malone ranks second on the All-Time scorers list and Stockton ranks first on the All-Time assists leader board.
Stockton’s record of 15,806 assists is over three thousand more than Kidd (again, in second place) and over five thousand more than Steve Nash, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson. Think about that.
Gary Payton is one of the greatest defenders in NBA history, his smothering defence was so intense that he earnt the nickname “The Glove”. Throughout his career matched up against some incredible talents; MJ, Kobe, Magic, Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway to name but a few. Of all of his opponents, GP found that the skinny white dude in the short shorts provided the greatest challenge.
When talking to Bleacher Report in 2013, Payton gushed at Stock’s abilities.
“Everyone said he was dirty. He wasn't as athletic as us. But he was smarter than us," Payton said. "We knew what he was going to do. We knew he was going to set [tough] picks. We had all the videos on Utah. We were so dumb. We would get caught up with the picks and get mad at him."
"He would shoot eight times and make nine. Shoot eight free throws and make seven. He'd have 15 assists and four steals. A complete game. That's just the way he was and I idolised him.”
High praise indeed.
Payton is not the only one either, former rivals and team-mates praise Stockton’s basketball IQ and ability to overcome perceived physical limitations to dominate at his position for close to two decades.
Though you still may not notice him if he passed you on the street, it's time you recognised the greatness.