ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — During his 19-year NBA career, played entirely with the Utah Jazz, John Stockton was known for many things. His court vision was unparalleled — he led the NBA in assists for nine consecutive seasons and retired with 15,806 assists, more than any player in league history, as well as 3,265 steals, the most all-time. He was unbelievably resilient — Stockton missed a total of just 22 regular season games over his career. And of course, Stockton teamed with Karl Malone to create teams that were consistent contenders in the Western Conference (if not the league).
But Stockton was also perhaps just as well known for the things he did not do — Stockton eschewed showing off, being flashy for the sake of flash. He wore the most uniform uniform possible, and he never said anything designed to make headlines or draw attention to himself. So it might come as something of a surprise to fans of both Stockton and the Jazz that Stockton has penned an autobiography, Assisted, available now. The book details Stockton’s remarkable story, of how a guy just over six feet tall and weighing maybe 170 pounds was able to make himself one of the giants of NBA history.
Earlier this week we sat down with Stockton in New York City to talk about the book, his career, and his take on the NBA today.
ME: You write about how you started this book because you were really just trying to get all this information down for your kids to have one day. Previous to this had you ever really had any interest in writing?
STOCKTON: No. I was looking for alternatives for something to do with my life. I am very busy — I do coaching, I have parts of businesses — but there’s a void in those days that was pretty quiet, and I was shuffling my feet, trying to figure out what to do. That was the first time I thought [writing] might be a good solution. I didn’t want to find another career, because I didn’t want it to interfere with the stuff I really was enjoying since retirement. So it seemed like a nice fit, and I found a nice project in it.
ME: Were you a reader at all?
STOCKTON: Yeah, I love to read. I didn’t read much in college except for homework, then afterward I fell in love with books. Our (assistant) coach, Phil Johnson with the Jazz, was an avid lover of non-fiction. He’s turned me on to lots of books. So I read a lot now.
STOCKTON: Mostly, yeah. There are some great stories out there.
ME: What was your process like as a writer? Did you carve out a couple of hours every day? Or were there times where you’d wake up in the middle of the night and jot something down?
STOCKTON: That’s a great question. It started with the idea. I went and visited my old coach (Kerry Pickett), who was a really well-read guy and who helped me throughout. So we talked for a long time. He took notes and kind of made a little sketch of an outline, which I would never do, because I just want to write, I didn’t want to organize. So he organized, then he’d send me little assignments. He said, “OK, this is what you seem to want to talk about, you go write about this for a while.” And then it might be a month, it might be three months, it might have been six months, depending on what my schedule was like — like summertime, we’d go on AAU trips and stuff like that, there’s no time. So we’d wait. So it took about four or five years but that’s how it would work. But yeah, I’d be sitting in church and would think, “Why didn’t I think about that?” And I’d write it down on the envelopes. Or I’d wake up in the middle of the night — not often — and I’d write down a note. So that was helpful.
ME: That reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode where he wakes up in the middle of the night and writes down a hilarious joke and then the next day can’t read his writing.
STOCKTON: (laughing) “Seinfeld’s” great!
ME: In the book one of the things you write about is the importance of balance and vision for a basketball player. Is that something that can be taught? Or is that something that has to be innate for an athlete?
STOCKTON: I think it can be enhanced. One thing I’ve watched coaching my own kids and their friends, for instance, is there are some kids that have certain things, it seems like from the get-go. You almost don’t have to say anything to them, but they get it. And then there’s other ones that you can’t turn your back on them because you’re trying to get better as a team, so they need to get it. So yeah, you can definitely get better at balance, can definitely get better at vision, but can you go off the charts if you’re not wired for that? Probably not.
ME: You wrote in the book about Jeff Hornacek having such a great knowledge of the game when you played with him. How much does having a great knowledge for a sport play a part in success versus just outstanding athleticism? Basically, how much does knowing where to position yourself matter versus having just great natural ability?
STOCKTON: Well, you see it every day. I think it’s the most overlooked thing in sports, in all sports. You watch baseball, a centerfielder may not run a 4.2 forty, but he gets to every single ball. What is he seeing that the rest of us aren’t? Jeff Hornacek was a plenty good enough athlete — he didn’t have a deficiency in that area that he overcame with intelligence — but boy was he bright. And he knew things in advance, he had numbers in his head and he could combine them all. So, special guy. I think right now it’s easier to go find that cookie-cutter athlete and say, “That’s my next starting center fielder.” Where I think they miss — and I’m picking on baseball but this is all sports — is they’re missing that guy that gets it, who has great anticipation, has a feel for where the pitch is and where it’s going to strike the bat and is already there. That’s a baseball player to me.
ME: The book talks a lot about your competitive streak. If you hadn’t become a basketball player, do you think you would have done something else in sports?
STOCKTON: I would have sure tried. As with all kids growing up you’ve got a ball in your hands, you’ve got a bat in your hands. So I would have sure tried like crazy. I was probably most equipped for baseball, although I never really shined in it and never had the type of coaching I had in basketball. Football, I just matured too late. I thought someday maybe I could be a quarterback but when you’re 94 pounds in high school, it’s pretty tough to enhance those skills much (laughs).
ME: Karl Malone says in the foreward of your book how when you played you never really opened up much with the media, even though you did have thoughts and opinions. But because you never talked about those things, people thought you didn’t really have opinions on those things. Why did you feel like now was the time to open up?
STOCKTON: Well, I have a lot of opinions that didn’t make the book. That’s a fine line. When you’re talking and you and I are in a room and this (points to digital recorder) isn’t on, we could have a lot more open discussion about sensitive topics because we could get through any hiccups. Once you’re writing and it’s on paper and you’re defending it to nobody, that’s a tough proposition. I don’t feel like I’m really venting a lot of opinions. I would like to have, in a way. But it’s a tough venue. Karl and I could talk about anything, but most of that stuff I’m not putting in print.
ME: Were you at all leery about opening yourself up and putting it down on paper?
STOCKTON: No. I don’t feel like I have. I don’t feel like I have betrayed myself or my family. It’s really important to me that they have their privacy. My kids should have the choice of following in that or in being a perfectly anonymous citizen. So it was really important for me not to spoil any of that hard-sought stuff for this. So I tried to tell good stories about good people and how they were helpful without betraying any of the confidences and privacy that they deserved.
ME: Throughout the book you details lessons you learned from situations in your life or in your NBA career. Was that something you wanted to hammer home?
STOCKTON: I think everybody’s perception, especially for a professional athlete, is that it’s always been easy: You’re always a great shooter, you always cruise through it, whatever. But when you get to the point of learning opportunities, I looked forward to them. Being the younger child, my brother was better than me at pretty much everything. I didn’t weigh much at all, so I was kind of just saying, “You got me there, you got me there,” and little by little you kind of whittle the difference down until you’re a better player. I don’t know if an older brother has a chance to do that, because you’re always the king.
ME: I’ve heard people talk about a boy having an older brother being a big thing because they kind of show you the ropes — they show you what music to listen to, what TV shows to watch, all that stuff.
STOCKTON: (nodding) When my brother and my Dad would get mad at each other about anything — maybe it was mowing the lawn — I figured, “Hey, I’m going to mow the lawn. I’m not going to get caught in this.” There were so many lessons every day.
ME: And then you get the brownie points — “Hey, John mowed the lawn without us asking!”
STOCKTON: (laughing) Exactly!
ME: One story I liked in the book that you didn’t go into a lot of detail on is when Karl got drafted by the Jazz and first visited Salt Lake City, the two of you spent a day getting to know each other at the zoo. What compelled you guys to wake up and go to the zoo?
STOCKTON: I don’t remember. He’s just a country kid, and we’re in Salt Lake and I’m just a year into it, so I don’t exactly have command of it myself. I said to him, “We could drive up into the mountains, that’s gorgeous. Or maybe we could…go to the zoo?” And he said, “Zoo? Sounds good. Let’s go.” So we had a beautiful afternoon there. Pretty peaceful.
ME: You talked in the book about how Adam Keefe was one of the best teammates you ever had. What other players that people might not immediately think of were some of your favorite teammates?
STOCKTON: Greg Foster was one. Antoine Carr was a great teammate. Bryon Russell. Shannon Anderson. Howard Eisley was absolutely one of my favorites. The team that went to the Finals was loaded with the type of teammates that you hope for. I know I left out some guys, but those were some of my favorite teammates.
ME: What made them good teammates? Good people? Good players?
STOCKTON: First of all, great players. And players where it wasn’t all about them — they were willing to make their sacrifices for the squad without feeling sacrificial. Fit in, got better — they didn’t just sit there and think, “Hey, Karl Malone is going to carry us.” They got better and we got better as a result. They were not afraid to say something to you, “Hey, I’m seeing this. Take a look at that when you’re out there.” And having the right approach with different guys — you can’t talk to everybody the same way.
ME: When you retired you said something about making sure your shorts were hemmed up high throughout your career. Were the short shorts a deliberate choice?
STOCKTON: My second-to-last year, I think — my seventeenth year — the equipment manager came up to me and said, “Would like to lengthen your shorts?” I really didn’t know that it was an option. I’d never asked, and they’d never asked me. So we just kind of kept plugging on. Everybody kept talking about my shorts and I thought, “Well, I didn’t change anything…”
ME: You didn’t maybe notice around you that the shorts were getting bigger and longer?
STOCKTON: Yeah, but I was comfortable with it. I also saw other guys with 34-inch waists get 40-inch shorts and then just cinch them, and that…that didn’t make any sense to me.
ME: What made Jerry Sloan such a great coach?
STOCKTON: Fiercely competitive. He eliminates nonsense. The hard-nose tag is probably accurate, but you don’t sit there thinking that he’s tough every day — he’s a very reasonable man. Smart. He’s been around the game forever. Furthermore, if we won, it was a credit to the players. If we lost, it was all him, so he always took the blame, gave the credit, and provided the opportunity for us to play without having to be something more than basketball players. He said, “Hey, you guys want to shine, play better.” He said, “Do it with your play.” So I think those were some of the reasons that he was great.
ME: Was he the kind of coach who gave the fiery motivational speech? Did he have the quotes on the wall? He seems a little more pragmatic than that.
STOCKTON: Not a quote on the wall guy. Every once in a while, a little fire and brimstone. But, you know, you play 100-something games every year, I don’t know how many times you can afford to go to the well on that. He called it like you saw it, you knew where you stood, and knew what he expected of you.
ME: What younger players do you like to watch today?
STOCKTON: That’s a good question. I don’t see enough games to be fair about it. My kids are very active in sports, so I’m going to football games, basketball games, baseball games, practices. So I get home and the Jazz game will be on — we are in their territory since Seattle departed. So we get a large portion of their games. Really, all I get to see is them and who they’re playing against on any given night. So I don’t have a great feel for the guys that are out there. And yet I probably still have some decent opinions, but they’re so snap-shotty, that I really don’t feel it’s fair.
ME: Do you still watch a lot of NBA games?
STOCKTON: I watch a lot of playoff games. The timing seems to work better, for whatever reason — the high school sports are done by then. But regular season I don’t catch a bunch. I’ve coached in high schools with the boys and girls, and then we’ve got kids in AAU and all that, so it’s busy. Maybe someday.
ME: Who was the toughest player for you to play against in the NBA?
STOCKTON: There are a number of them. When I was younger, clearly Magic Johnson was tough, probably impossible for me to guard. Kevin Johnson, Mark Price, Isiah Thomas — those were the killer guys at my position. Evolving into, of course, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash. There was never a shortage of guys at that position.
ME: We had Isiah on our podcast recently and I asked him how many points he would have averaged if he played in his prime with the rules the way they are today, and he said might average 40.
STOCKTON: He might be right.
ME: Would your career have been different if you had played the entire time with these rules — no hand-checking, all that stuff?
STOCKTON: No question. I think it’s a lot less physical game. I think in some ways they’re almost attempting to ruin it. The charge line drives me crazy. I hate that line. And I didn’t take a ton of charges — you might think that I did, but I didn’t. The advantage is just to anyone that leaves their feet. I think there’s such a game that’s being missed when they’re protecting those guys. In our day there was a risk to that. Now you leave your feet and you’re protected. Now if you get touched on the head it’s a threat of concussion and maybe this person should be suspended for a couple of weeks. I saw guys — myself included — clotheslined. Whether intentional or not, it happens. So I’m disappointed in that trend. I’d like to see them maybe discourage some of that and give basketball players a chance to blossom a little bit, instead of just people who can leave their feet.
ME: What do you think of the advance stats that are so pervasive in sports today? Do you think there’s a place for that in basketball or sports?
STOCKTON: Well, I watched Moneyball and read that book, and I watched the Oakland A’s every year. So I think about that: Is there some sort of formula that would work for a basketball player? I’m not smart enough to figure that out. I imagine there’s something in there, but it’s going to be a long time before I can help you with it (laughs).