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THE NBA PLAYOFFS : Stockton Is Also Stealing the Show

You can tell right away what’s wrong with the Utah Jazz’s John Stockton as a basketball player out there. He’s too little, too light, too white, and his arms aren’t long enough. He’ll get killed out there.

You’re going to put this, this kid out there against Magic Johnson? You’ve got to be kidding! You’re going to ask this baby-face to bring the ball upcourt through the forest of human trees that is the National Basketball Assn.?

There are laws against that sort of thing. People have always tried to pretend that they didn’t hear him or tried to change the subject whenever the conversation got around to a career in pro basketball. “Sure, Johnny. Tell me, have you ever thought of law school?”

He was the best player they had at Gonzaga, maybe ever. But Gonzaga is not to be confused with North Carolina State, or Kentucky, or even Georgetown. They didn’t have any Air Jordans or the Twin Towers or anybody known as Tree.

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He wouldn’t bring the ball up in a league where they played for a million dollars, it was predicted; he’d bring the towels. He would get run over in a Laker fast break. The better point guards would spend the night taking quarters out of his ear, so to speak.

The Jazz decided they could waste a draft choice on him. It’s doubtful if anybody thought they were getting Bob Cousy or Walt Frazier but they thought he might be a nice swing guard, a basketball version of a penalty killer. He’d get in the game when the starters got in foul trouble.

What no one knew was that, with a basketball in his hands, John Stockton became like Billy the Kid with a six-gun, or John Dillinger with a tommy gun--a very dangerous character. Off-court he looked like a choir boy. On-court, an ax murderer.

He didn’t exactly grow 3 inches taller with the basketball. If anything, he became more invisible. But the passes seemed to wing in from the dark. They arrived as unexpectedly as wakeup calls. They came in low and fast, usually where you weren’t.

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Stockton is like a pitcher who keeps the hitters off balance. They’re guessing curve and they get the high hard one inside.

They didn’t expect any major league scoring out of Stockton. Neither did Stockton. “Even on free throws, he’d be looking around for someone to dish off to,” snickered a teammate.

But as his confidence grew, so did his instinct for the jugular. If no one was open, Stockton went for what was--the basket. He doubled his point total and his average this season. He was no longer just a special delivery system, he was a threat. Billy the Kid had a second gun.

He still found time to set the all-time season assist record--1,128--in the NBA. Only three players in its 40-year history have dished off 1,000 assists. Big O never did it, Clyde Frazier never did it, Guy Rodgers never did it, even feeding a scoring machine like Wilt. Stockton can feed a bricklayer the ball and get the score.

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He averaged 16.4 points the last half of the season. But he was still pretty much a secret this side of the Wasatch Range until little John blew his cover for good in the playoffs against the Lakers.

He’s now like the gunfighter who can no longer slip into town and sit and case the local bank anonymously from the saloon across the street. Everyone knows who old Two-Gun is now, especially the Lakers, whom he has given fits.

It’s no longer, “Who is this guy?” it’s, “Hide the women and children!” Or at least, hide the basketball.

You get a picture of one of the Lakers saying, “Wait a minute! Where’s the ball?” And the other one saying, “I thought you had it!” And they turn around and there’s Stockton darting off to the basket with it.

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Because, who he is just may be the best player, inch for inch, in the tournament. Master Stockton, in 5 games, has dealt off 78 assists, dumped in 92 points. He has picked more pockets--25 steals against the Lakers--than a gang of Gypsies at an Elks’ convention.

The Lakers know who he is, all right. The guy who may be sending them home early this summer. It’s all right to be only 6-1, Magic Johnson told a group of us the other night, “if most of it is heart.”

With John Houston Stockton, clearly it is. All he did Tuesday night, with a little help from his friends--and some from his enemies, the Lakers--was force the Lakers, those darlings of stage, screen and television, into desperation time to eke out a two-point victory at the buzzer. This over a team that was just supposed to provide them with a kind of complicated out-of-town tryout to work the bugs out of the show before they took it to Broadway and the Boston Celtics.

For all we know, the Lakers and Celtics may never meet again. But if the Lakers get shot down in this semifinal series--and that’s not the longshot it was a few days ago--John Stockton’s prints will be all over the murder weapon. Also the basketball.

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The Jazz suffered a heartbreaking one-basket loss Tuesday night, and the coach, who does stand-up shtick when he wins but hides under the bed and holds his breath when he loses, locked the door and shielded himself and his crew from the press.

John Boy Stockton was having none of it. He showed up bright-eyed and cheerful in the press room, as if there were a Magic Johnson in there with a ball he might steal, and he dealt off answers the way he dealt off assists.

Did he know he tied Magic’s one-game playoff record for assists at 24?

“Stats are pretty uninteresting at this time. The main stat is Lakers 111, Jazz 109,” he said, grinning.

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Did he feel unappreciated?

He smiled. “I felt over-appreciated when Magic and James (Worthy) got around me when I had the ball with 5 seconds to go.”

He would have got his 25th assist at that point as he dealt off a pass to teammate Scott Roth, but Roth put up an airball, and the game was over, anyway. Did he wish he’d kept it and shot for the hoop?

“A team that clogs the middle the way the Lakers do is hard to drive on.”

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What did he think of the game?

“I am having the most fun I ever had playing basketball,” said the smiling John Stockton. “Win or lose, it’s been fantastic fun.”

Or, put another way, for John Stockton it’s been not only a ball but the ball.


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