The point guard was so good, he was frustrating his own coach.
Former Gonzaga coach Jay Hillock would try to run a productive practice, but the point guard kept getting in the way, intercepting passes, shredding the defense, overwhelming any strategy. He was only a sophomore, but John Stockton was clearly the dominating figure on the court.
But Hillock looked around the gym and saw a solution: his 24-year-old graduate assistant.
Ben Howland, who was just starting out as a coach, had been a defensive star at Weber State. So Hillock would put Howland on Stockton day after day in practice during the 1981-82 season.
Howland, using the tough, bruising defensive style that would later become the hallmark of his own teams, spent hour after hour trying to stay in Stockton’s face.
“I fouled him a lot,” Howland said. “He probably thought I was a jerk. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t competing for a job with him. There were no officials around. And Jay kept everything in practice half-court, so that made it easier for me.”
Hillock, now in the front office of the Chicago Bulls, still shakes his head in amazement at how good Stockton, a future NBA superstar with the Utah Jazz, was even in those days.
“It seemed like he would get 30 steals every practice,” Hillock said. “It was so disruptive. We could never get anything done. He probably weighed about 158 pounds, and Ben was 185 and physical. John didn’t get upset at Ben. John was too competitive for that.”
Howland will again be in the face of the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday, arms raised, body hunched over, ferocity written across his face. But now, he’ll be wearing a suit, walking the sidelines, directing his UCLA Bruins, who’ll face Gonzaga in Oakland Arena in an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game.
All the coaching success Howland has enjoyed -- this is the third team he has taken to the tournament and the third time he has reached the Sweet 16 -- began with that first job at Gonzaga.
It was Hillock who brought him in to augment a staff of only two full-time assistants. Hillock and Howland had met when Howland, 8 years old and living in the Santa Barbara area, would ride his bike over to a neighborhood convenience store where he and Hillock, who was twice his age, would talk basketball.
Howland’s favorite player then was Laker guard Jerry West, with whom he shares a birthday. Hillock would tease Howland by claiming other players were better.
Hillock first saw Howland on a basketball court at a local boys’ club. Years later, Hillock recruited Howland when Hillock was an assistant at Santa Barbara City College.
Hillock remembers Howland’s intensity and emotion.
“During warmups, even when he played at Weber State, Ben would always disappear from the court with 11 minutes to go before the start of the game,” Hillock recalled. “What people didn’t know was what he had gone off to throw up.
“He was so emotional.”
When Hillock became head coach at Gonzaga, he called Howland, who had been telling everyone who would listen -- since before his teens -- that he wanted to be a coach.
Gonzaga was a small-time program in those days. So small, the school’s recruiting budget was $7,500. So small that the assistant coaches kept a beat-up jalopy in the San Francisco Bay Area that they would use to not only get around on recruiting trips, but to sleep in when they couldn’t afford a hotel. So small, they studied game film on an old projector.
Howland, newly married, received a stipend and supplemented his income by working in the turf club at a nearby racetrack.
But he wasn’t complaining. He was living his dream.
The intensity from Howland’s playing days hadn’t abated.
“I remember one game, which his parents were attending,” Hillock said. “Ben was barking at the officials. I finally told him, ‘If you get a [technical foul], you can go up there and sit with your parents and I’ll mail your stuff back home to you.’ ”
A year later, Howland moved on to his first paying job as an assistant at UC Santa Barbara.
And now, he will be back on the same court with Gonzaga.
“I can’t really lose on Thursday,” Hillock said. “I always root for Gonzaga. But this time, I’m going to be in Ben’s corner. Ben is family.”