With Stockton, there’s no hoopla, just hoops

He was a gym rat. A kid with a basketball, always looking for a game.

Growing up in Spokane, Wash., John Stockton always had next.

In high school, he ran with a fast crowd. Not the guys with the hot cars and the cold beer, but the guys with the hot hands and a similar thirst for basketball.

In college, in the era before Dick Vitale and “Big Monday” and cable television’s saturation, he played in obscurity at Gonzaga University. He was prime time before there was such a thing.

Only the true hoop mavens knew about him. They were the lucky ones. They got to see him before the rest of us did. They saw the 20-15 court vision. They saw the hoop IQ.

You know those players who say they don’t play the game for the money, then sign for $20 million? If Stockton hadn’t made it in the NBA, he still would have found a game. He would have played for free.

Instead of running pick-and-rolls with Karl Malone in Salt Lake City, he would run the same play with some CPA from Medical Lake, Wash.

Stockton just wanted to play. It didn’t matter whether there were 19,000 shrieking fans inside the Delta Center or a few bright lights shining in an empty gym.

He wanted the ball and the dribble and a defense to break down. The rest of it – the shoe commercials, the Gatorade ads, the “Sports Century” profiles – was for the other players.

With Stockton, all of the hoopla surrounding the game was superfluous. He never enjoyed the spotlight. Never felt comfortable at a news-conference podium. Never liked talking about himself, even to the sportswriters he knew well.

He preferred playing to talking.

Last October, before the first exhibition game of his final season, I asked him, in light of the United States’ poor performance in the World Championships, if he had any suggestions to improve the game.

“I do,” he said.

I asked him if he would like to share any of them with me.

“No,” he said, cracking a small smile. “I’d rather wait and talk to someone who could make a difference.”

He wasn’t being a wise guy. He was being himself.

Stockton was different.

He was all short shorts and a $5 haircut. He was do-wop in an era of rap. He played the game on the floor when most of his colleagues were taking it higher and higher into the air.

Like a pool shark, Stockton knew how to play the angles. He knew how to separate himself from his defender and slide passes into barely open teammates.

Like a club fighter, he knew how to use his elbows to separate himself from defenders, and he knew how to use his hips and his knees and his shoulders to spring loose teammates on screens.

He was sneaky like a good offensive lineman. He committed fouls officials never called. He would bump and grind away from the ball with players who hated him at the same time they admired him.

He was proof that basketball still is a game of fundamentals. A reminder that if you keep your head up, take advantage of good screens and move without the ball, you still can succeed without a 40-inch vertical in 2003.

But on Friday, just before he cleaned out his locker for the last time, after 19 years in the league, Stockton, at 41, announced his retirement.

“I think I’m finished,” he said, looking as if he wished he could run one more fast break and get away from the reporters who surrounded him. “It’s time for me to move on.”

He tried to talk longer, but his voice cracked, his eyes began to water and he walked away.

Stockton never wanted a farewell tour. He didn’t need to see and hear the standing ovations in every road arena from November to May. He left the league the same way he entered it – quietly.

And the game will miss him more than it thinks. The Stockton-to-Malone pick-and-rolls were part of what still is right about the game. To think we won’t see that again is saddening.

Malone will soldier on, probably not in Utah. He will chase after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record.

But watching Malone without Stockton will be like listening to Brahms without the strings. Like watching the next “Lethal Weapon” without Mel Gibson.

Stockton leaves the NBA with 15,806 assists and 3,265 steals. He leaves, even though he proved again this season that he still could play at the highest level.

My guess is John Stockton won’t stop playing basketball. He’ll find a game to his liking and just go back to being the same guy he was 20 years ago.

A man with a ball and a gym and an unquenchable love for the game.