Defending the big four-oh

Saturday, March 23, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- John Stockton is pushing 40. It shows in the creases from his smile, a little deeper in his face, and a few flecks of gray in his dark hair.

One place it rarely shows: on the basketball court.

Stockton's 7.9 assist average ranks sixth in the NBA, and even in his 18th season, it's not unusual to see him go deep into double-digits. It's remarkable, considering most players listed ahead of him are in their mid-20s.

"I'm still playing, so that's a little more of a plus than a minus," the Utah Jazz point guard said, as understated today as he was when he joined the league in 1984.

Stockton celebrates his 40th birthday Tuesday, when the Houston Rockets visit the Delta Center.

"It's just a day," he said. "I don't all of a sudden become a year older when the day comes. I'll just be a day older."

There have been plenty of days for Stockton in the NBA. Years ago, before year-round fitness programs and chartered jetliners, anybody who played to 35 was considered a dinosaur.

Stockton admits he's not the same player of 10 years ago. He doesn't spend as much time on the practice floor, saving his legs, although he's playing 31 minutes a game this season, up from 29.2 last year.

"You have to make some concessions but you don't give in to it," Stockton said. "You have to be aware of what your body's telling you. Rather than play through everything, you have to find ways around it."

While other 40-year-olds might be cherry-picking for easy baskets at the YMCA, Stockton is still shaking it up in the NBA, fattening his huge margins as the league's career leader in assists and steals.

Going into Thursday's game against Washington, Stockton has 15,031 assists, almost 5,000 more than second-place Magic Johnson (10,141). If it's hard to remember the highlight clip of Stockton passing Johnson, it's probably because it happened seven years ago.

As for steals, Stockton has 3,099. Michael Jordan is a distant second with 2,387.

When Stockton came out of Gonzaga, a first-round choice and the 16th overall pick, Ronald Reagan was seeking his second term and Van Halen ruled the rock scene.

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, then an assistant under Frank Layden, recalled looking at the skinny youngster and having doubts.

"The conversation at the time was, 'Will this guy hold up?"' Sloan said. "That's been the least of his problems, but he looked a little frail when you saw him back then."

Stockton started his career backing up Ricky Green. On one road trip -- Sloan can't even remember exactly which year -- Green became ill and Stockton put those questions to rest.

"We played in Houston, Detroit and Chicago, and John played 46 or 47 minutes each game. He never broke a sweat," Sloan said. "That gave you an idea something was going on out there that might be kind of unusual."

How much longer Stockton plays isn't an issue right now. He has said repeatedly that he plans to honor the two-year contract he signed last summer, and Jazz owner Larry Miller certainly won't run him off.

"At the end of the summer, just like I've done the last four or five summers, I'll think things over, talk it over with Larry and Jerry and come to a conclusion," Stockton said. "I haven't thought about it since last summer."

Stockton is scoring 12.7 points a game, within a few baskets of his career high of 17.2 in 1989-90 and 1990-91.

Sure, Stockton's assist average is way down from his best season, 14.1 in 1990-91, but it's in things that are difficult to measure where he continues to help the Jazz the most.

"His ability to handle the ball and get it to the right people, that doesn't show up in the stats," said backup point guard Rusty LaRue. "The way he runs the team, that's the biggest difference he makes."

Stockton's admirers in the NBA aren't limited to teammates.

"I have so much respect for John Stockton," said Lakers star Kobe Bryant, a 24-year-old puppy by comparison. "He's probably the player in the league I respect the most."

Stockton and perennial All-Star forward Karl Malone, who turns 39 next summer, continue to carry a Jazz roster that now includes the aging veterans and a mix of young players.

For his part, Stockton remains as fiery as a rookie who's hungry to make the roster. He still finds teammates who don't seem open. He still works the referees for calls and comes hard off screens.

Some chuckle at his mid-thigh shorts, a throwback fashion when most players have them sagging to the knees. Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson has openly said Stockton flops on defense.

But the fact that he's still around is testament to his gym-rat mentality and love of the game, his outstanding fitness and focused work ethic.

"I love John Stockton," Bryant said. "Some people criticize him for his aggression, how he plays. I just see him out there doing what he needs to do. He plays hard and he's still effective."

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