A sister-in-law of John Stockton gave me his new book, Assisted: An Autobiography. When asked about the title, she explained that John had more assists and more stolen balls than any other player. When I finished this book, I was reminded of Francis Beckwith’s column concerning the not always edifying example of many professional athletes. Beckwith points out the illegitimacy rates too often associated with many of these athletes. Stockton, by contrast, is rather an example of what a professional athlete ought to be. He strove, in his quiet and modest way, to be a good basketball player, but more a good husband, father, and member of the team and community.
Stockton begins by recalling his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. By that time, Stockton had retired (2002) from the Utah Jazz to return to live in Spokane, where he grew up and became a legendary player at Gonzaga University. The book recalls the history of his family, his parents, and ancestors. He was distantly related to Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the only man who, evidently under torture, recanted to return to British loyalty.
This fact clearly is not a claim to future fame, the general topic of his book. It reminds us that we never really know of or are responsible for our past. Stockton puts it this way: “Was he a traitor, as history tells us, or a tortured patriot? We don’t know for sure.” Besides, his father slyly told him, “We are the descendants of Richard’s brother.”
John’s mother was the last of fifteen children from Ferdinand, Idaho, a town of about 150 people, mostly German farmers. His grandfather had been a rather famous athlete in his day at Gonzaga. John’s father owned a pub just outside the Gonzaga campus. Young John thus learned to open a beer keg at an early age. The Stockton story is of a professional athletic career, but of one grounded in family life, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, wife, children (6), and in-laws. They all participate in the story of his career. Yet in a more basic sense, they are ultimately what make it worthwhile.
John Stockton’s Salt Lake teams never won the NBA championship. They were contenders several times. John himself was on two different Olympic squads, including the Dream Team of 1992. As he and the family observe other sports with the excellence of the Olympic performers, Stockton stressed what seems so obvious, the enormous work and effort that is required of athletes to succeed (or even lose) in any sport.
Stockton’s life is filled with practice and training, formal and informal. His many Alaskan brothers-in-law teach him to water ski, an excellent way to stay in shape. No doubt it takes native talent to be a champion, but Stockton reminds us that it is also a question of constant self-discipline with good trainers. Stockton leaves no doubt about the delight, thrill, work, grandeur, and challenge of playing the game itself against the best of competition.
Poignant in the book was Stockton’s discussion of camaraderie among fellow players. He recounts his friendships over the years with many athletes, particularly with Karl Malone. Stockton retired at 41, rather old for a professional athlete. He noticed that he began to have more in common with owners, coaches, and staff than with players half his age.
The old boys sometimes had to prove themselves against the younger ones by beating them in spontaneous matches. Stockton recalled from his earlier days the good humor and banter that went on among men. They ate together, travelled in buses. But later on, with the cell-phone and such contraptions, a growing isolation set in. Each person spent much time on his own device talking to someone else.
Stockton took his parental responsibility seriously. His wife, Nada, was at home with the children. Stockton carefully states his opposition to abortion. “No one should be able to dictate whether an innocent child, literally with his or her whole life ahead of them, should live or die.”
Throughout the book, Stockton wrestles with the responsibilities of fame. Once he became well-known, many charitable and sometimes annoying demands were proposed for him. He initially sought to escape to lead a more private life. He had been asked to sponsor an event in Spokane. He initially declined. But word reached his father and brother Steve that locals thought him selfish.
His brother called him. Stockton replied that he did not care what Spokane people thought of him. His brother replied: “But I care.” Stockton immediately realized that fame had its claims. That incident was the heart of John Stockton, the true professional athlete. He did understand what fame meant. It was not all about himself.