Randy Hollis: John Stockton again shows great humility, class at 1996-97 Jazz team's reunion

Randy Hollis: John Stockton again shows great humility, class at 1996-97 Jazz team's reunion

SALT LAKE CITY — John Stockton has always been the Utah Jazz franchise’s favorite son.

And this past week, he showed once again why he’s such a beloved man by Jazz Nation and its fans, past and present.

The Hall of Fame point guard came back to town for a 20th anniversary reunion of the 1996-97 Utah team that reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

He was joined by fellow former players Jeff Hornacek, Bryon Russell, Greg Ostertag, Antoine Carr, Howard Eisley, Adam Keefe, Chris Morris and Stephen Howard, along with coaches Jerry Sloan, Phil Johnson, Kenny Natt and David Fredman.

Ever-popular former coach/general manager Frank Layden was there, too, as well as longtime assistant coaches/front office staff members Scott Layden and Richard Smith, along with trainer Terry Clark.

Unfortunately, Karl Malone, the NBA’s 1997 Most Valuable Player, wasn’t there due to other obligations. And it’s truly too bad, because The Mailman missed out on a wonderful opportunity to spend some quality time with a bunch of fellas and fans who rode along with him through one of the greatest times in Jazz history.

In a tremendous and touching halftime ceremony Wednesday night, with the adoring Vivint Arena crowd roaring its approval, they were each greeted warmly by team owner Gail Miller and given large, wooden plaques etched with their likenesses, names and contributions.

Stockton, who was that team’s co-captain, served as team spokesman and gave a brief, heart-felt speech that wrapped up the entire event in a nice, big bow for the appreciative fans in attendance.

Indeed, bringing these guys back together again turned out to be an absolutely brilliant idea by the team’s media and public relations department, and big-time kudos go to the Jazz staff for pulling it off in such a first-class manner.

And it seemed only fitting that almost 14 years after he played his final game in a Jazz uniform, Stockton, who’s the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, stole the show once again.

During his playing days, Utah’s “Mr. Clutch” always kept the media a safe distance away. There’s no doubt that the daily grind of being a professional athlete means that the media can become a constant, daily annoyance that never goes away and always wants more of a player’s time. Stockton certainly tolerated that endless obligation in a professional way but, while Malone always seemed to embrace the spotlight, his longtime sidekick, Stockton, always tried to shy away from it.

He was a superbly talented star on a terrific team, but the man fiercely valued his privacy.

No, he was never a jerk to any of us and was always courteous, cordial and respectful, realizing that we were just trying to do our jobs and thus always wanted him to comment on all things Jazz during his stellar 19-year NBA career — all of which he spent with the Jazz.

But there were countless times after a ballgame that he could be seen quietly trying to leave the locker room unnoticed, seemingly hoping to escape before he caught a media member’s eye and subsequently had to stick around and answer the same questions he’d been asked thousands of times before.

Hey, who could blame him? Alas, it’s the price of fame and comes with the territory.

But when he came to Salt Lake City for the 1996-97 Jazz Reunited celebration, we saw a much more relaxed, talkative version of “Stock” than many of us had ever seen before.

Meeting with the media on Wednesday morning at Zions Bank Basketball Center, Stockton showed amazing patience as he answered question after question from various newspaper, radio and television reporters, all hoping to scratch beneath that impenetrable outer surface where we’d seldom, if ever, been allowed before.

On this occasion, after all these years, he finally allowed us in to see what was on his mind, and what was in his heart.

He was as friendly, outgoing and accommodating as I’ve ever seen him, and several other longtime media members who’d spent years around him felt the same way.

Heck, he even allowed KSL-TV sportscaster Rod Zundel to talk him into re-enacting “The Shot” — the last-second 3-pointer that Stockton hit in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals against Houston, which clinched the series victory and sent the Jazz soaring into their first-ever NBA Finals appearance.

With Russell throwing him a long in-bounds pass, just like he did in ’97, Stockton graciously agreed to let us all revisit the most memorable play in franchise history. And then, after he buried the 3-point shot — of course he did — he even replicated his fist-waving gesture and celebratory hop, albeit with a little bit less air under his sneakers than he had 20 years earlier.

It was a magical moment, one Jazz fans have replayed in their minds millions of times. And now here was the guy who made it happen, re-enacting that signature moment while wearing jeans and a T-shirt — and a big smile on his face.

Then at Wednesday night’s pregame press conference, when coach Sloan — struggling to answer reporters’ questions due to his heartbreaking struggle with difficult neurological issues — Stockton again jumped in with the assist, just like he did thousands of times as a player. John valiantly jumped in to help Jerry finish his thought, and it was such a touching, heartwarming example of his deep love, respect and admiration for his tough old coach who’s battling something much, much tougher than Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

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Through it all, Stockton showed such great humility, humanity, class and appreciation for the Jazz family that made him one of their own back in 1984. Of course, those who know him best would’ve expected nothing less. After all, that’s who he is; that’s who he’s always been.

By the end of the night, that statue of him that stands so proudly out on the Vivint Arena plaza, adjacent to the street that bears his name, stood even taller than it did before in my eyes.

And today, as John Stockton celebrates his 55th birthday, I hope the guy who always wore No. 12 on the basketball court knows that, in the eyes of so many Jazz fans everywhere, past and present, he’ll always be No. 1.

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Published at Sun, 26 Mar 2017 17:00:00 +0000