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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2002
If a group of basketball intellectuals (no, no, let's not interject the term oxymoron) was asked, "Who are the best players ever?" the names Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Karl Malone, George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Shaquille O'Neal and the finest collegians I ever saw -- Pete Maravich and Bill Walton -- would appropriately slip from many lips.
Why not John Stockton?
His skills, toughness, durability, consistency and unselfish excellence have been going thump-thump in the NBA night for 18 seasons. Johnny Stock is a better point guard than was Magic, but how often do we hear such a declaration?
Stockton just turned 40. He's almost 5,000 assists ahead of Johnson, the career runner-up. John has 721 more steals than Jordan, the second-place legend. Yet the Stockton public persona has less voltage than Charles Barkley or (gasp) Dennis Rodman.
There are reasons, however invalid.
Johnny Stock played at Gonzaga, a remote school in eastern Washington state that, unfairly, is annually asked to reestablish its hoops status.
Since he was 22, Stockton has been with the Jazz, performing in Salt Lake City, a virtual media outpost unless the Winter Olympics are in town. Stockton isn't much of a tabloid soul, never making headlines for doing drugs, triggering brawls, beating up his wife, driving drunk or abusing kids.
It's our fault, not his, that Stockton is not mentioned with heavier historical reverence. Although abundantly wealthy, John is a little slack in jock greed, having turned down more money to stay with the Jazz. He almost never misses work. Keep checking the NBA box scores, this could be the 16th time in which Stockton plays all 82 regular-season games.
Tell me, do you hear Stockton's name in nightly TV flashes as often as O'Neal, Bryant, Carter, Garnett, Webber, Mourning, Sprewell, Stackhouse, Duncan, Kidd, Malone or the well-aged Jordan?
Stockton slides beneath radar.
Thirty-four times, the tough 6-foot-1 guard has achieved more than 20 assists in a game. Malone, without Johnny Stock as his Utah sidekick, would've been like Laurel without Hardy or Rodgers without Hammerstein.
If we're talking merit, John belongs.
DUNKS: Maybe he's dreaming there might be one more Wimbledon championship in his superlative but fading tennis physique, but you wonder how Pete Sampras, even being a low-ego chap, copes with being a borderline has-been who seldom contends anymore and regularly gets kicked around by cocky tour kids who have not won a Grand Slam. ... There's no bigger Notre Dame Club than in Chicago. Since Knute Rockne was a coaching pup, the Irish zealots annually have honored a football player. But not this time. Ruth Riley, center of last season's N.D. national championship women's basketball team, gets the hurrahs. Not even football hardheads could make a reasonable case for one of fired coach Bob Davie's athletes.
READER'S SHOUT: E-mail from Nelson Bunch of Bradenton Beach says, "Being a college basketball nut case, I wanted to fully believe when you wrote a few years ago that, due to hiring exceptional coaches, huge things were coming at last for Florida's major schools.
"But look at them now: Billy Donovan flubs a half-dozen games in the closing minutes with the Florida Gators, then loses in the NCAA's first round; Seth Greenberg goes no further than an embarrassing flameout in his NIT opener with USF; Leonard Hamilton jumps from Miami to the NBA, where he quickly flopped in Washington and now lands at FSU, where Steve Robinson never got out of the starting gate.
"Poor assessment, don't you think, Hubert?"
HUBERT'S REPLY: You make valid points, with March being more sad than mad for sunshine schools, but don't diminish Donovan's stout accomplishment of taking UF to its first national championship game (2000) and Billy D consistently wins 20-plus.
Grading them purely on '02 results, Donovan merits a C-plus, Greenberg a C-minus, while Robinson flunked out and Hamilton has much to prove in Tallahassee.
That said, I see Greenberg as a coach who still can do well, though he might have to move on from USF after his best bunch of Bulls talent fell so shy of high achievement. Donovan? Still one of the best 10 coaches in the country. He'll be back at the ultimate levels.
DINKS: Every fall, we're wowed by exceptional 12-year-old talents (some of them a bit older) in the Little League World Series, but seldom do the names resurface years later as big-leaguers. Sean Burroughs is an exception. His dad was AL Most Valuable Player in 1974 and, in 1992, Jeff Burroughs coached a California squad to the LL championship with Sean as an 11-year-old standout. Now, the Williamsport phenom is 21 and a brilliant prospect as a left-handed hitting third baseman with the Padres.
Whatever happened to Jimmy Ellis?
-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.