Michael Stockton steps out of his father's shadow
Four years ago, during an open gym session at Westminster College, coach Tommy Connor watched one of his recruits play pickup basketball. The kid was raw, but there was something about his drive and intensity that was familiar.
"I saw a winner," said Connor, who has coached the Griffins to seven Frontier League titles in nine seasons, including the past three. "I saw a competitive guy. When we played an open gym, I don't think his team lost a game. It wasn't because he was great. But that's a sign of a winner and that means a lot to me."
That was Connor's introduction to Michael Stockton, who bears more than a passing resemblance to another Stockton who played in Salt Lake City awhile back the one who starred for the Utah Jazz for 19 seasons and is in the NBA Hall of Fame.
That would be Michael's father, John.
But far from the bright lights of the NBA, and even Division I basketball, Michael Stockton has worked hard to become his own man, creating his own destiny.
In fact, Stockton's play in his senior season is drawing the type of attention that could result in NAIA All-America honors. The 6-foot-1 point guard averages 19 points and nearly five assists a game for the nationally ranked Griffins.
"I'm very fortunate to have walked into this situation," Stockton said recently.
"I don't know if anyone expected this, honestly. I just wanted to come back and make sure our team was ready to play and in a spot to win a conference championship. I expected to be solid, but never with numbers like this."
Early on, it was evident that the young Stockton was comfortable in his own skin. He's confident and grounded and used to being under the microscope.
"David is a redshirt player at Gonzaga," Stockton said of his brother, who plays at the same school where John starred. "The pressure on him is probably worse than it is on me."
Even Michael's father admiringly declared that his son, a left-handed shooter, is his own person.
"He's more comfortable with strangers," John Stockton said from his home in Spokane, Wash. "He grew up under the bright lights and glare of the [Utah] Jazz and the Olympics. Nothing is going to throw him off too much."
Another difference might be the importance of basketball in Michael Stockton's young life. His love of other sports probably cost him a shot at playing Division I basketball. At Gonzaga Prep, Stockon was as passionate about baseball and football as he was basketball.
So, by his own estimation, Stockton wasn't very good when he showed up at Westminster. His coach agreed.
"He came here not ready to play yet," Connor said. "But he was young, and every year he got better. He's having a year as good as any guard I've had in the program."
Stockton winding up at Westminster was a surprise. Westminster didn't reinstate its basketball program until 1999, just a few years before John Stockton retired. The Jazz used to practice at Westminster, which was all Michael knew about the school.
Later on, Jazz assistant Richard Smith suggested Stockton give Westminster a shot.
"Westminster being in Salt Lake didn't hurt," Michael Stockton said. "We knew we had family and a lot of great friends around here. I knew this would be too good of an opportunity to pass up."
Each season, Stockton's numbers improved. He went from playing seven minutes as a freshman to becoming a valued sixth man last season, coming off the bench to average 8.5 points.
This season has been a revelation. Stockton, who has peculiar way of tilting his head to the right, sort of peering at the action swirling around him, has flourished in Connor's system.
"As a point guard, you're supposed to be a good leader," he said. "I think I'm doing a pretty good job. I'm trying hard. It hasn't been easy."
Stockton's relationship with Connor has been a key, according to John Stockton.
"He loves Tommy," he said. "Coach Connor was rough on him, but he cared about him.
"Michael never had a chance to devote time [to basketball]. Now he has. I don't have to mention anything, he wants to get better."
Away from Salt Lake City and the friendly confines of Westminster's Behnken Field House, Michael isn't fazed by the occasional heckler who feels the urge to remind him that he's no John Stockton.
Who is? As Connor says, it's hard to take the barbs seriously when Stockton is kicking their butt on the court.
"A lot of people try to bring his dad into the picture," says teammate Chris Cassity. "But one thing about Michael, he's really an individual. He knows himself."
Michael's mother, Nada, made sure that the Stockton children grew up humble. Michael pictured himself as a hotshot, often invading the Utah Jazz locker room in search of a basketball to dribble on the Delta Center floor.
"When I was a kid, I probably thought I was a hotshot," Stockton said. "But as soon as we got old enough to understand, my mother made sure that was shut down. We were going to do things the right way."
The odds are long that Michael will play professional basketball. At 21, Stockton will graduate this spring in business management. He's not sure what the future holds.
But the offseason workouts with his father, siblings and players from Gonzaga won't change.
"He runs me through the stuff he did back in the day," Stockton said. "Once I got done with high school, my dad convinced me that if I wanted to do this, I had to commit to it.
"He still plays. Once a week we'll all play and he's still the best guy out there. He's 48, 49 years old now and still better than anyone I've ever played with."
The kid's not bad either.
About Michael Stockton
• Age 21. Senior point guard from Spokane, Wash., majoring in business management at Westminster College.
• Named the Frontier League Player of the Week twice this season, the second time for a 30-point performance against Indiana Wesleyan.
• Son of former Utah Jazz great John Stockton. Has a brother, David, who is a redshirt freshman at Gonzaga and a brother, Houston, who is a senior football player at Montana.