Stockton to be honored in retirement ceremony

Friday, June 6th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- In his 19 NBA seasons, John Stockton was known for being as private as he was competitive.

Now that he's retired, Stockton is letting up -- just a little -- as he gives Jazz fans a chance to say goodbye with a ceremony Saturday night at the Delta Center.

"I think he was kicking and screaming a little bit, but he agreed to do it," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, among a handful of people scheduled to give a short speech Saturday.

"I think there should be some recognition from the fans and the community. He doesn't want that recognition and never has, but it's a nice way for the city and the community to do something for him."

Sloan has spent the week at the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago, but is coming back Saturday for the event. NBA commissioner David Stern, Jazz owner Larry Miller and several of Stockton's former teammates, including Karl Malone, Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek and Thurl Bailey, are also to speak during the one-hour ceremony.

Stockton, reluctant to step into the spotlight any time he wasn't playing basketball, may fidget a bit as he sits through praise for stellar career, which he ended two days after the season was over with a quick announcement that he was done.

Stockton couldn't bring himself to actually say "retire" before his emotions overwhelmed him.

"That's good. Thanks," a choked-up Stockton said while quickly turning away and hurrying out of the Jazz locker room May 2.

Stockton has denied interview requests since his announcement. He's expected to deliver a few remarks, possibly getting "retire" out this time, although nobody is expecting a lengthy, sentimental speech from the NBA's career leader in assists and steals.

"He's not a long-winded guy," Sloan said. "He just does his job and goes on."

Stockton's decision wasn't much of a surprise. At 41, he wasn't expected to keep playing much longer. But the way he sprung the news caught most everybody off guard, including Malone, who had a lengthy conversation with Stockton on the flight back from a season-ending playoff loss at Sacramento two nights before.

Malone and the rest of the Jazz players, many of whom had said they hoped Stockton would return, didn't know. Stockton couldn't bring himself to tell them it was actually over.

Stockton said it was getting harder and harder to mentally prepare for games. With six kids, his time before games was getting stretched and he decided it was too much to split time between his family and the Jazz.

If Stockton couldn't play at the top of his game, he didn't want to play. Selected one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Stockton played in every game in 17 of his 19 seasons.

Even as the NBA's oldest player, Stockton was fifth in the league with 629 assists. He also averaged 10.8 points.

Saturday's appearance will likely be Stockton's last at the Delta Center before the Jazz retire his number 12. The only other retired Jazz numbers are Pete Maravich's No. 7, Darrell Griffith's 35, Eaton's 53 and No. 1 in honor of former coach Frank Layden.

Sloan, who watched nearly all of Stockton's NBA career from the bench as either an assistant or coach, said it was difficult to accept Stockton was leaving, but supported the decision.

Sloan also said it was difficult to narrow down what Stockton meant to the team for nearly 20 years.

"There have been a lot of great memories. To say one thing, I wouldn't know what it would be. Every day I went to work it was interesting to see how he as going to come to play," Sloan said. "He just made it kind of simple. Just do what you're supposed to do and go home. It doesn't always work out that way."

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