The 10-hour documentary moved too quickly through key on-court moments at multiple times. That was inevitable, given the scope of the project and the richness of Jordan’s career. But the project would have benefited greatly from a more thorough treatment of John Stockton, a Hall of Famer who embodied Jordan’s signature drive as well as any player from that era.
Jordan and Stockton seem to have little in common at first glance. Start with their shorts: Jordan wore his loose and long, while Stockton’s were as short and tight as possible. Jordan meticulously shaved his head; Stockton got the Supercuts special. Jordan rocked the most popular sneakers in the game; Stockton wore dad shoes.
Jordan hit an NCAA title-winning shot as a freshman at North Carolina; Stockton never made the tournament at Gonzaga. Jordan was the NBA rookie of the year in 1984-85; Stockton, who entered the league at the same time, wasn’t a full-time starter until his fourth season. Jordan rose to global prominence with the big-city Bulls; Stockton plied his trade with the small-market Utah Jazz.
The 6-foot-6 Jordan was wired to attack and score. The 6-1 Stockton wanted to dish and defer. Jordan averaged 37.1 points one season; Stockton never scored 35 points in an NBA game. Jordan lived to talk trash; Stockton was mute. Jordan broke the sport with creative drives and acrobatic finishes; Stockton was all about fundamental bounce passes and sharp cuts. “Air” Jordan won dunk contests and posterized rivals; searching “John Stockton dunk” on YouTube doesn’t yield much at all.
And then there’s the difference that everyone remembers: Jordan won six championships, including two by beating the Jazz in the Finals, casting Stockton into the pile of ringless stars alongside Malone and Barkley. At their cores, though, Jordan and Stockton were two sides of the same coin: intelligent, consistent and controlled two-way players who were utterly obsessed with winning. Fearless, too.
“I never said, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is the Bulls,’” Stockton said in the documentary. “I sure didn’t feel an aura about Michael Jordan or the Bulls. I don’t know how you would play against somebody with that.”
Stockton never had any time for narratives or mythmaking, not even when he entered the Hall of Fame alongside Jordan in 2009.
“[Jordan] makes one big shot, and everybody thinks he’s kind of cool. I don’t get it,” Stockton quipped nervously, racing through a self-deprecating speech so he could cede the stage to Jordan. “I had to be the only draftee who was still living at home with his parents.”
A shy personality and intentional lack of charisma guaranteed Stockton wouldn’t captivate ESPN’s audience like Thomas, Johnson or Payton. But his résumé was breathtaking, and it must be understood to properly set the stakes for the Bulls’ fifth and sixth titles. After all, Stockton hit a series-clinching three-pointer against the Houston Rockets to send the Jazz to the 1997 Finals. He also nailed a huge three-pointer moments before Jordan’s famous “Last Shot” over Bryon Russell in the 1998 Finals.
Stockton never missed the playoffs during his 19-year career. He led 11 50-win teams and three 60-win teams. He made 10 straight all-NBA teams, earned nine straight all-star nods and led the league in assists nine straight times. He didn’t miss a single game because of injury or rest in 17 different seasons. His 15,806 career assists are perhaps the NBA’s most unbreakable record — no other player has reached 12,100. His 3,265 steals are also a record, topping any active player by more than 1,000.
His peers took notice. Barkley called him “one of the five best players I’ve ever played against” and “the perfect point guard.” Jason Kidd said Stockton and Johnson were the best point guards of all time. Chris Webber once said on “The Dan Patrick Show” that Stockton “would come to the game literally in a minivan, pop his kids out and bust us up.”
Thomas said Stockton “made Malone,” hailing the point guard’s “toughness physically and mentally.” Johnson called Stockton “the guy you want your son to play basketball like.” On multiple occasions, Payton has argued that Stockton, not Jordan, was the most difficult player he guarded because of his constant movement.
Yet younger viewers of “The Last Dance” would be forgiven if they came away believing that Jordan’s biggest challenges in 1997 and 1998 were food poisoning and Russell. The relentless force of Stockton to Malone, a combination that sparkled for more than a decade, was undersold for two reasons: Malone was apparently not interviewed, and Jordan did not address Stockton.
Like Jordan, Stockton worked and worked at every step of his career. Like Jordan, he never settled or cut corners. Like Jordan, he mastered a potent offense and memorized opponents’ tendencies on defense. Like Jordan, he had an unforgiving approach that chafed opponents. Like Jordan, he won at a high level for more than a decade. If not for Jordan, he almost certainly would have at least one ring.
In the documentary’s signature scene, Jordan was moved to tears by the notion that competition was the only thing that mattered to him.
“I wanted to win, but I wanted [my teammates] to win and be a part of that as well,” he said. “I’m only doing it because it is who I am. That’s how I played the game. That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
If any of Jordan’s contemporaries played that way, it was Stockton.