An all-star’s son in the D-League: ‘Just keep plugging away”
Oblivious to the professional basketball players hoisting jump shots below, three men run on the treadmills overlooking the basketball court at the Edgewood Community Center in Canton, Ohio. A bearded 20-something, a 70ish retiree, and a middle-aged business man together disregard the players downstairs — indifferent to the sweat pouring out in pursuit of a dream.
Among the team is Michael Stockton, son of Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton. It’s a frustrating sequence for him: Stockton collects a rebound, scurries down the court for a three-on-one fast break and attempts a no-look pass to forward Nick Minnerath. But Stockton misreads the single defender, who easily intercepts it for a layup. “F — -!” Stockton screams, violating the center’s language policy. Things aren’t off to a great start, but Stockton knows it’s part of the process.
“Most importantly is to just keep plugging away, everyone, especially in the D-League, is so close but so far away at the same time,” he says. “When you play with these guys, you realize you can improve every single thing.”
Stockton plays for the Canton Charge, one of 19 teams in the NBA Developmental League. The D-League represents basketball purgatory. It’s filled with players assigned from NBA teams, castaways looking for one last opportunity and young players inches away from accomplishing a dream. Players find themselves plodding through a 50-game schedule in half-empty arenas in secondary cities. The incentive is to play well enough to warrant a 10-day contract with an NBA club, worth $29,843 for a rookie and $53,838 for a veteran. That’s more than entire season’s pay in the D-League.
Later at practice, Stockton dribbles just outside the three-point arc, calling out a play. The players trot through the set: Jon Horford, the younger brother of NBA All-Star Al Horford, sets a screen and immediately begins rolling to the rim — Stockton, anticipating the “pop” to Horford’s pick — heads left and lobs a high-pass.
The defender tips it away.
Stockton walks to the sideline, head down, and doesn’t shake hands with his teammates.
A minute later, he lines up on defense against Jorge Gutierrez, a 27-year-old point guard who once scored 10 points for the Brooklyn Nets. They’re nearly body to body before Gutierrez dumps the ball inside to post player Michael Dunigan. Stockton dances between the two opponents. Finally, Dunigan bites and attempts a pass to Gutierrez, but Stockton’s in perfect position and tips the ball. The whistle blows the play dead, but Stockton heads down court and lays a pass off the backboard for his trailing teammate to slam in.
“There you go, Stock,” yells out a teammate.
Stockton, easily the team’s shortest player (a generously listed 6–1), hustles the team up the court and hurls all 180-pounds at a missed shot. He grabs the offensive rebound, dribbles back behind the arc, then slings a left-handed pass inside for an easy dunk.
“Way to keep the dribble alive, Stock,” says Mike Batiste, an assistant coach who played in 75 games for the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2002–2003 season.
Practice follows this ebb and flow. A play of skill: Stockton draws two defenders toward him on the perimeter before whipping a pass underneath for a layup. A play of inadequacy: Stockton makes a precise cut toward the basket, then fumbles the pass. But in the D-League, players like Stockton make mistakes. It’s called the “Developmental” League for a reason.
After practice, players stop by the bleachers for a special treat — staff members giving away “Mozzies,” furry hats made popular by Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov. But Stockton stays on the court, challenging himself to make a three-pointer from five spots beyond the arc. He glares at his reflection in the window after going 2-for-5 the first round, then pumps his fists after making all five the second time.
Thirty-seven games into his first stint in the D-League, Stockton remains a work in progress.
“Personally, I don’t think my performance has been very good,” he said. “I’ve had some good games where I’ve been a big reason we’ve won games, and I’ve had games where I’ve been a huge reason we lost it. I just have to find ways to be as effective as I can when I’m out there.”
GROWING UP A STOCKTON
Michael Stockton grew up in Spokane, Washington, the middle son of John Stockton’s six children. His father led the Utah Jazz to the playoffs in each of his 19 seasons and finished his career as the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals. Known for an unassuming demeanor — and old-fashioned basketball trunks — John Stockton retired in 2003 and now works as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Montana State University, where daughter Lindsay is completing her senior season.
None of the three Stockton boys — Michael, older brother Houston, who played safety at the University of Montana or younger brother David, a fellow D-League point guard — felt pressure to live up to their father’s career.
“When we were really young kids, he never said anything about basketball towards us,” David Stockton said. “He didn’t want us to get burned out just because we were surrounded by it. I think because of that, we kind of respected what he would say and realized he was a pretty good asset to have as far as basketball is concerned.”
Battles on the blacktop were a staple for the Stockton boys — David admits Michael was the better player growing up.
“Having to go against them in basketball or any sport made us all very competitive people,” David Stockton said. “I think that’s part of the reason we both excel is because of that competitive nature we gave each other.”
As the brothers grew, so too did the comparisons to their father.
“We’d take a bit for of from people” when they didn’t play like all stars, Michael Stockton said. “I think for some, that would their ultimate motivation. My motivation was never that. I always kind of wanted to prove people right for taking a chance on me or letting me be on a team.”
In some ways, Stockton is reminiscent of his father: The high white socks and low cut shoes, the slender frame. The way he scans the court or the way he runs the pick-and-roll.
Yet Stockton quickly admits that his own ability doesn’t match his father’s.
“I’m not afraid to talk about it — I mean the guy was one of the best basketball players of all time and I play basketball,” Stockton said, chuckling. “It’s no different than talking about Michael Jordan or guys of that caliber. I feel he was a good player and I feel I am too, just in a different sort of way.”
WALKING ON AT A NO-NAME SCHOOL
Stockton didn’t decide to play college basketball Stockton the summer after high school and ended up at. Westminster College, an NAIA school in Salt Lake City, where the Jazz used to hold practices
“I sent them some film and pretty much said, ‘Hey, mind if I come down and see if I’ll be good enough to play on your team?’” Stockton said.
Stockton spent the summer practicing with the team, eventually getting an offer — to walk on.
“I figured it would be a better opportunity to play right away,” he said. “And I was wrong because there were a lot of good players when I got there.”
Tommy Connor, Stockton’s coach at Westminster, remembers Stockton beginning as slender combo-guard with a knack for driving to the hoop.
“When he first came I thought he was a pretty good player, but he certainly wasn’t blowing any doors off,” Connor said. “His development improved simply through a lot of hard work.”
By his senior year, Stockton averaged 18.2 points, 4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game — good enough to be named a Third Team NAIA All-American.
“I had improved a lot and lucky for me our best player got hurt, so I had to shoulder a little bit more of the load,” Stockton said. “That’s probably why I ultimately ended up playing professionally because I had to do more than I’d done in the past. I guess I got lucky that time.”
A DAD WHO STAYED OUT OF THE WAY
Despite his star status in Salt Lake City, Connor said John Stockton never interfered with the team.
“It was Michael’s experience and not his,” Connor, now the associate head coach at the University of Utah, said. “I wish every dad could have experienced how John Stockton handled his son playing in college because they could learn a lot. He helped them when they wanted it, he’d help the coach if asked, but he wasn’t going to get in the way of anything.”
As is the case with most D-League players, Stockton’s name wasn’t called during the 2011–2012 NBA Draft. Still, he became the second Stockton to wear the Jazz’s uniform when he ran through Summer League games with the team.
But an offer to join the team didn’t come, and with no American suitors, he signed on with a German Pro-A second division team, BG Karlsruhe. The transition was uncomfortable, as 5,000-mile moves often are, but ultimately, “Basketball is basketball wherever you play,” Stockton said. “By the time I went back for my second year, I felt so at ease there. It was like I wasn’t leaving; it was like I was almost going home.”
In total he spent four seasons overseas, playing another year for BG Karlsruhe, returning to the states again for Summer League (this time with the Oklahoma City Thunder), then joining another German club, for two more years.
Now Stockton is back in the United States, playing in the NBA’s quasi-minor league, facing the highest level of competition yet.
GAME DAY: SHOWBOATS, LEARNING MOMENTS AND TEAMWORK
The Canton Civic Center is nearly empty when the Charge face the Iowa Energy. Cheerleaders, two wearing bulky knee braces, take the floor to ‘Pump It’ by the Black Eyed Peas. The stage next to the court serves as a VIP dining lounge. The mid-game entertainment is a donut-eating contest between two teenage boys, followed by a replica NBA Skills Challenge. That one ends with the boy contestant in tears at half court when he realizes his female opponent is near the finish line.
The game further showcases the strengths and weaknesses of the D-League. The Energy’s roster is filled with potential call-up candidates: Andrew Harrison, a former top-10 high school recruit who starred at Kentucky; Perry Jones III, who spent three pro seasons with the Oklahoma City; Alex Stephenson, the D-League leader in rebounds per game (who would sign a 10-day contract with the Los Angeles Clippers two weeks later), and James Ennis, formerly of the Heat, now on assignment with the Grizzlies.
The play isn’t NBA quality. There are multiple missed layups and mistimed alley-oops. Player are slow working through sets, turnovers fill the stat sheets for both teams, and Energy guard Mardracus Wade breaks an NBA rule by grabbing the official’s arm pleading back-to-back foul calls.
Harrison finishes the game with 36 points, looking early and often for his own shot — a typical complaint about the D-League is that players do nothing but fish for their own looks. But he’s feeling it, sauntering back after buckets with his tongue out.
What the Charge lack in name recognition they make up in attitude, an all-business look in the huddle.
“You always hear (about) squads of mercenaries, where everyone’s just about themselves,” Stockton said. “Everyone has those moments from time to time, but we’ve got guys that honestly want to win.”
Charge assistant coach Nate Reinking, a former Kent State player, said most players believe the best way to to the NBA is scoring, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
“We show guys that over time, guys that get called up aren’t guys that just put up numbers,” Reinking said. “It’s guys that are on good teams.”
Reinking, who played professionally in Great Britain, said the team stresses the attributes NBA teams are searching for. “If you’re able to play your role here in a strong way, they know you’re going to play within a team at the next level,” he said. “So it’s an easy sell that if you win, everyone is going to come looking.”
THE D-LEAGUERS THAT GRADUATE
According to the D-League a record 170 graduates were on an NBA roster at the end of the 2014–2015 season, among them Jeremy Lin, Chris “Birdman” Anderson and Gerald and Danny Green.
But it’s hard to find an NAIA walk-on like Stockton — even with his lineage.
“I’m surprised, to be honest,” Connor said. “I’m not from his work ethic and the way he’s improved his game, but the odds are against him.”
There are moments where Stockton shows why he’s made it this far. He’s corrected his mistakes from practice: He looks off a defender like a quarterback before dumping the pass to his teammate for a score. He draws multiple fouls on strong drives to the rim, one that earns an “and-one,” resulting in a rare display of emotion from Stockton. “That’s more emotion than his father had his whole career,” one fan mentions from the front row. Another explains to his neighbor, “He’s the middle son.”
Stockton scores 11 points, has eight assists and is named player of the game, a 102–91 Canton victory. Afterward, he remains on the court while his teammates head off to the locker room, taking photos with three young fans, all their faces with grins from cheek to cheek.
Stockton says he’ll wait until after the season to decide what happens next in his basketball career.
“We all play this game because we love it,” he said. “The great thing of it (D-League) is it’s like dangling the carrot at the end of the treadmill. There’s something to keep your eyes on and focus on.”
In the meantime, he’s headed home and back to the gym tomorrow — an off day — for more sweat and more mistakes.
Another opportunity to keep plugging away.