Everything begins, I believe, at age ten.
Because I'm an elementary school teacher, I see it again and again and again. It's a kind exciting, kind of magical, kind of sad year. Because that's the year, fifth grade, they stop being kids.
I don't know what they are. They're not adults. They're not even teenagers. But they're not kids anymore, either. You see it in the kind of things they write, the kind of things they talk about, the kinds of books they read, and in how they play sports at recess.
Things change. And life begins.
The first teacher I truly loved and remember in detail was my fifth grade teacher. Mrs. Schofield. I still remember individual lessons from that year. My best friend and I loved drawing all sorts of crazy pictures of her—in an army uniform and holding a machine gun while battling aliens; climbing Mt. Everest; riding a giant Yak; singing in a bar. She was a singer. She missed school a couple times to go singing. We were convinced it was in a bar. At ten, we finally knew what singing in a bar meant. We wouldn't have even known to make up that joke a year earlier. But we had changed. We had turned ten.
We had a student teacher for a term that year. Miss Khoury. We adored her. The boys completely fell in love with her. When she left, we were devastated. I was so depressed and moody my mom got worried. Then she talked to my best friend's mom, and she said he had the same problem. They were worried we were getting abused or something was dreadfully wrong. Finally, in a burst of anger and misery, I yelled at my mom "Miss Khoury's gone, and I don't like it!"
It was just a teacher crush. My first one. Because, of course, I don't think it could have happened before I was ten. And then Miss Khoury got married. All her students got invitations. Only the boys came to the reception—all of us with red eyes and serious expressions.
Yes, life began at ten.
When I was ten I started really caring about baseball on my own—not just because my dad was a baseball guy. I started devouring the box scores every day. I realized that Ozzie Smith (my team was the Cardinals) was NOT a home run hitter. Before that I didn't know there were players who didn't hit home runs. But at ten I grew up a little, and I started understanding things about the sport.
When I was ten I also realized Utah had a basketball team. This was important, because suddenly I could care about a team closely. I could follow a team that was on TV 50-60 times a year. I had more than just box scores and, if I was lucky, my team on network TV's Saturday baseball game 4-5 times a year.
It's kind of weird, now. Anyone can watch pretty much any team at any time these days. But back then the ability to watch my team almost every game, to get to know what my heroes looked like, to see how they shot, how they passed, how they ran the break—it was a magical thing.
My best friend and I played basketball together. When we were nine, he decided everything. You see, my dad was a baseball guy, and so I watched baseball. His dad was a basketball guy, so he watched basketball. And back then it was all about the Lakers. That's who was on. That's the only team my friend knew about.
So he dictated everything as we played. He was Magic Johnson. I had to be Kurt Rambis. I, of course, didn't know who any of these guys were. I supposed Magic had to be awesome, because his name was Magic. But I didn't know anything else. So I did Kurt Rambis as best I could. Kareem, James Worthy, Michael Cooper—they were all imaginary players. My friend told me where they were on the court. He'd pass to them more than he passed to me. And why not? I was freaking Kurt Rambis.
I suppose I had to be Rambis because I was awkward and I stunk. Because I seemed destined to be in the background, a role player—whether basketball or life.
But all that was when I was nine. Things change when kids turn ten.
As I started watching the Jazz that year, I started noticing their backup point guard. He was short, small, quiet, and white. But he led the team in assists—even though he was just the backup. I was ten, remember, old enough to figure out what leading the team in assists kind of meant. So I latched on to him. Every game became, for me, more about this backup point guard than it was about the team. He was just a backup, a role player—just like I seemed destined to be for my entire life. He was small and quiet, just like me. But he was good. And man, he could pass.
And so that year I told my buddy that I wasn't Kurt Rambis when we played basketball.
I was John Stockton.
My friend, of course did what all Laker fans inevitably seem to do—he sneered. He laughed. He mocked. Who the crap was John Stockton? he wanted to know. And why would I want to be a guy destined to achieve nothing, win nothing, and go nowhere? But then he said that he guess it fit, since I wasn't very good either.
And just like anyone who has ever been sneered at and mocked, I was desperate to prove my buddy wrong. That meant, of course, two things. I had to somehow become good. But, perhaps more importantly for a couple of ten-year-olds, my hero had to be good.
So I'd talk non-stop about my hero. I'd report, in great detail, every magical thing that backup point guard did. I tried to re-enact his passes—no small feat for a dude as awkward with a basketball as I was.
So you can imagine, I suppose, what it meant to me when he got the starting job the next year. And not only did he start—he led the league in assists. More than Magic.
It was that time, that 1987-88 season, that I believed anything at all was possible. My hero, the backup point guard my buddy mocked and sneered at, finally got a chance to to be someone, and he got more assists that year than the famous Magic Johnson. For a ten-year-old, it was like winning the lottery. It made me believe I may, one day, win the lottery. It was that inexplicable, that magical, that anything-is-possible-ish.
And then, of course, was the Western Conference semifinals: Jazz vs. Lakers. And John Stockton blew the world away, averaging almost 20 and 15, nearly knocking off the defending champs.
My best friend never sneered at me again. And it sounds cliche, but I truly believed anything was possible. My hero, a total nobody, nothing more than a backup point guard on a backwater team, came out of nowhere and became the best point guard in all the world, in all the NBA, in all the Universe!
In the next few years, as I played basketball more and more and got better and better, every now and then I'd hear guys compliment others, saying: "great pass." I believed that was John Stockton's doing. That nobody noticed great passes, nobody thought to point them out, until John Stockton came along. My hero was changing the world, I decided. He was even changing how my friends thought about the game itself. Perhaps he even changed how the gods thought about the game itself.
* * *
It's funny now, to think back on inspiration and John Stockton. Because I was inspired. His success made me believe that any scrub in the world could possibly become awesome if given the chance. Even me.
How much did his inspiration really have an effect on me, though?
I don't know.
I eventually became the starting point guard for the greatest church ball team I've ever seen (undefeated 5 straight years). A silly peak to my basketball-playing life, but it was the best I could do. And it was a huge deal for me, considering where I started from. And to this day I say Stockton inspired me.
But I was also a stubborn, competitive little prick who hated to be crummy at anything. And since all my friends—my much taller, more skilled friends played basketball, I had to learn to do it too. Did I shoot 200 free throws every day for eight years because Stockton inspired me, or because I just hated being embarrassed? Who knows. Probably both. Probably mostly because of the latter, honestly.
And I don't know if anything about John Stockton inspired me to make the big, life-changing decisions differently, either.
And as I've gotten older and learned more about basketball, I realized that Stockton didn't just come out of nowhere, either. Not like I thought he did when I was ten.
He was obviously good as a backup point guard, and I expect the Jazz felt very confident he was going to kick butt once he had the starting role. They probably didn't expect him to be as brilliant as he was, but he still didn't come out of nowhere. All the signs were already there, when he was the sub my friend didn't know anything about.
I guess that this is where the inspiration of John Stockton lives on in me. Where it will live on forever. I look for signs that a player can grow and be great at the next level.
And I do the same as a teacher. I look for the signs that the quiet kids, the ones in the back of the room, the ones seemingly set apart by the gods to forever be role players—I look for the signs of greatness in them. I remember, both about myself and about others, that just because they seem quiet, nondescript, perpetually in the background doesn't mean that they will forever.
I guess if you look for the signs of greatness, you'll see them everywhere.
That's the enduring inspiration of John Stockton. I learned it—even though I didn't understand—when my life really first began. When I was ten.