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In the middle of Montana State's women's basketball practice, a hoarse voice is heard from the sideline after senior forward Riley Nordgaard delivers a pass. "Doggone it, Riley," the critique begins. "That was perfect."
The compliment is meaningful, coming from a point guard who passed his way into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame during 19 seasons with the Jazz.
John Stockton is appearing regularly in Bozeman this winter as a staff member for the Bobcats, whose roster includes senior guard Lindsay Stockton, the fourth of John and Nada Stockton's six children. MSU coach Tricia Binford appealed to Stockton in October when she lost an assistant. He agreed to help this season, knowing he already intended to watch many of Lindsay's games.
To say that assisting comes naturally for Stockton would ignore how he's also the NBA's all-time leader in stealing. Clearly, though, this role suits him. He loves the job description to "say what I see even if it ruffles feathers," he said as the Bobcats warmed up before practice. "That goes with [players] or coaches. … They've been beyond responsive."
And why not? "He's brilliant," said sophomore guard Hannah Caudill, who has played since elementary school for various teams coached by Stockton in their shared hometown of Spokane, Wash., where he returned after retiring from the Jazz in 2003. "He knows exactly what to say at the right times, and you can't not listen to him."
Stockton is not the greatest women's basketball coach among former Jazz players. That would be BYU's Jeff Judkins, with 325 victories in 15 seasons. As a basketball father, he can't match former teammate Dell Curry, whose son Steph is the NBA's reigning MVP.
Yet like his own playing career, Stockton's run as a hoops patriarch is marked by volume, longevity and consistency. His sons Michael (Canton Charge) and David (Reno Bighorns) are playing in the NBA Development League and his daughter Laura is a Gonzaga freshman.
And with Montana State ranking ninth in the country in assists, he's contributing to the Bobcats' potentially historic season. MSU is 17-5 overall and 10-1 in the Big Sky Conference, tied for first place. The school record is 22 wins; the Bobcats have seven regular-season games remaining, plus the conference tournament.
In the 11th season under Binford, who played two years for the Utah Starzz of the WNBA and was a Utah State assistant for two seasons, the Bobcats are thriving. "Our kids share the basketball," she said after MSU posted 31 assists among 41 baskets Saturday in a 116-99 win over Sacramento State. "They're so unselfish."
That's a Stocktonesque trait. So is his involvement in the program as a No. 3 assistant. He flies in from Spokane for most of the team's games and selected practices. When the Bobcats visited Gonzaga in December, he sat in the stands, not wanting to coach against Laura (Gonzaga won, 65-52) in an episode he labeled "really conflicting."
Otherwise, he's enjoying the up-close view of Lindsay's last year of college, after having assisted Laura's Gonzaga Prep team the previous three years. As he said, "How many dads get to do this?"
Lindsay likes having him around, and has grown to appreciate his coaching after bristling in her younger days. "The way he talks to me and my teammates is kind of unmatched," she said. "He knows exactly who he needs to get after, he knows who he needs to compliment, how to talk to each individual person."
The messages are succinct. "He doesn't mess around, wasting time with extra, fluffy words," Lindsay said.
"All of us kind of have an ear for him," Caudill said. "Every time he talks, it's like a whisper, but all of us stop right away."
Stockton is determined to keep himself from becoming the story of Bobcat women's basketball, doing only occasional interviews, such as helping with a student's video project last week. He's here to work.
Binford tailors her practice script to emphasize fundamentals in the practices he attends. Stockton was heavily involved in last Friday's session, commenting during drills and directing MSU's preparation for Sacramento State's 40-minute, full-court press the next afternoon. "We're not gonna have any trouble," he assured the players, and he was accurate.
With their frenetic style, the Hornets force 26 turnovers per game. MSU committed only 12 turnovers (just two in the backcourt against the press), even while Lindsay Stockton missed the game with a concussion. Caudill posted 13 points and 10 assists with two turnovers, after John Stockton spoke to her about being a good leader and staying positive when she's personally struggling.
"He knows how I think, how I play, what I react to," Caudill said. "He can get the best out of me, in a good way."
When she heard Stockton was joining the staff, Caudill called Lindsay and asked, "Is this true? Please tell me this is true."
The truth is, the whole team benefits from Stockton's presence, not just those with prior associations. Yet having coached his daughter and three other Bobcats makes it more fun for him, seeing how they've improved.
"He puts things into perspective that you don't normally think about," said Delany Junkermier.
When an MSU player is subbed out during a game, she usually sits next to Stockton, who offers quick advice. Alexa Dawkins said he "brings a lot of composure to this team."
Stockton provided a necessary jolt against Sacramento State, jumping off the bench with MSU trailing by nine points and exhorting the players: "Fight back! Let's go!" The Bobcats answered with 15-0 run and then a 10-0 spurt, and he raised his fists happily as they came to the sideline during another timeout.
Stockton will enjoy another five or six weeks with the team, then he'll focus elsewhere in the family. He'll visit his sons in the D-League and help oldest son Houston, who manages an ownership group that's building a $14 million mixed-use project near the Gonzaga campus. The Matilda Building, named for his late mother-in-law, involves "a ton of time," Stockton said.
As for his next coaching pursuit, he cited "no immediate plans for anything." To address the natural question about NBA possibilities, here's how the math works: Stockton will turn 54 in March. His youngest son is in ninth grade. Start with Samuel's three more years at Gonzaga Prep, and potentially add a college basketball career, and Stockton would be in his early 60s. So I don't picture him coaching full-time in the NBA.
Even so, he loves basketball. He'll always have a lot to offer players and teams of either gender, at any level, in short bursts. The Bobcats are validating that theory, with every pass.
Jazzmen in coaching
John Stockton is among more than a dozen former Jazz players coaching in college basketball or the NBA.
Player, Jazz tenure School/team Position
Tony Brown, 1990-91 Brooklyn Nets Interim head coach
Jarron Collins, 2001-09 Golden State Warriors assistant
Howard Eisley, 1995-2000, '04-05 Washington Wizards assistant
Greg Foster, 1995-99 Milwaukee Bucks assistant
Jason Hart, 2007-08 USC assistant
Jeff Judkins, 1980-81 BYU women head coach
Larry Krystkowiak, 1992-93 Utah head coach
Jim Les, 1988-89 UC Davis head coach
Danny Manning, 2000-01 Wake Forest head coach
Donyell Marshall, 2000-02 SUNY Buffalo assistant
Scott Padgett, 1999-2003 Samford head coach
John Stockton, 1984-2003 Montana State women assistant
Brooks Thompson, 1996 UT-San Antonio head coach
Earl Watson, 2010-13 Phoenix Suns interim head coach
Five of the six children born to Nada Stockton during her husband's 19-year Jazz career have played college sports; the youngest, Samuel is a freshman at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash.
Name School Sport Years
Houston Montana Football 2006-10
Michael Westminster Basketball 2007-11
David Gonzaga Basketball 2009-14
Lindsay Montana State Basketball 2012-16
Laura Gonzaga Basketball 2015-16