I remember holding my breath and leaning against the back of the couch for a moment, just to let the feeling settle in. It’s not a usual occurrence, watching a defining moment of athletic greatness live on television. Did the shot actually go in, or was I imagining something? I continued to feel a mixture of emotions as I stared at the 24 inch TV set resting on an old entertainment center in the corner of my dusty living room. The feeling was new, but somehow it felt old, like when you feel the first chilly sign of winter creep down the back of your neck in late November. John Stockton, one of the greatest players of all time, had not quite finished his series of celebratory embraces after knocking down a deep three point shot to advance the Jazz past the Houston Rockets and into the 1997 NBA Finals. I on the other hand, had never felt more shock, awe, and thrill in all of my life.
I’m 26 years old and a writer now, though I still reflect on the memory of that day in May 1997 when I began to appreciate the greatness of John Stockton as a 10 year old boy. In many ways it’s the highlight of the sports moments I’ve experienced in real time, though I’ve witnessed quite a few memorable moments in my day. I rushed the field when Max Hall defeated the University of Utah with a last second bomb at Lavell Edwards Stadium in 2009, I spilled a bowl of popcorn on my mother while watching the infamous Boise State hook n’ ladder against Oklahoma University in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, and then there’s John Stockton’s shot on Houston in 97’—perhaps the most precious memory of all.
People often tell me that game meant nothing, but I couldn’t disagree more. Of course we all know the end verdict—The Jazz came out of the Western Conference Finals triumphantly only to have their hopes dashed by the greatest player of all time accompanied by his band of misfits, the Chicago Bulls. But though the finals series ended in disappointment, it still solidified Stockton as a legend in my mind. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized what John Stockton meant to the Utah Jazz, as a franchise and as a community. Before then, the reality that we laid claim to one of the greatest point guards of all time hadn’t completely sunk in. Even now I think it’s quite possible that Stockton’s steal and assist records will never be surpassed, even by some of the up and coming stars. Many have tried, and more have failed.
Looking back, I don’t mind so much that the Jazz lost the subsequent series to the Bulls. They were clearly outplayed by a better team and a leader who lived and breathed winning. Of course at the time I thought the finals appearance in ’97 was the beginning of a bright future. I pictured the Jazz and the Bulls playing in the finals for years on end, with each team raising multiple championship banners, but it was not to be. Even though the Jazz never quite climbed to the top of the ladder, Stockton’s shot in ’97 taught me an important lesson about legends. It taught me that sometimes it doesn’t matter how it all ends. Sometimes a second of greatness played out by a legend like Stockton helps people reaffirm their love for the game of basketball. That’s all that really matters in the end, right? The legends have a tendency to turn our attention to the joy sports can bring. When you witness a moment of greatness, it’s something you talk to your friends and family about at a dive burger joint 40 years later. You remember where you were the day John Stockton sent the Jazz to their first NBA finals. You remember what it meant to you—what the game itself means to you.
I felt a part of that ’97 Jazz team like I’ve never felt connected to a team ever before or ever since. The Jazz were my team from the early days of my youth, through adolescence, and finally into adulthood. I could name off their complete roster from top to bottom in under 20 seconds. When I imagined myself as an NBA player, I thought of myself as Stockton. I wanted to be quick, witty, crafty, unselfish, and intuitive, just like him. Though I never made it to the NBA, watching Stockton’s career unfold helped me see the way the game should be played. It also taught me to cherish every sports moment and love the game no matter what joy or frustration came as a consequence of being a fan. After it happened, I never wanted to let go of my love for the sport or the memory of the moment.
Right now I’m 10 years old, watching Stockton hit a game winner in 1997. Did the shot actually go in, or was I imagining something? The feeling is new, but somehow it seems old, like when you feel the first chilly sign of winter creep down your neck in late November. I see the shot drop into the basket and Stockton leap into the air. As he finishes his series of celebratory embraces, I let the moment sink in. As a basketball fan, it’s one of those moments I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I stare for a second more and then shut off the dusty television set. When it clicks off, I’m 26 again, trying desperately to hold on to one of the greatest sports moments I’ve ever witnessed.