LANDOVER -- If John Stockton played anywhere but media-scarce Salt Lake City, he would have his baby face plastered on billboards, endorse countless products and be a frequent guest on late-night talk shows.
But the Utah Jazz All-Star guard remains the best-kept secret in America. In his lone appearance at the Capital Centre this season, Stockton treated a crowd of 11,729 to a virtuoso performance, scoring 27 points, handing out 16 assists and making five steals to lead the Jazz to a 104-93 victory over the Washington Bullets.
Stockton's game was so overpowering, it was almost possible to overlook a 50-point effort by Bernard King for the Bullets (22-37), who were losing their seventh straight and fourth in a row at home.
The Jazz (40-18) was marching in the opposite direction, winning its fifth straight, including the past four on the road. And Stockton is most responsible for his team's 9-2 record since the All-Star break, lifting the Jazz to the top of the Midwest Division.
The Bullets made several runs at the Jazz last night, but each time Stockton simply took over the game.
Washington made its last serious run in the fourth quarter, using a King scoring streak to trim an 18-point deficit to 93-89 with a little less than six minutes remaining.
After All-Star forward Karl Malone put back his own rebound, Stockton found center Mark Eaton for an easy layup that produced a three-point play and then fed Thurl Bailey open for a 15-foot jump shot that gave the Jazz a commanding 100-89 lead.
Even more typical was Stockton's effort in the second quarter after going scoreless in the first 12 minutes. With the score tied at 34, he had a hand in Utah's next 21 points to provide a 55-44 cushion.
"Stockton just controlled everything out there," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "He kept us off balance, driving to the hole, finding the open man or hitting three-pointers."
Added Bullets point guard Darrell Walker: "Give the devil his due. Stockton is a great guard. You don't average 17 points and 14 assists unless you're one of the best. Maybe [the Los Angeles Lakers'] Magic Johnson and [the Phoenix Suns'] Kevin Johnson can score more, but Stockton can control the game as well as any of them."
"His greatest asset is getting the ball to his teammates at the right time," Walker said. "Karl Malone is great, but I don't think he'd be averaging close to 28 a game without Stockton."
The two Malones, Karl (19 points) and former Bullet Jeff (17 points) had rather ordinary games, making Stockton step up his offensive production.
"I really wasn't looking to score more or shoot more threes," he said. "It just worked out that I wound up with the ball a lot of times with the shot clock running down."
While Stockton tried to spread the wealth, the Bullets' scoring was top-heavy in the frontcourt. King produced the eighth 50-point game of his career by converting 18 of 34 shots and going 14-for-16 from the foul line.
Pervis Ellison, also playing all 48 minutes, chipped in with 23 points and 12 rebounds, including eight on the offensive boards.
But there was no production from the backcourt. The four guards who played combined for 16 points, making only 6-24 shots.
"The real problem," said Walker,
"is that we dug ourselves that 18-point hole. We had to go to a half-court trap and you expend a lot of energy playing catch-up."
But Stockton looked as if he simply was playing a game of cat-and- mouse, allowing the Bullets to draw close, but never to claim the prize.
"John has been doing this every game since the All-Star break," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "His energy level is so high, he carries the whole team and gives us a gauge of where we are. But he's never been interested in publicity or ringing his own bell. All he's interested in is winning."