SALT LAKE CITY -- His look is more like that of the guy next door, rather than an NBA star. His demeanor? Well, getting a response from him was described by one reporter as similar to watching paint dry.
And yet the normally emotionless John Stockton showed a rare glimpse of passion Sunday night when he jumped and yelled moments after he let fly his precision pass to Karl Malone for a crucial basket.
"The pass," Malone said. "I didn't know he reacted like that until I watched it later on TV."
What Stockton was reacting to was the completion of a comeback, as the Utah Jazz turned a five-point fourth-quarter deficit into a 78-73 win over the Chicago Bulls that evened the best-of-seven NBA championship series at 2-2.
While it was Malone who got personal redemption by making two free throws late in the game, Stockton -- with the pass, a three-pointer and a steal down the stretch -- played the silent starring role in a victory that suddenly has the Bulls facing their toughest challenge in five trips to the Finals this decade.
The only time the Bulls have been 2-2 after four games was in 1992 against Portland, a series the Bulls won in six games.
"Very rarely have we been in a 2-2 situation," Bulls guard Michael Jordan said. "But we also haven't lost in the final, either, since I've been playing."
The Bulls, in championship series experience, have probably never faced a team as disciplined as the Jazz. Led by the future Hall of Fame duo of Stockton and Malone, the Jazz won a team-record 64 games this year and has won 23 straight at the Delta Center.
While Malone was the recipient of this year's Most Valuable Player award, he would have never won that award without the help of his set-up man. The 35-year-old Stockton, who has missed only four games in his career, is the NBA's all-time assist leader with 12,170 -- the only man in history to record over 10,000 assists.
"He'll make a pass trusting that I'll be at a position," Malone said of Stockton. "Sometimes the pass is thrown before I even get there. That's from years of playing together, and believing in each other."
The two have teamed for 12 years -- Malone has been with the Jazz for 12 years, Stockton 13. And while the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Stockton has been known throughout his career for his passing, it has been his ability in recent weeks to make shots that has the Jazz battling for the title.
It was Stockton's three-point shot at the buzzer that beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, earning Utah its first trip to the championship series. On Sunday, with Utah trailing by five, Stockton hit a 25-foot three-pointer that got his team back into the game.
"If the shot comes to me at the end of the game, I'd like to think I'd be willing to step up and make it," Stockton said. "I'm going to compete and I think I'm fortunate to be on a team where everyone comes to compete. That's important to me, and important to the rest of the guys on my team."
That was evident as far back as the 1984 Olympic trials, where the unknown from Gonzaga faced the top players in the country for the first time. Stockton didn't make the team, but he did leave an impression.
"John was an unknown," said Jordan, who did make the team. "But he was a gutsy guy, a guy that came from a small school that no one could even pronounce and that had a lot to do with him not making the team. No one knew of him.
"I knew what I saw out there. And to see what he evolved to doesn't surprise me, because of his attitude and the way he approached the game. He's not afraid to take the shot and make the big plays. I could see that back then."
Jordan also could see back then the intensity of Stockton, an intensity that Malone said is evident all the time.
"As a teammate, you would like to see him relax a little bit more," Malone said. "You want to handle the business at hand and enjoy it some. You don't want to look back 10 years from now and say, 'That was pretty exciting. And I didn't enjoy it like I wanted to enjoy it.' "
Stockton has shown signs of enjoying the moment in recent weeks, and maybe the man who has played the most playoff games among active players without winning a title (125), will let loose with a championship.
"He's one of the 50 greatest," Jordan said. "And he deserves that respect and that association."
Chicago vs. Utah
(Best of seven)
Series tied 2-2
Date Result/Site ...... Time
Game 1 Chicago, 84-82
Game 2 Chicago, 97-85
Game 3 Utah, 104-93
Game 4 Utah, 78-73
Tomorrow At Utah ........ 9
Friday At Chicago ....... 9
Sunday At Chicago .. 7: 30*
* -- If necessary
TV: All games on chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 6/10/97