Isiah Thomas Left a Literal Mark on a Young John Stockton and the Future Jazz Star Refused to Wash His Leg
Isiah Thomas knew he made a physical impression on John Stockton when the two future NBA Hall of Famers met for the first time at an AAU Tournament in the late 1970s, at least in a physical manner of speaking. What Thomas likely didn’t understand is how that mark stuck with Stockton for the remainder of his prep days and throughout his professional career.
The Detroit Pistons legend became a hero for the future Utah Jazz great right from the start. Their careers are inexorably linked through time, including the controversial decision to leave (and keep) Isiah off the Dream Team.
The relationship between Isiah Thomas and John Stockton goes back over 40 years
Well before they shared the court as opponents in the NBA, Isiah Thomas and John Stockton matched up as two of the better high school players in the nation.
Thomas starred at the now-defunct St. Joseph High School in the western suburbs of Chicago before going on to play for Bob Knight at Indiana University. On the West Coast, Stockton made a name for himself at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane.
Before Thomas left for Bloomington, the two butted heads at a national AAU tournament. According to the Deseret News, Zeke left a scratch on one of Stockton’s legs. But the Washingtonian wore it as a badge of honor. Over the course of the next few years, Stockton flashed the scar whenever Thomas did something special.
“I’m never washing my leg.”–John Stockton, via the Deseret News
Indeed, Thomas made waves with the Hoosiers, winning a national title in 1981 before being selected No. 2 overall by the Pistons the following summer. By the time Stockton came to the NBA in 1984, Thomas had already made three All-Star teams and established himself as one of the best point guards in basketball.
However, Stockton wasted little time leaving his impression on the game, and his talents as a pure point guard created more interconnection between himself and Thomas.
Stockton broke Thomas’ single-season assist record and essentially replaced Zeke on the Dream Team
Isiah Thomas quickly took up Magic Johnson’s mantle as the ultimate assist man in basketball. It didn’t take Stockton very long to snatch that torch away from Zeke.
Thomas led the NBA at 13.9 dimes per contest during the 1984-85 campaign, breaking Kevin Porter’s single-season assist record in the process. Just three years later, the mark belonged to Stockton.
In his first season (1987-88) as a full-time starter, the Jazz star led the NBA in assists per game (13.8). It marked the first of nine straight assist titles and officially made Stockton one of the top young guards in the league.
Stockton’s two-way brilliance earned him a place on the esteemed Dream Team ahead of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but only because of the uneasiness surrounding Thomas’ potential inclusion. Zeke made a point of attempting to show the levels.
Thomas went off against Stockton and the Jazz on Nov. 15, 1991, scoring 44 points on 15-of-22 shooting. About four weeks later, Utah forward Karl Malone drilled Zeke with a brutal elbow that Thomas called the most “vicious” and “intentional” foul in NBA history.
The gamesmanship might otherwise have resulted in bad blood developing between Thomas and Stockton. But that never happened. Realistically, the admiration ran too deep.
Thomas presented Stockton to the Hall of Fame
It made too much sense for Isiah Thomas to present John Stockton to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
The two had a shared history dating back to high school. While Thomas led the “Bad Boy” era in Detroit, Stockton transcended Zeke as a dirty player willing to use various tricks and use the rules (or lack thereof) to his advantage. More notably, though, both are still hailed as the two of the best pure point guards ever to grace the hardwood.
Indeed, Stockton praised (h/t the New York Times) Zeke after announcing the Pistons legend would present him to the Hall of Fame. He said Thomas “set a huge standard for little guys” and made it possible for small guards to cast large shadows.
Stockton idolized Thomas from the moment Zeke gave him that scar in their AAU days. The foundational respect between the two men lasted years.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.