John Stockton: Who is the legendary NBA star mired in anti-vaccine controversy?

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John Stockton in action for Utah Jazz against the Portland Trail Blazers on 24 February 1995 (Otto Greule Jr/Allsport/Getty)
John Stockton in action for Utah Jazz against the Portland Trail Blazers on 24 February 1995 (Otto Greule Jr/Allsport/Getty)

John Stockton, 59, is an NBA Hall of Famer and two-time Olympic gold medallist with Team USA, regarded as one of basketball’s finest-ever passers and point guards, and known for his 19-season career with Utah Jazz alongside the legendary forward Karl Malone.

Stockton missed only 22 games over the course of a stellar career with the Jazz from 1984 to 2003, a period that saw the team reach their only ever NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, both of which they lost to Michael Jordan’s imperious Chicago Bulls.

But in recent years Stockton has become associated with conspiracy theories, particularly regarding the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccines developed to combat the disease, a position that saw his season tickets revoked by Gonzaga College in Spokane, Washington, over the weekend after he refused to comply with the institution’s mask rules.

Stockton told local newspaper The Spokesman-Review that the college’s athletic director, Chris Standiford, had made the decision to ban him from Spokane’s McCarthey Athletic Center, describing the conversation between the two men as “congenial” but “not pleasant”.

“Basically, it came down to, they were asking me to wear a mask to the games and being a public figure, someone a little bit more visible, I stuck out in the crowd a little bit,” Stockton said.

“And therefore they received complaints and felt like from whatever the higher-ups – those weren’t discussed, but from whatever it was higher up – they were going to have to either ask me to wear a mask or they were going to suspend my tickets.”

The college requires spectators attending Gonzaga Bulldogs games to present proof of vaccination or a negative test result recorded no less than 72 hours before the game in exchange for entrance and for masks to be worn in the stands.

Born on 26 March 1962, Stockton starred for his hometown college team in the West Coast Athletic Conference between 1980 and 1984 and remains the Bulldogs’ all-time top stealer (chalking up 262) and top scorer in steals per game (an average of 2.4), according to ESPN. His number 12 Jersey is still proudly on display at the arena.

Asked by The Spokesman-Review what the estrangement meant for his relation with Gonzaga, Stockton replied that it was “stressed” but not broken.

“I’ve been part of this campus since I was probably five or six years old,” he said. “I was just born a couple blocks away and sneaking into the gym and selling programmes to get into games since I was a small boy. So, it’s strained but not broken, and I’m sure we’ll get through it, but it’s not without some conflict.”

John Stockton’s family ties to the institution extend back to his grandfather, Houston Stockton, who played for its football team in the 1920s, and extend to his own children, David, Laura, and Sam, all of whom have appeared for the Bulldogs.

“When the rule changes, then tickets will be reoffered,” he said of the present controversy, implying the earliest he could be back among the fans is the 2022-23 season, assuming the mask rule is no longer in effect by that time – or he himself changes his stance on the issue in the interim.

“There’s probably a lot of different directions this can go, and I think time will tell on all of that,” he said. “My focus is to maintain that relationship, as is theirs. They’ve made it very clear that we’re important to each other and I don’t think that’s going to change. However, there are some absolute impasses that we’re going to figure out. I’ve been around here a long time, so I don’t expect things to linger, whatever they may be.”

Responding to the spat, Gonzaga issued a statement declaring: “Gonzaga University continues to work hard to implement and enforce the health and safety protocols mandated by the state and by university policy, including reinforcing the indoor masking requirement. Attendees at basketball games are required to wear face masks at all times.

“We will not speak to specific actions taken with any specific individuals. We take enforcement of Covid-19 health and safety protocols seriously and will continue to evaluate how we can best mitigate the risks posed by Covid-19 with appropriate measures. The recent decision to suspend concessions in McCarthey Athletic Center is an example of this approach. Gonzaga University places the highest priority on protecting the health and safety of students, employees and the community.”

Stockton’s controversial views regarding the coronavirus, which threaten to tarnish his extraordinary legacy on the court, first became widely known when he appeared in a conspiracy documentary last June entitled Covid and the Vaccine: Truth, Lies and Misconceptions Revealed in which he falsely claimed that more than 100 professional athletes had died as a result of side effects allegedly associated with Covid vaccines.

He also claimed, baselessly, that tens of thousands of ordinary citizens had met the same fate.

“I think it’s highly recorded now, there’s 150 I believe now, it’s over 100 professional athletes dead – professional athletes – the prime of their life, dropping dead that are vaccinated, right on the pitch, right on the field, right on the court,” Stockton said in the film.

John Stockton (AP)
John Stockton (AP)

On the subject of lockdowns, he reportedly states in Covid and the Vaccine: “This isn’t a virus cheating us of this opportunity. It’s the guys making decisions saying, ‘No, no we’re too scared. We’re going to shut everything down. Sit in your house and be careful.’ My kids and grandkids hearing these things and accepting them as truth when I know by my significant amount of research that it isn’t, it’s very frustrating.”

Stockton has also guested on the DNP-CD Sports podcast, on which hosts Tony Farmer and Chad Fisher have likewise expressed anti-vaccine sentiments.

The spread of misinformation remains a serious cause for concern across the world with the pandemic still far from over.

America’s most prominent podcaster, Joe Rogan, has courted controversy over the last year by entertaining anti-vaccine positions, earning himself a rebuke from Dr Anthony Fauci and attracting an open letter from 270 scientists in which they warned Spotify, which exclusively hosts The Joe Rogan Experience, that the host risks “damaging public trust in scientific research”.

The coronavirus pandemic has so far claimed 866,000 American lives, 1,187 of them from Stockton’s native Spokane County.