Born in Spokane, Washington, to Clementine Frei and Jack Stockton, Stockton's ancestry is Irish and Swiss German. He attended grade school at St. Aloysius and moved on to high school at Gonzaga Prep and graduated in 1980, after breaking the city record for points scored in a single basketball season.
After considering offers from Don Monson at Idaho and Mike Montgomery at Montana, both in the Big Sky Conference, Stockton decided to stay in Spokane and play college basketball for Dan Fitzgerald at Gonzaga University. He became the third generation in his family at GU; grandfather Houston Stockton was a well-known football player for the Bulldogs in the 1920s. Fitzgerald was also the athletic director; he stepped away from coaching for four years after Stockton's freshman year and promoted assistant Jay Hillock to head coach.
During his senior year for the Bulldogs in 1984, Stockton averaged 20.9 points per game, shooting 57% from the field. The Zags posted a 17–11 record, their best in 17 years, and Stockton led the West Coast Athletic Conference in scoring, assists, and steals.
He was one of 74 college seniors invited to the spring tryouts for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, coached by Bob Knight. Stockton made the initial cut in April to the final twenty, but was one of four released in May (with Charles Barkley, Terry Porter, and Maurice Martin) in the penultimate cut to 16 players. Though not selected, the experience led him to meet his future teammate and friend, Karl Malone.
In June, Stockton was selected by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft with the 16th overall pick. A relative unknown during his college career, his stock rose significantly in the months before the draft. The announcement of his selection to the thousands of Jazz fans gathered at the Salt Palace on draft day was met with a stunned silence.
Stockton averaged a career double-double, with 13.1 points and 10.5 assists per game. He holds the NBA's record for most career assists (15,806) by a margin of more than 3,000, as well as the record for most career steals (3,265). He had five of the top six assists seasons in NBA history (the other belonging to Isiah Thomas). He held the NBA record for the most games and consecutive games played with one team, and is third in total games played, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. He had previously held the record for most seasons played with one team until the 2015–16 NBA season, when that record was broken by Kobe Bryant. He missed only 22 games during his career, 18 of them in one season. He played in 38 games where he tallied 20 or more assists.
On February 1, 1995 Stockton broke Magic Johnson's record of 9,921 career assists in a game in Salt Lake City against the Denver Nuggets with 6:22 left in the first half with a bounce pass to Karl Malone, ending up with 9,927 in a 129-98 win; it was his 860th game, vs. 874 for Johnson.
Stockton appeared in 10 All-Star games, and was named co-MVP of the game in 1993 with Jazz teammate Karl Malone, which was held in Salt Lake City. He played with the 1992 and 1996 US Olympic basketball teams, the first Olympic squads to feature NBA players, keeping the game ball from both gold medal games. He was selected to the All-NBA First Team twice, the All-NBA Second Team six times, the All-NBA Third Team three times, and the NBA All-Defensive Second Team five times. He was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996. Stockton's career highlight came in Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals. Stockton scored the last 9 points for the Jazz, including a buzzer-beating 3-point shot over the Houston Rockets' Charles Barkley, to send the Jazz to the first of its two consecutive NBA Finals appearances. In both of these appearances, Stockton's Jazz team was defeated by the Chicago Bulls. In Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Stockton made a three-pointer with 41.9 seconds left to give the Jazz an 86–83 lead, but Bulls guard Michael Jordan made two field goals to put his team ahead 87–86, the second one after stealing from Jazz forward Karl Malone. Stockton missed a three-point attempt with 5.2 seconds left and said in a post-game interview that he felt confident that the shot would go in.
For many years, he and Malone were the Jazz's one-two punch. The two played a record 1,412 regular-season games together as teammates (by comparison, only four other NBA players besides Stockton and Malone have reached 1,412 NBA games played). Many of Stockton's assists resulted from passes to Malone. Stockton earned the "old school" tag for his physical play; surveys of athletes and fans alike often judged him among the toughest players in the NBA, usually just behind teammate Karl Malone. His patented "short shorts" became known as "Stocktons"—since he continued to wear the style long after the rest of the league had adopted a baggier look.
On May 2, 2003, Stockton announced his retirement with a released statement instead of the customary news conference. The Jazz later held a retirement ceremony for him, in which Salt Lake City renamed the street in front of the venue then known as Delta Center (now Vivint Smart Home Arena), where the Jazz play, John Stockton Drive. Stockton would later declare that despite being still content with the game and how well he was playing, his growing family made him feel that "sitting in the hotel room waiting for games wasn't making up for what I was missing at home".
His number 12 jersey was retired by the Jazz during a game on November 22, 2004. A statue of Stockton can be seen in front of the Vivint Smart Home Arena; an accompanying statue of Karl Malone was placed nearby on March 23, 2006. The Malone and Stockton statues stand on a bronze plaque commemorating their achievements together. Stockton was announced as a member of the 2009 class of inductees to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on April 6, 2009; he was formally inducted on September 11. Stockton chose 2000 inductee and fellow point guard Isiah Thomas to present him at the induction ceremony. Stockton has also been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame along with the rest of the 1992 United States men's Olympic basketball team in 2010.
Along with his teammate Karl Malone, Stockton is considered one of the best players who never won an NBA championship.
Stockton, a 10-time NBA All-Star, holds a commanding lead for the NBA record for career assists with 15,806 (10.5 per game). Stockton also holds the record for assists-per-game average over one season (14.5 in 1990) and is one of three players who have logged more than 1,000 assists in one season, joining Kevin Porter (1,099 in 1979) and Isiah Thomas (1,123 in 1985) in the exclusive list. Stockton did this seven times, with season totals of 1,164, 1,134, 1,128, 1,126, 1,118, 1,031 and 1,011 assists.
He and Karl Malone are regarded by many as the quintessential pick and roll duo. Apart from his passing skill, Stockton was also a capable scorer (13.1 points per game career average and a 51.5 career shooting percentage) with a reliable three-point shot (38.4% lifetime average). He is 41st on the all-time NBA scoring list with 19,711 career points. Despite the fact that he had never pulled down more than 9 rebounds (or recorded more than 9 steals) during a regular season game, he finally recorded his first career triple double, at age 39, in a playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks on April 28, 2001. He scored 12 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and had 10 assists.
On defense, Stockton holds the NBA record for career steals with 3,265. In second place is Jason Kidd, with 2,684.
Stockton was known for his unassuming, no-nonsense approach to the game, hard-nosed defense, and fanatical work-ethic in preparation, which resulted in his extreme durability. He played 1,504 of 1,526 possible games in his 19-season career. In his first 13 seasons, he missed only four games (all in the 1989–90 season) until he missed the first 18 games of the 1997–98 season due to an injured MCL in his left knee sustained in the preseason. That was the only major injury in his career, and he never missed another game after returning from that injury. Stockton's tenacity also earned him a reputation among some in the league as being a dirty player, as evidenced by a poll Sports Illustrated conducted in 1997 where he was voted as the second dirtiest player in the league behind Dennis Rodman.
Stockton's career is especially notable for its consistency. He maintained an extremely high level of play to the very end. For instance, as late as the 2000–01 NBA season, when he was 38, he led the league in the "advanced stats" of true shooting percentage (a measure of points per shot attempt that factors in three pointers and free throws), offensive rating (a measure of points per 100 possessions a player's team scores while he is on the floor), and assist percentage (which measures the percentage of teammates' field goals a player assists while on the floor). Stockton led the league in assist percentage 15 times, including his last season (2002–03) at age 40. Stockton has a 3.56:1 assist to turnover ratio (1839 assists to 517 turnovers) in his playoff career. This is the highest playoff assist to turnover ratio of any player with a career average of 8.5 or more assists per game.
Stockton avoided most endorsements, and he stayed loyal to Utah despite being offered significantly more money by other teams. In 1996, he agreed to a deal that made salary-cap space available so the team could improve, but in exchange, he insisted on guaranteed Delta Center ice time for his son's hockey team.
On May 11, 2006, ESPN.com named Stockton the 4th best point guard of all time.
In 1,504 NBA games (the all-time record for a player who played for only one team and games with a single team), of which Stockton started 1,300 (third all-time since starts became an official statistic beginning with the 1981–82 season), Stockton averaged a double-double in points and assists along with 2.2 steals and 31:45 of floor time per game, and he holds other scoring accuracy records as noted above.
Stockton and his wife, the former Nada Stepovich (of Croatian ancestry and the daughter of Matilda and Mike Stepovich, the last territorial governor of Alaska), reside in Spokane, Washington, and have two daughters, Lindsay and Laura, and four sons, Houston, Michael, David and Samuel. Houston Stockton played college football as a defensive back for the University of Montana Grizzlies. In 2011, Michael Stockton, who played basketball at Salt Lake City's Westminster College, signed with BG Karlsruhe in Germany's second basketball division. In 2013, Michael signed with MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg in Germany's first basketball division, the Basketball Bundesliga. David Stockton completed his college basketball career at Gonzaga in 2014 and after playing for the Reno Bighorns in the NBA's Development League played for the NBA's Sacramento Kings David's first NBA game was against the Los Angeles Clippers on February 21, 2015. Daughter Lindsay Stockton graduated from Montana State University and daughter Laura Stockton currently plays at Gonzaga University. Stockton and his family are devout Roman Catholics.
Stockton has a brother and three nephews who have played college basketball. Steve Stockton, his brother, played for the University of Washington Huskies; his oldest son, Steve Stockton, Jr., formerly played at Whitworth College; and another son, Shawn Stockton, finished his college basketball career at Montana in the 2011–12 season. Steve's youngest son, Riley, played for Seattle Pacific.
Following his retirement, Stockton started coaching in youth teams, being "an assistant on seven or eight teams at once" in 2003. The Jazz also invited Stockton to train both Deron Williams and Trey Burke. Stockton also became involved in various businesses.
In 2013, Stockton released his autobiography Assisted, written with the assistance of his junior high school coach Kerry L. Pickett. Karl Malone wrote the foreword. Stockton was on the Jazz's long list of coaching candidates to replace Tyrone Corbin, before the selection of Quin Snyder.
On October 27, 2015, Stockton joined Montana State University's women's basketball program as an assistant coach to replace Kellee Barney. Barney left the program to pursue a career in business, and Stockton had previously coached four of the players on the MSU women's team during Amateur Athletic Union leagues.