We celebrate greatness and fawn over the rare and gifted. We get distracted by showmanship and carried away by drama.
That’s the way the NBA – hell, all of sports – is now and you can’t knock it.
It’s the formula that has taken what not all that long ago was a collection of small-to-medium, family-run businesses that represented a night out for local fans, and turned it into a multi-billion industry with Hollywood-level marketing machinery that values the ability to connect with consumers in China on a smart phone as much as bums in seats in Memphis.
But what gets overlooked too often is that the show was built on a foundation of broken noses, iron will and principles tested in competition. That the men that made the game did it thanks to traits like consistency, reliability and longevity.
With the passing of legendary Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, the league lost a throwback figure who so embodied those foundational qualities that he could have a monument dedicated to him, not that he would tolerate such a gesture.
A farm boy and a fighter, it wouldn’t be of him as a player in graceful flight or as an Armani-clad coach in a pensive, knowing pose.
Instead it would have to somehow capture the former Chicago Bulls all-NBA defender scratching and fighting his way to another rebound he had no business getting, or the tenacious Jazz coach getting into it with another ref, or getting ready to rumble with a young Dennis Rodman as Sloan almost did once.
“He was well-respected by everyone in the league because of his toughness,” said Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of the Naismith Hall of Fame and director of USA Basketball.
Colangelo knew Sloan as a fellow Illinois high school star, an almost teammate at the University of Illinois – Sloan left because he was homesick – and then as executive with the Bulls when they acquired Sloan from the Baltimore Bullets in the expansion draft, making Sloan the first player signed by the expansion team that joined the NBA for the 1966-67 season.
“It wasn’t [any particular] incident, it was just that as a competitor he just never backed down from anybody.
“He was one of a group of guys who were very tough minded and represented the city of Chicago very well. …He was a blue-collar, lunch-bucket guy. He averaged 14 or 15 points a game as a career and he was a non-scorer. He just scrapped and ended up with points and rebounds. He was a great competitor [as a player] and he brought his persona, his toughness, his mental toughness, to the Jazz [as coach].”
Sloan’s origin story sounds made up, like some kind of fairy tale.
He was the youngest of 10 children raised on a farm in hamlet called Gobblers’ Knob by a single mother, his father having died when he was four. He grew tall and strong and loved basketball, getting his start on an elementary school team with his sisters.
After getting up at 4:30 in the morning to do his chores, he would walk two miles to school for a 7 a.m. practice. He took that work ethic onto the floor and graduated with all-state honours. After leaving the University of Illinois he ended up at Evansville, a Division II school in rural Indiana that he led to consecutive national championships before making the jump to the NBA.
After he finished his playing career, he was supposed to return to Evansville to start coaching in 1976. He took the job but had second thoughts and backed out. That was the season the team’s plane crashed on takeoff, killing all 29 on board.
Asked later in his career if the ever thought about that moment, he said barely a day went by that he didn’t think about it.
Rest easy, Coach
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 22, 2020
His first try at coaching came with the Bulls and lasted parts of three seasons. It ended in acrimony as Sloan couldn’t handle coaching players who weren’t as tough and hungry as he was. He was fired after a slow start to the 1981-82 season and reportedly after throwing a chair at one of his players.
“I never regretted anything I did in Chicago,” Sloan told Sam Smith for a story years later in the Chicago Tribune. “There was a time or two I might have gotten a little carried away. But I never regret anything I did there. You have to establish who you are and go from there.
“There’s always going to be someone trying to run over you and you have to go in there and establish yourself. You’re always going to have problems with some guys. Hopefully, you learn something along the way and do a better job.”
He moved on to Utah, first as a scout, then as assistant coach to Frank Layden and finally as head coach beginning in 1988-89.
It was the start of one of the most remarkable runs in sports history as Sloan’s Jazz made the playoffs for 15 straight seasons, sharing a record with San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich for longest playoff streak with one team.
He remained a fiery as ever, but learned he needed to find ways to compromise too.
“I never had any problems with anyone who was willing to work hard,” was his motto.
Blessed with Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone for the primes of their careers, that was never an issue.
With the popularity of the Last Dance, Sloan’s Jazz teams have been reintroduced as the toughest opponents of Michael Jordan’s career. But the full arc of Sloan’s accomplishments can sometimes get lost in the glare of Jordan’s rings with Bulls head coach Phil Jackson playing the role of all-knowing Zen Master.
For those in the game, Sloan’s longevity and his ability to play an identifiable style over nearly two decades have made him an icon, rings or not.
“They ran the same offence for the 23 years he was there,” said Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, who first met Sloan when he spoke at Clem Haskins basketball camps at Western Kentucky where Casey began his coaching career.
“But they had all the nuances, the timing was down to a T. He didn’t try to hide it or disguise. He just dared you to stop it. There’s something to be said for that.”
Sloan was popular among his peers, too.
“No one was every jealous of Jerry,” said Casey. “He was always supportive. I remember talking to him about our team in Toronto and how much he admired the way we played. He was always building up other people and giving credit to other people. He was a coach’s coach and a man’s man.”
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse never met Sloan but in his second season as an NBA head coach, he can only look on a career that spanned 26 years, 2024 games and 1221 wins — third all-time — with a certain amount of awe.
“There more to it than the wins and losses. These jobs encompass a lot of things. Evaluating the talent, dealing with the pressures, the toughness of the schedule, media – there’s a lot that goes into them other than Xs and Os,” said Nurse. “The bottom line you gotta win, or you’re not going to be long for it – and the guys [like Sloan] that are able to coach in this league for a long time have a lot of things figured out, not just basketball or Xs and Os.”
Sloan kept things simple but demanded excellence.
Outside the lines he was friendly, humble and enjoyed a cold one. Raptors broadcaster Jack Armstrong experienced it firsthand as a frequent training camp guest with the Jazz. Armstrong was a young head coach at Niagara University and was invited to Utah through Jazz executive Layden, a Niagara alumnus.
“He was a stand-up guy. What you see is what you get. Just a really good person. Very kind, very supportive,” said Armstrong. “In the fall of 1990 I spent the whole week there, sitting in on coaches’ meetings, going to dinners. There was a night practice and we sat around after drinking beers and talking basketball. Just real salt-of-the-earth person.
“I’ll never forget I was watching practice and a guy yelled out ‘help’ on defence and Jerry just stopped practice cold. And he said ‘look, help is the weakest word in the defensive vernacular. If you can’t guard your guy, I have to find someone else.’ It was about accountability. I asked him after ‘do you believe that’ and he said ‘that’s how I was demanded to play and I’m not going to demand any less from these guys.’”
“The Original Bull.”
Rest in peace, Jerry Sloan
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) May 22, 2020
Sloan never left his roots behind. He kept a farm in Southern Illinois and spent his summers there. He collected vintage John Deere tractors among other things. Over his 26 years in the NBA he was perhaps the only head coach in the league who could be found eating supper in the media room before games, lining up for the typically uninspiring buffets like anyone else there to go to work.
He fit in well.
“A lot of what defines him is that in a day and age where teams – not only in our sport, but in all sports – are putting themselves in a gated community, almost, where there’s a moat separating them from us,” said Armstrong. “But there is Jerry, sitting in the press room with everybody else. He was a common man who never thought he was bigger than anybody, I found that refreshing.”
He died Friday due to complications from Parkinson’s and dementia at age 78. He leaves behind a basketball legacy we’ll almost certainly never see again.
“Let me put it this way,” said Colangelo, who knew Sloan for more than 50 years. “For Jerry Sloan to come out of where he came – a little farm community in southern Illinois, where the story goes he played barefoot on a hoop on the side of a barn, and to have the success he had as a player and to become a Hall of Famer as a coach, it’s an incredible story.
“It’s a great American basketball story.”