Editor’s note: Now an official state holiday, Jerry Sloan Day gave all of us the opportunity to reminisce. What follows is a look at our memories of Jerry Sloan: as both player and coach, in moments both great and small.
Jerry Sloan was twice honored as an All-Star, more times than Jeff Hornacek, Horace Grant, or Andre Iguodala. He made six All-Defense teams in his ten seasons, more than Mark Eaton, Tyson Chandler, or Dwyane Wade. But that hardly matters in defining him as a player. Because Sloan was, in the words of his old Bulls’ teammate Bob Love, “Tough as nails… mean as a snake.” Marv Albert called him, “One of the toughest guys I’ve ever seen.” Sloan lost track of how many times he broke his nose. Angered by Sloan’s irascible play, Wilt Chamberlain once threatened to trample him. ESPN’s J. A. Adande even relates a tale about Sloan in an old preseason game in a Decatur, Illinois gym, where Sloan “found himself pushed through a door and into the lobby. So he opened the door and fought his way back to the court.” He was a very good player by the greatest of standards, a man who once bluntly stated, “My job is to win.” Strange, then, that his legacy is less about winning than competing; less about talent than toughness; less the victory than the fight.
There’s almost nothing surprising about this clip. That young Rasheed Wallace would get frisky with older Thurl Bailey and Thurl would do absolutely nothing about it. That Sloan would overreact and charge down Sheed. That the two would exchange a steady stream of accusatory expletives. That it would ultimately defuse and the game would continue. All of that is exactly what you’d expect when you throw two people like Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Sloan into the pressure cooker of a playoff game. If anything, it’s at least a little miraculous that we don’t have thousands of these clips with Jerry yelling and charging at players. So if it’s so normal, so expected, why is it also so memorable? Why did Jackson and I name our first blog after it? Because Sloan, despite all his down-home, crooked nose, “let’s get dirty and fight each other” toughness, was, in ways that didn’t show up in sideline theatrics, nothing more than a basketball pragmatist, and he knew, what we all know. That a potential ejection and a potential suspension was always better than an actual one, because winning was a thing best accomplished with him in the huddle.
David J. Smith:
My favorite personal interaction was approaching Jerry at the Rocky Mountain Review, back when the RMR was just getting started. I must have been 13 or so. He was just sitting in the stands in a polo shirt and shorts, taking in the action. I had brought a basketball card of his, in hopes that he would be there. He was happy to do so and took the time to ask me my name, which school I went to, how I caught hooked on the Jazz, etc. We spoke for perhaps five minutes and during those five minutes, he was focused on a young Jazz fan. The epitome of class.
David also wrote this piece earlier this month upon the announcement of Jerry Sloan Day.
A literal Matt Harpring; a corporate Matt Barnes. Sloan gave us our virtues, and our doom and glory as a fan base all leads back to his country methodology. Do I even need to say them? Toughness, grit, playing hard, don’t be lazy, let’s fight somebody… you know the list. These are commendable basketball virtues, sure, but sometimes we forget that they’re not the only ones—this wasn’t inevitably our destiny but for Jerry Sloan’s coaching tenure. Our most bitter rivalries might make more sense in this light; the Lakers, who don’t even know who we are, are ideologically abhorrent to a true Jazz believer. Their virtue? Swag. Lots of swag. If you were born in Utah you probably think of it as a sin, but don’t hate: swag wins championships. Can grit? Who knows. (Don’t you dare cite the ’04 Pistons.) But it obviously wins a bunch of games. Now, thanks to Jerry (and the LBJ to his JFK, Ty Corbin), that’s the train we’re riding to whatever end it leads. We’ll say it now, and we’ll be saying it when we draft Dario Saric with the ninth pick in June: I guess 1,232 reasons can’t be wrong.
For a state whose motto is, “Industry,” it’s only fitting that the kind of coach the Utah Jazz had for 23 years was Jerry Sloan. The humble beginnings of his Midwest rural upbringing translated nicely into Utah’s community. Even though he was known for his no nonsense approach to the game, there were moments in those 23 years that reminded us there was much more to the man than what we often saw those 48 minutes every game night. Even though it’s been wonderfully articulated by others, I too, have to admit that the grace he possessed as he battled alongside Bobbye as she courageously lost her battle with cancer is something I’ll never forget.
On a much lighter note, I remember watching a Jazz road game in Charlotte during one of their Finals years. The game was competitive, but towards the end of the 4th quarter, the Jazz were beginning to pull away from their opponent. Bryon Russell found himself wide open behind the three point line in front of the Jazz bench. He calmly made the basket and promptly turned to his teammates and said something before running back on defense that caused instant laughter. The memorable part was that even Coach Sloan shared in that moment. To this day, I often wonder what was said. While dramatically different, these two memories serve as a window into the man whose imprint will forever be felt by the Jazz organization and fan base. Doug Collins said it best: “This man is everything good about basketball.”
Evan Hall (again):
You know when you watch Alec Burks absorb the contact and make one of those impossibly angled, twisting shots in the key, and you feel a rising sense of possibility in your soul, like maybe your whole life isn’t as scripted as you thought. But then maybe you’re also like, “That was the weirdest two points I’ve ever seen.” Jerry Sloan was basically the opposite of all that. Methodical, systematic, process-oriented offense. Screens, cuts, crisp passes, shooters running off curls and execution said three times with increasing emphasis. I’ll be honest: Sloan’s offense never took me places. It never moved me the way the SSOL Suns did, or last year’s Spurs, or even an Alec Burks lay-up. It almost always felt premeditated and scripted. But I mean that as a compliment. Because two points are two points no matter which way they come, and a system strings together enough of those two point baskets, and a coach wins a thousand games and a team goes to two NBA Finals, and yeah, it all feels scripted, but hey, what a great script. For real: what a great freaking script.
We’re familiar with the Jerry Sloan who required that all players tucked in their jersey, kept the color of their socks and shoes uniform along with the rest of the team, and refrained from wearing headbands. We’ve heard the mantra of the necessity of “playing hard” and making sure players weren’t “playing in tuxedos” and afraid of getting their knees scraped while diving for loose balls. We know how important those seemingly little things were to Jerry Sloan. And yet, even for some bigger things, if they weren’t vitally important to or detracting from the cause, they were let go. Case in point, a classic story that has circulated for years but was confirmed in Larry H. Miller’s autobiography, Driven:
“Jerry tolerates little nonsense, although once in a while he lets things slide. Once, in the locker room at halftime, Jerry was talking to the team and said something that Greg Ostertag didn’t like. Ostertag threw a bag of ice at Jerry’s head. Jerry simply moved his head to one side to dodge the ice and then kept talking as if nothing had happened.”
In today’s Twitter-filled NBA and constant stream of basketball news, try to imagine a story like this not causing a huge fuss—fines, suspensions, all sorts of mayhem. Yet, to Sloan, it wasn’t a big deal so he didn’t make it a big deal. Because for him, it wasn’t about ego; it was always about the team.
I have individual memories of Jerry Sloan, like any other life-long Jazz fan. It’s impossible to overstate the personal impact he had on so many people from all walks of life. But what sticks out to me when I hear the name Jerry Sloan is what he did for all of us who love the game of basketball on a larger level, beyond what team we root for and where our allegiances stand. 20 years ahead of his time as a strategist despite his old-fashioned, workmanlike approach, Sloan popularized elements of his system that, today, no longer even classify as part of any “system” – rather, they’re simply normal elements of every NBA scheme. He was at the forefront of a shift that saw the game move toward an emphasis on maximizing space and team cohesion, a shift that many would peg as having had a large role in the increasing popularity the league has seen in recent years. Fans in Utah will no doubt have lots to thank Jerry for over all the years, but the game of basketball owes him a similar debt of gratitude.