The Utah Jazz will take time next month to honor Jerry Sloan, the Dean of Coaching. It is something that fans have been clamoring for, but as reported, it was ultimately Sloan’s decision as to when the inevitable would take place. The date of the ceremony, January 31st is now circled on everyone’s calendars and rightfully so. In a season with a lot of bumps and bruises, this evening will be a wonderful, welcomed event. Like many of you, Coach Sloan has epitomized Utah Jazz basketball for me. If you’ll indulge me, I’d love to share some of my favorite Jerry memories.
When I first became a Jazz fan, one Frank Layden was the head coach. With his gregarious, loud personality, Layden was the one who – before John Stockton and Karl Malone rolled into town – put the Jazz on the NBA’s map. I was a young elementary school kid when I met Layden. We saw him in the parking lot at Westminster College. We asked him for his autograph, but he took the time to chat with us. I remember vividly his asking me if I got good grades in school and when my mother replied in the affirmative, he rubbed my head and encouraged me to keep up the good work. What a great person.
When Frank decided it was time to step away from coaching and move into a front office position, it came as shocking news. The team had just really arrived, fresh off the heels of the 1988 run that saw Utah upset the Portland Trailblazers and then take Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the illustrious Los Angeles Lakers to the brink in the second round. Many were predicting that the Jazz would be the next great team in the West. So, for Layden to leave the bench was surprising.
Jerry Sloan took over and lost his first game. But I remember feeling very confident that Sloan was the right man for the job. He had been a head coach previously and had been Layden’s right-hand man for several seasons. It did not take long for him to put his imprint on the team. They quickly assumed his persona: disciplined, hard-working, tough and persistent. While they fell in a very disappointing sweep to the Golden State Warriors that April, the team bounced back from that (and a few other first-round ousters) to keep fighting.
It was very evident that Stockton and Malone had the utmost of respect for Sloan and in turn, he for them. The way they interacted with them showed a mutual appreciation and constant, open communication. The two stars were effusive in their praise for him, even when the team fell prematurely in the postseason or when his job security was questioned in the media. As a trio, along with great players in Mark Eaton, Jeff Malone, Thurl Bailey, Jeff Hornacek and Bryon Russell, they became a year-in-and-year-out contender. You could always pencil them in for 50-55 wins. Three times they led Utah to the 60-win mark, with the apex being a 64-18 campaign in 1997. They were always on the same page and when the leadership is that united, it was easy for the supporting cast to follow their examples.
Sloan, Stockton and Malone also shared the Olympic experience together in 1996 and while he was inexplicably passed over for the head coaching nod the next go-around, Sloan never bristled openly. He just quietly went about his business.
Jerry stood up for his players. They knew he always had their back. He even took on owners. And even refs. While his fiery spirit sometimes got him in trouble, there was never any question as to who was the boss. But he was a boss who took great care of his players. The relationship he had with the Millers, while there were occasional episodes, was strong throughout his tenure. His loyalty toward Layden and his long-time associate Phil Johnson was unparalleled.
Sloan helped transition the franchise over two plus decades. He led the #12/#32 teams, but then displayed arguably his best coaching the year after his Hall of Famers exited stage left. He took a team that many prognosticated would be among NBA history’s worst and got them a game away from making the Playoffs (how he did not earn Coach of the Year during his career, especially during this season, will always be a lingering mystery). Sloan then took a young squad centered around Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko and led them to postseason success. Throughout these different “eras” of basketball, Jerry was the rock, the constant throughout the change.
Sloan was straightforward and called things as they were. He had no agenda except to win. For example, he was not afraid to play rookies or young players if they deserved to see court time (Blue Edwards, David Benoit, Bryon Russell, Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko, Jarron Collins and so forth). His interviews with the press were always enjoyable. While he was sometimes curt, he also showed humor.
Jerry had a rough, gruff exterior, which made his displays of emotion all the more memorable. While the image of Stockton, Malone and Hornacek hugging after “The Shot” will be permanently etched in Jazz fans’ minds, Sloan’s reaction was priceless. It was like all the years of frustration were lifted at that moment. He also showed a sensitive side, especially when he lost his wife after a heroic battle with cancer (which occurred during that 42-40 season after Stockton and Malone left). He also got teary at Stockton’s retirement ceremony, saying “We thought you’d play forever.”
His press conference announcing his retirement was heartbreaking on many levels.
His inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame was beyond well-deserved and his speech apropos for his career. January 31st will just add to the Jerry Sloan memories, of which I have so many.
Please feel free to share your favorite memories of Coach Sloan in the comments below.