Every Jazz fan over the age of 20 or so remembers The Hug – perhaps the single most iconic moment in Utah sports history. Mailman sets the pick, Russell on the inbound feed, Barkley comes out to challenge…you know the rest. The image of Stockton, Malone and Hornacek embracing at midcourt will no doubt be the lasting impression of this moment in history. But for many, the less-famous quote above, spoken in the aftermath of this incredible triumph, came to represent not only the man who said it but the team, the city and the culture he was such an integral part of.
The quote, of course, is from Jerry Sloan. And maybe he didn’t mean it in a larger sense at the time – the Jazz had been down 12 in the second half before mounting a comeback culminating in Stockton’s game-winner. But for a man who spent his entire life trying as hard as he could at everything, it just seems appropriate to view those words as part of a bigger picture.
And just as those words came to define something larger about a man, the man came to define something much larger about a team, a city, a community. To Utahns, even the ones who didn’t closely follow the Jazz, Sloan became something more than just a coach. And with the announcement over the summer of his return to their front office, what better time than to examine just how the man grew into such a legend? In this two-part series, we’ll look at how Jerry Sloan helped shape not only the culture of the Utah Jazz, but the culture of the NBA as a whole – and how he did so on his own terms.
The Early Years:
The youngest of 10 children, Sloan was used to working for everything he got. As a child, he lost his father at the age of four and was mostly forced to fend for himself. He worked hard, getting up at 4:30 A.M. every day so that he could both finish his chores and walk to basketball practice on time. His perseverance paid off, as he eventually became the star player for Evansville College and was drafted in 1965 by the Baltimore Bullets, playing one season there before spending the next 10 years as a Chicago Bull. In Chicago, he gained a reputation as a tough, hard-working player (see a theme here?) capable of excellent play on both ends of the court. It’s telling that the only awards he won in the pros were his six combined appearances on the First-and-Second All-Defensive teams. After retiring, he quickly became an assistant with Chicago before taking over their head-coaching job in 1979, where he stayed for three seasons.
The time period surrounding Sloan’s ascendance to the head coaching position in Utah wasn’t exactly a bed of roses for the franchise he joined. After a somewhat disappointing debut coaching the Bulls (he went 94-121), Jerry came on to the staff as a scout and then as an assistant to then-coach Frank Layden. While by this point the Jazz were working their way back to relevancy, the previous decade had been mired by some controversy and a lack of team success. Their move from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in 1979 was the first point of contention; after struggling with venue and money issues throughout their half-decade in the Big Easy, the move was met with some skepticism as to Salt Lake’s ability to support a pro basketball franchise.
The next several years were no better, as the on-court product suffered along with the potential future of the franchise. The Jazz traded their first-round pick in 1979 as part of a deal to acquire Gail Goodrich, a pick the Lakers used to select Magic Johnson first overall. In that same deal, they also gave up the rights to center Moses Malone. Goodrich proved ineffective and injury-prone, while Johnson and Malone went on to Hall of Fame careers. Three years later, another draft embarrassment – a trade of third-overall pick Dominique Wilkins for John Drew and Freeman Williams that ended up as one of the worst in NBA history after Wilkins became a star while Drew and Williams faded into obscurity. While their hand was forced on this one (‘Nique refused to play in Utah), their inability to secure a better package for him didn’t do the front office any favors in the years to come.
Sloan’s arrival as a scout/assistant in 1985 coincided with the first bits of light at the end of the Jazz’s tunnel. While unpopular at the time, the selection of Stockton in the 1984 draft would obviously turn out to be an excellent move. Ditto for the addition of Malone the following year, and with the franchise in the process of an ownership change, fortunes were looking up. Sloan took over from Layden 17 games into the 1988-89 season, beginning a run of 16 consecutive seasons where the Jazz made the playoffs under his guidance. The young core of Stockton and Malone were gaining chemistry, and while both of Jerry’s first two seasons ended in disappointing first-round losses, the Jazz were on the upswing in a loaded league.
From the 1991-92 season all the way until after the turn of the millennium, Utah was the most consistent franchise in the league. They made five conference finals appearances, two NBA Finals, and only finished under 50 wins once (not counting the shortened year in 1999) from 1992-2002.
While a portion of this success can of course be attributed to the players and Sloan’s on-court system, the underlying theme was always hard work. He expected 100% from all his players, and gave them the same in return. “He taught me that lunch pail-type attitude,” said former Jazz guard CJ Miles years later, who added that Sloan was “the reason I got in the NBA.” In a league trending in the direction of flashy players and big egos, Jerry wanted the opposite. His workmanlike approach endeared him not only to his players (most of them, at least), but to the community in Utah as a whole. While he was certainly an innovator in many ways (specifically his version of the flex system, which we’ll cover in detail in part two), the traditional, blue-collar approach he took allowed fans to identify with him. He defended his players on the court and in the media, and wasn’t afraid to let his emotions show on the bench. In short, he brought a consistent atmosphere to a franchise that badly needed it. Remember that the Jazz were the first major sports franchise in Utah, and also remember that they had spent much of the previous decade struggling as a team – and if you think it’s tough to win in a small market in 2013, imagine how much harder it would have been before the advent of the Internet and globalized media. Put it all together, and what you get is a hand-in-glove situation – simply a perfect fit.
Off the court, it was more of the same. Sloan’s style with the players made him popular among Utahns, but his caring and down-to-earth personality made him a legend. He was married to his first wife, Bobbye, for 41 years before her death from cancer in 2004, and has three children who all speak highly of him. He was involved with a charity called The Hand-in-Hand Foundation, created by his family after Bobbye’s death to give high school scholarships to assist individuals and communities in providing education.
He was humble in success, always passing off the credit to his players – to the point where he refused to allow the Jazz to nominate him for the Hall of Fame until John Stockton went in so he could spend his entire speech crediting Stockton and basically everyone but himself for his success. The next time you have 20 minutes, watch that speech again. For as impossible as it is to know a person after watching them talk for 20 minutes, it’s easy to see the modest, polite man who a fanbase fell in love with.
While his abrupt exit from the franchise was a departure from his normally deliberate process, it was carried out in typical Jerry fashion. He made a decision, and then he stuck to it. The Jazz have struggled somewhat since he left, but nothing like the years before his arrival – and so much of it is because of the imprint he left. The term there in spirit isn’t generally used in sports, but perhaps it’s a worthy sentiment in this case; regardless of whether we ever see Jerry Sloan behind the bench again, there’s no doubt the stability and identity he brought to the franchise will remain for many years to come.
Join us for part two tomorrow, where we discuss Sloan’s impact on the Jazz’s strategy and the evolution of NBA offenses.