I’ve spent the last few days writing and rewriting this post. I can’t get it right, and I’m done trying. Like most lifelong Jazz fans, I’m frustrated, annoyed, confused, and a bit angry after the departure of Jerry Sloan. I’ve read the he said/she said, listened to the Karl Malone firestorm, and heard the pressroom rumor mill. Through it all I still have no clue why he left, and after experiencing near Sloan overload, I’ve come to this conclusion: it doesn’t matter. I don’t really care what the catalyst for his departure was, and I don’t care if he quit or was pushed out. What matters here is that he left, and where it leaves the Utah Jazz as an organization.
When I was a kid, I liked the Jazz because my dad did. I was from Utah, and it was our team. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve stayed loyal to the Jazz because I’ve been proud to call them “my” team. If you know the history of the team then you know that the Utah Jazz were a gift from the Miller family to the Salt Lake community, and the family has worked diligently to make it a true team. From the days of Pistol Pete through Stockton & Malone, the Jazz have never been run by the superstars. Larry H. Miller worked hard to develop an organization that was focused on winning, and winning right. The team was built on principles of putting in a hard day’s work, playing your role, and leaving it all on the court each night. In the four major American sports, there are very few fans that can say that their team’s ownership built their team the right way from top to bottom, but a Utah fan could say it and mean it. The Utah Jazz did things the right way.
Jerry Sloan was the heart and soul of this franchise because he embodied the Jazz’ efforts to do things the right way. I’m not saying he was perfect. Sloan has a lot of good qualities, but also has his fair share of bad, and to say that he’s had Jazz nation’s undivided support over the past 23 years is revisionist history. Sloan made mistakes, fans (and players) were quick to judge, and there were times that we called for his head, but in those moments, do you know what happened? Nothing. The Jazz trusted their coach, knew that they had the right guy, and in every instance took a stand against the fans and sent the message that they were not a reactionary team. The Jazz, for better or worse, were an organization that stood by their man. In a world where coaches are traded in & out on the whims of teenage players, a 23-year tenure sends a powerful message. It says that Coach Sloan’s voice was the most important one in the gym. The front office’s implicit trust of Sloan told fans, superstar players, and other organizations that this team was principled. No matter who walked through the door at the beginning of the year, one thing always stayed the same: Coach Sloan. He was qualified, he was smart, and they trusted him. For Jazz fans that trust paid dividends. How did second round picks turn into all stars? How did a small market team consistently make the playoffs and contend against giants? It was because of the consistency of Jerry Sloan, and the understanding that he would be here longer than any one player. There was accountability, opportunity, and expectations. All because of coach Sloan. He was a symbol of the way things were done in Utah, and nothing could change that… until last Wednesday.
Nobody knows exactly what went down in Kevin O’Conner’s office after that Bulls game, but it could not have ended worse for Jazz fans. Yes the team lost a great coach, but what we truly lost was our ability to implicitly trust an organization that was supposed to be THE organization. It doesn’t matter why Sloan left, what matters is that someone thought it was time for him to go… someone thought it was best for a Hall of Fame coach to leave his team in the middle of the season while his floundering squad was in desperate need of leadership. That tells me one thing: Coach Sloan’s word was no longer the most important word in the Jazz gym, and the Jazz’ model of consistency broke down. Something went seriously wrong, and suddenly the Jazz are just like nearly every other organization in the league. Maybe I’m an elitist, or maybe I just expect more out of a team that taught me expect more out of a sports franchise. I would never want Jerry Sloan to feel like he’s trapped on a failing team, but this is not the way you send off a Hall of Fame coach. This event, and the way it played out has created a crisis of confidence in Jazz land. We lost a superb coach on Thursday but with him also went many of the foundational principles that made this team unique.
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