Friday morning, Jerry Sloan was already testing the lounge chair that Frank Layden always occupied for postgame interviews in the Salt Palace. "This is a tough seat," said Sloan, smiling. "It's a lot bigger than I thought."
Nobody is asking Sloan to be a media figure quite like Layden, but the Jazz are banking on him to keep them moving toward an NBA championship. Especially this season, Sloan was already doing most of the coaching - directing practices, suggesting substitutions and calling offensive plays - so Life Without Frank will probably not be all that different for the Jazz."I'm not going to change anything dramatically," said Sloan.
Still, Sloan's twists were evident even during the few games when Layden was ill and he was on his own in the previous two seasons. What may or not become apparent the rest of this season is the overall impact Layden had as head coach - completely positive or otherwise.
Layden always gave Sloan so much credit that Layden's worth was possibly underestimated. "I can evaluate his value," assured Sloan. "I know how important he is to this franchise."
Jazz owner Larry Miller promised the job to Sloan whenever Layden stepped down, but Sloan was still caught off guard by the timing, not knowing Layden was considering a change. "I was shocked it came as soon as it did," he said.
Sloan joined Layden in November 1984 when Phil Johnson became the head coach of the Kansas City Kings. The Kings are now in Sacramento and, in a twist, Johnson is now an assistant coach. He's the logical choice to join Sloan, having assisted him in Chicago in the early 1980s, but said Friday he is uncertain about his contract, which runs through next season.
Sloan was ready to start the season as the head coach of a CBA team in Evansville when Layden brought him back to the NBA. After four-plus seasons on the Jazz bench, he's taking over. "Is he ready?" mused Jazz general manager David Checketts. "That's not an issue. He's it."
In a September interview, Checketts was asked why he and owner Larry Miller had strongly encouraged Layden to come back for one more season. "We need some more time for Jerry to coach with Frank, before Jerry's ready," he said, referring to Sloan's coaching experience in Chicago.
Sloan was a legend as a player in Chicago, where he played 10 seasons as an original Bull, appeared in two All-Star games and is the only basketball player to have his jersey hanging in Chicago Stadium. "There was nobody tougher than Jerry," said a former Laker guard, named Pat Riley. "He's one of the most intense competitors. Ever. In the history of the game. He worked harder than anybody out there. That's what his whole game was about."
He coaches the same way, and really the only blemish on his career is his firing as the Bulls' head coach in the middle of the 1981-82. Even now, former Chicago general manager Rod Thorn, now the NBA's vice president of operations, blames himself for that move. "I think I made a mistake in letting him go in Chicago," he said Friday. "We weren't very good, to tell you truth _ it was not really any of Jerry's fault."
In Sloan's second season, 1980-81, the Bulls went 45-37 and reached the second round of the NBA playoffs in what would be their only postseason appearance until after Michael Jordan arrived. Amid high expectations the following season, the Bulls struggled and Sloan was fired.
Former player David Greenwood, now with San Antonio, has described that team as "A lot of characters, knuckleheads. It wasn't (Sloan's) fault. I played hurt a million times for him, because I didn't want to let the man down."
Says Bulls broadcaster Jim Durham, "It was a very difficult group, a fragile coalition . . . they had not a lot of character, but a lot of characters."
Johnson remembers Sloan holding up well during the tough times in Chicago, but noted, "There were some good days, too. He's really a good coach _ he has such insight into the game . . . he's so dedicated to the game and he's so honest with his players _ his players know where he's coming from. On the other hand, he has a lot of compassion for players."
Sloan, meanwhile, expects to do better on the Jazz bench than he did on Chicago's. "I don't think there's any question I'll be a better coach; that's not to say I don't think I did a good job," he said.