JAZZ COACH JERRY SLOAN has never taken basketball lightly. He treats each game as though it were a battle for his soul; a guy who on several occasions threatened to take Dennis Rodman apart, one tattoo at a time.
But even by Sloan's gung-ho, game-face standards, this year is different. This year he's even more intense than usual. He's stamping his feet and raging along the sidelines and slapping the scorer's table. He's getting in the officials' faces, his players' faces, his assistant coaches' faces.While none of this is unheard of, even in the regular season, this year in the playoffs there's just more of it. He isn't bashful about reprimanding his players for letting their men get inside on the rebound or lobbing soft passes, even when they're ahead. Because in the Book of Sloan, you never, ever want to get overconfident.
Sloan's increased intensity is likely because he realizes this is a year in which he has a chance at making the NBA Finals. Although the Jazz have made the Western Conference Finals twice under Sloan, they've never gone farther. With Houston and the Lakers gone from this year's field, the Jazz don't have to worry about two dangerous teams that give them serious matchup problems.
So Sloan is strapping on his helmet and lacing up his boots and going to war, not planning to take any prisoners. Ask him about the Jazz's Tuesday loss in San Antonio and you'll get this terse reply: "You don't deserve to win when you play like that." Ask about players being tired and he'll tell you that if they're worried about that, they'll soon have all summer to recuperate.
If Sloan is acting like a slightly irritated grizzly, it's not surprising. He remains the same iron-jawed, broken-nosed man who terrorized opponents of the Chicago Bulls 25 years ago. The guy who, when Wilt Chamberlain threatened to run him down, replied, "I'll be right here. You can't do anything more than stomp on me."
This is a man who doesn't even like the sound of the word "relax," who would prefer his players didn't even nod to the opposition during warmups. Consequently, he hasn't exactly been easy to live with this month. In Game 1 against the Spurs, with the Jazz were leading by 17 with three minutes to go, Sloan summoned Malone off the bench to return to the game - despite the fact Malone was already icing his knees.
"Just relax," Malone said.
Sloan wasn't relaxing.
More than once during this year's playoffs, Malone has had to intervene between Sloan and an official. "I tell him to relax," says Malone, "and he says, `I can't.' "
After 11 years with the Jazz, Malone well knows how much space to give Sloan when he's in this kind of mood. "I just say `Hi, coach' is all, just to let him know I'm around," says Malone.
In Game 2 against the Spurs, Sloan drew two technicals and the ensuing automatic ejection. After a loss in Portland, when no media members asked a question right off, he said abruptly, "No questions?" and started to leave the interview room before someone finally spoke up.
Though not easy to live with under the circumstances, Sloan is definitely the kind of guy you'd want in a foxhole with you. If you were a cop, you'd want him as your backup. If someone was threatening to break your legs over an unpaid debt, Sloan is the guy you'd want to call. If you were going to battle and could choose between a full-scale assault tank and Sloan, you'd want Sloan. He could do more damage.
This is a guy who isn't easy to get sidetracked. He's as single-minded as a bounty hunter. While taking a morning walk in San Antonio on Tuesday with media relations director Kim Turner, Sloan barely spoke. The only significant noise he made was after he whacked his forehead on a tree branch.
"Without a doubt he's more intense than usual," continued Malone. "It's probably unfortunate, but I think there's more pressure on him to win than on us. To be honest, we're not supposed to be in this position, and every time we win, it adds more pressure to him. They're still firing coaches in the NBA, and it's that time of year."
Continued Malone, "If he was like that every single day of the regular season I couldn't deal with it."
So if you see Sloan at the grocery store this week, be sure to nod and say hi, but leave it at that. He isn't likely to be in the mood for small talk. It isn't that he isn't nice or that he doesn't like people. It's just that he's in one of those moods. The small talk can wait until summer.