December 13, 1977.
Jerry Sloan thinks of that horrifying day still."It comes across my mind every morning I go to work," says Sloan. "Evansville had that tragic accident . . ."
And Jerry Sloan easily could have been one of the victims.
Twenty years ago, the University of Evansville chose Sloan as Hall-of-Fame basketball coach Arad McCutchan's successor. But Sloan kept the job only a few days. He never even coached a practice.
Sloan's change of mind probably saved his life.
On the evening of Dec. 13, 1977, the Purple Aces' team plane took off from Evansville's airport amid rain and fog. Less than 90 seconds after the chartered DC-3 left the ground it crashed.
All 29 people aboard were killed, including Sloan's replacement Bobby Watson, who had survived a 31-month tour of duty in Vietnam and earned five Purple Hearts.
Sloan would go to the Chicago Bulls, where he had been a two-time all-star, and scout for two years before enduring the inevitable growing pains of a young head coach. He says now, "The opportunity in Chicago probably came too soon."
But Sloan's has been a charmed life since he decided not to coach at the school where he was a three-time All-America player and where he led the Aces to a perfect 29-0 season and two national titles.
Still, it's hard not to wonder what might have been had Sloan made a different choice in 1977.
Some people have even speculated that had Sloan been the Aces' coach on that fateful day, he would have opted to travel by bus to Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, which is only about 30 miles southeast of Nashville.
Wayne Boultinghouse, who was Sloan's roommate at UE, and still a close friend, says, "That's strictly a guess. But I knew Bob Hudson, who was killed in the crash and was a great friend and the business manager. They called him `The Rock,' and I question whether Jerry or anyone else would have changed the plans."
In other words, don't try to explain the unexplainable.
Boultinghouse is sure, however, that Sloan would have provided a wonderful encore to McCutchan and his five College Division championships and 514 career victories.
"Success has been Jerry Sloan's constant companion in everything he's ever done," says Boultinghouse, who might have been a Sloan assistant at UE, and now is high school athletic director. "He's still the same nuts-and-bolts person I met in the fall of 1960."
So much so that Sloan's desire to deflect attention away from himself during the NBA finals, and since then, has produced a boomerang effect: He receives attention precisely because he stands out as being so different from slick guys like Miami's Pat Riley and Boston's Rick Pitino, and the metaphysically motivated Phil Jackson of Chicago.
See, for Sloan, it's still just about the game. Corny as that sounds, true as it is.
"From day one as a player, I loved going to practice," Sloan says. "I still enjoy that. And even when things go bad, it can be rewarding to fight through tough times."
But Sloan won't borrow trouble, won't look down the schedule to guess just how tough times might be. It's the way he's always been, narrowly focused on the task in front of him - even when that meant roughing up his roomie.
"We went head to head in practice and I saw stars more than once," Boultinghouse says with a laugh. "He never said he was sorry till we got back to the room."
Tough but not gruff. That's Jerry Sloan. That's the Utah Jazz of John Stockton and Karl Malone, too.
The Jazz gave the Bulls everything they had in last year's finals. Their effort earned a new measure of respect from their peers. But the effort wasn't quite good enough to win the championship, and thus Sloan can't really enjoy it like he probably should.
"It's the finals, but once you get there, it's like any other game," he says. "It's a loss, and you have to go home."
Boultinghouse says his friend is not driven by the desire to win as much as the desire to "never be perceived as failing."
Until last season, he sometimes was perceived as a big-game failure. The Jazz would stack victory on top of victory in the regular season only to have their season topple in the early rounds of the playoffs.
Critics awarded Sloan some, if not most, of the blame.
"He definitely doesn't get his due," says Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "Jerry's been a great leader for that team and he does it the right way: He doesn't make himself the focal point."