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Sloan's 1,000th Jazz game

He becomes just the sixth coach in NBA to reach milestone

LOS ANGELES — He had no job. He was unemployed, fired from his first stab at working as an NBA head coach. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do.

But he did know one thing: He needed somewhere his family always could go, no matter where he was, and what he was, or was not, doing.

"It was important at that time," he said, "because my kids were all old enough to know what was going on.

"I felt like it was important for them to have a place to call 'home.' And in this business, you never knew you'd really have that, because you bounce around so much. I didn't figure that I would be in this place as long as I have. I've been very lucky."

Home, Jerry Sloan decided in the months after Larry Kenon did him in and the Chicago Bulls pulled the rug out from under him, would forever be the town where he and his high school sweetheart-wife were raised.

Home — the place he could return after he got canned from his next NBA job — would be a farm in the tiny Southern Illinois town of McLeansboro.

Today, Sloan is still gainfully employed with the first NBA franchise that took him in after the Bulls debacle.

Yet even tonight, after he works his 1,000th game as head coach of the Jazz, playing the very same Los Angeles Clippers club that Utah beat on Dec. 10, 1988, for his first win of 681 Jazz victories, Sloan will insist he has no regrets that his roots remain so far from his long-time place of employment.

He is happy he still can call McLeansboro home, and no amount of Monday-morning quarterbacking will convince him he should have settled in Salt Lake.

"That's like saying, 'Are you going to pull yourself up from your home and go somewhere else?' " a reflective Sloan said. "I'm a small-town guy. A lot of people say, 'Why would you go back there? There's only 2,000 people.'

"To me, it's a relaxing area. People, they don't bother me. They don't care whether I'm there or not, I don't think, when it's all said and done."

In McLeansboro, Sloan can slip on a John Deere cap, tinker with a tractor and bask in the satisfaction that no one cares about his longevity and success as an NBA coach. In McLeansboro, he and wife Bobbye can do what time in Salt Lake does not permit.

"If you stop and think about it: We're never really able to go sit out on the front porch, or go sit out on the curb, or go sit down, from the time we start the season until it's over," Sloan said. "Just sitting outside, from a country standpoint, is really refreshing to me."

His first NBA coaching experience, however, was anything but.

It's one reason that, to this day, in his 13th season as head coach of the Jazz, despite having just recently signed a three-year contract extension to work until 2004, he lives in fear of being fired again.

Sloan, who turns 59 later this month, toiled 10 of his 11 NBA seasons as a player for the Chicago Bulls. And when they promoted the overachieving grinder from assistant to head coach on April 28, 1979, they knew they were getting a no-nonsense sort.

As wife Bobbye says, it's as if he still wears his uniform underneath his suit pants and dress shirt.

So those in Chicago shouldn't have been shocked when Sloan got a little sideways, as he is apt to say, with Kenon, who joined Reggie Theus, Artis Gilmore and the rest in the coach's second season running the Bulls.

Stubborn man that he is, Sloan wasn't about to give ground when the two butted heads - Kenon a purportedly selfish sort, Sloan the consummate team-concept coach. It proved to be his undoing.

"We're getting ready to finish up the season," Sloan said, "and there was pressure on me to play (Kenon), because we had paid him quite a bit of money."

For a while, Sloan did.

"I thought that was the right thing to do," he said. "I was a young coach; I had no frame of reference to work on."

But enough was enough. Sloan decided against playing someone who, in his mind, had turned on him.

"Finally, I said, 'If I'm going to get fired, I'm going to get fired with the guys I want to play,'" he said.

"So I sat him on the bench. And then we won I-forget-just-how-many games down the stretch, and we got into the playoffs. Played New York. It sounds like I continuously bad-rap somebody, but I didn't play him in the playoffs. We went to New York and won that first game there. Came and beat them, in a mini-series, at our place."

Next up was an Eastern Conference semifinal series against Larry Bird's Boston Celtics, that season's eventual NBA champs. The Bulls went four-and-out in a seven-game series.

"But we played hard," Sloan said.

Didn't matter. Sloan's own ouster wouldn't be far behind. Before the start of the next season, Sloan told Kenon he wouldn't play him unless he had to. Kenon sat out in protest. The Bulls opened their exhibition season 0-4. Kenon returned. Chicago did need him, or so upper management thought.

With little support from the powers that be, Sloan saw the writing.

"I knew I'd be done by Christmas," he said, "because I'd lost all credibility with all the other players. They knew that I wasn't involved with the team."

The Bulls made the move on Feb. 17, 1982. The team that went 45-37 one season earlier was 19-32. Sloan didn't think he deserved to be let go.

"Quite frankly, I felt like I did as good a job as I could under the circumstances," he said. "I felt confident that what we tried to do with the team was about as (good) as we could do. . . . But I still had my feelings hurt. That was the first time I ever failed, so to speak, as far as working hard."

Sloan returned to McLeansboro, uncertain of his future but sure about what he wanted to do in the meantime:

— Pursue his passion. "I've always had aspirations of being involved in farming all my life. I guess if anybody has a fantasy, that's one of my biggest fantasies - and I've been able to be involved in that, and I've enjoyed that."

— Decide what he wanted to be. "At that particular time, I didn't know if coaching was what I wanted to do," he chuckles. "I went back home, and I stayed on the farm and watched my kids play, because I had a year or so left (to still be paid) on my contract."

— Reconnect with his family. Sloan's son, Brian, was still in high school at the time. "When you get fired you think, 'This is the worst thing in the world that can happen.' But there's a lot of positives. And I learned that," said Sloan, who also has two daughters, Kathy and Holly. "It was a good chance to be around my kids. My son, they won the state championship his senior year.

"While I was watching them play, the head coach of the team - we went to high school together - he asked me to help him a little bit here and there, and (I) answered questions and stuff that came up. I didn't want to be (over-involved), but it was more, 'If I can help you, I will; if I can't, I'll just stay away.' Everything we did, or talked about, was away from everybody."

Sloan never took the floor, but he got to be around Brian, who is now an emergency-room doctor serving a one-year sports medicine fellowship at Notre Dame, and his team.

"After watching these kids play, and watching them try to play in somewhat of a team concept," he said, "I became more and more convinced that there's some kids that want to play under those conditions."

As much as he wanted to forget coaching - "That's your first reaction, right off the bat," - he realized it was in his blood.

"After I got away from it, and got a chance to reflect a little bit, and think about some of the things we had happen," Sloan knew he was a coach first, fantasy farmer second.

What he did not know is how, or when, he would return to the NBA.

With Brian off to college, Sloan sought gainful employment.

He had been doing some scouting for the Jazz, where his former assistant coach in Chicago, Phil Johnson, was then an assistant. But that wasn't the real deal. Then, an opportunity came along.

Sloan was named head coach of the CBA's Evansville Thunder, a minor-league expansion team located in his old Illinois college town. Before he ever coached a game for the Thunder, however, he was in the full-time employ of the Jazz.

"Four or five days before the CBA season started, (Johnson) said, 'Do you want to go to Utah?' " Sloan remembers. "I said, 'What the h--- for?' "

It wasn't that Sloan had anything against Utah.

"It was just that I was shocked," he said, "because that was the farthest thing from my mind."

Johnson had been tapped for a second stint as head coach of the NBA's Kansas City Kings, who would later move to Sacramento. That left then-Jazz coach Frank Layden short an assistant.

Said Sloan: "(Johnson) said, 'I'm going to Kansas City. If you're interested in the (Jazz) job, call Frank.' "

Sloan didn't know Layden well then, but he knew what he had to do.

Bobbye told him.

"I called Frank on a Sunday," Sloan said, "and he said, 'Meet me in Kansas City Monday morning.' "

The Jazz had a game there.

"I said, 'OK,' " said Sloan, who later brought Johnson back to Utah as his top assistant shortly after he left Sacramento. "I had already talked to my wife after I had talked to Phil; she said, 'Yeah, you've got to take the job; if you want to coach, you've got to go.' "

"It was a good opportunity for me," Sloan said. "It was a great opportunity to work with Frank. That was the best thing that could to happen to me at that stage of my coaching career, because he opened my eyes to a lot of things I've used, and done, and appreciated, in coaching.

"I don't think anybody will ever be Frank Layden. And I never tried to be. But a lot of his ideas and stuff we still use. . . . I said it, and meant it wholeheartedly, when he stepped down that I wished he was still coaching, because I think I could have spent an entire career with him, as an assistant coach."

Layden, however, did step aside, and eventually became president of the Jazz.

When he did, Sloan, on Dec. 9, 1988, with the season already under way, became the sixth coach in franchise history, following Scotty Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Bill Van Breda Kolff from the 1974-79 New Orleans era, and Tom Nissalke and Layden in Utah.

He debuted that night, losing at home to Dallas, then won the next night, beating the Clippers in L.A.

All that season, though, Sloan never really felt like the Jazz were "his."

"It was (Frank Layden's) team. There was no question about that," he said. "And for many, many years - even today, as long as John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) are here - I still feel there's a certain attachment to Frank.

"I don't like to think of it as 'my team.' I think of it in terms of 'our team,' because our other coaches do a great job, and they're involved a great deal with our team."

Stockton and Malone were there when Sloan was named head coach, and they led the Jazz to the NBA Finals in 1997 and '98, losing, of course, on both occasions to Michael Jordan and the rest of Sloan's old Bulls franchise.

The two future Hall-of-Famers - Stockton, the league's all-time assists leader, and Malone, its second-leading all-time scorer - are undoubtedly a huge part of Sloan's success, and his 1,000 games as head coach of the same franchise.

Ironically, they may also be the reason he has never - despite a career .682 winning percentage - been named NBA Coach of the Year. How hard can it be, the argument goes, to coach those two?

That matters little, if at all, to Sloan. Winning is what he cares about most. Winning, and knowing that you do it right, with players who care, and bosses who would support you should any of them turn like Sloan remembers Kenon turning in Chicago.

"They're great players, and they're only interested in going out, playing, and doing their job," he said of Stockton and Malone. "They're not trying to coach.

"If you don't have support, you're a dead duck," Sloan added. "That's why I've been real lucky."

Working under Layden and Jazz owner Larry H. Miller has allowed Sloan to last, he said, "because they've given me tremendous support.

"A lot of people say it, but (Layden and Miller) have the ability to stand up to it when it gets tough," Sloan said. "That kind of support is unparalleled."

So, too, is Sloan's insistence on never getting too comfortable. He does it, in part, to stay on an even keel - a trait stemming from more than just his Chicago experience.

"That's my background, probably, more than anything else," he said. "Because you never know what tomorrow's going to bring. It's kind of interesting to grow up without a father. . . . You don't know what tomorrow's going to bring."

In the NBA, pink slips are delivered to coaches like passes from Stockton to Malone: with amazing regularity. That fact chills Sloan.

"That's been through my mind every year. This thing can fall apart so quickly, I don't think people realize (it)," he said. "I realized that when I played it was going to be for a short time, and anything beyond that was a real blessing.

"I'm kind of in the same boat with coaching. I've been here a long time, and I've been in the league a long time, but I never expected I'd be here this long," added Sloan, who, with the lone exception of Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, has coached his team longer than anyone currently working in North America's four major pro sports leagues.

It's no wonder, then, that when Sloan and his wife bought the condo where they now stay in Salt Lake, they weren't exactly thinking long-term.

"We felt, 'Well, this is going to be a good place for us for a year or so,' " Sloan said. "And here it is, eight or 10 years later, and we're still in the same place, same curtains on the wall."

Back in McLeansboro, the Sloans are finally building a place of their own.

Sometime around July, if there are no more construction and contracting delays, they will move out of the hundred-year-old house in which they've lived for nearly two decades, and into a new farm house located about a mile-and-a-half outside town.

It's a home Bobbye and Jerry Sloan know they will never leave, and no one in the NBA can ever change that.

"That's what we plan," Sloan says with a hearty laugh. "It's wheelchair-accessible."