There are several surefire ways to annoy Jerry Sloan.
Showboating, relaxing on defense and small talking with opponents, for instance.
But one of the best ways to get on his nerves is to start asking him how good he and/or his teams are. It's guaranteed to get a reaction. So naturally, on the eve of his 19th season as coach of the Jazz, I had to ask: What did he think of the Sports Illustrated writer who called him the "finest coach in pro sports."
Sloan made a dour face and said: "I think it's ridiculous. Always have."
So he's not on a sentimental journey. For the farmer from Southern Illinois, praise is more aggravation than motivation.
"I have a great staff. I think everybody knows that. They do all the coaching," he continued. "I just try to keep things in order a little bit, that's all I do."
Just in case it wasn't clear he REALLY hates being called the finest coach in pro sports, he added, "It's a crazy thing to even have to answer that question, to be honest with you."
The impetus behind the question was a small item in the Oct. 23 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which NBA writer Ian Thomsen made predictions for the season, which begins for the Jazz today. In it, he said Sloan will be named Coach of the Year: "When Utah surges, finest coach in pro sports gets honor that he should have won long ago (and more than once)."
Likewise, some publications — including Sports Illustrated — have the Jazz picked to win the Northwest Division. Utah is considered by many to be among the four or five best teams in the Western Conference.
All of which appeared to exasperate Sloan on Tuesday, who went on to say that while this year's team is pleasant to work with and fun to watch, that doesn't make it a good team.
"They've got to go prove it," said Sloan. "Everyone's got them in the playoffs. Now they've got to prove it."
Sloan, of course, has never been one to take praise easily.
You might say it's against the farmer creed. Have you ever met a farmer who was a braggart? Tell him how good his team is becoming and his smile gets tight and he starts shaking his head. It was even that way when he had two future Hall of Fame players on his team. He thinks a man gets soft listening to glad-handers. One of his favorite coaching adages is "If you start listening to the fans, pretty soon you'll be sitting with them."
Sloan is quick to point out that he has never won a championship, which brings up a glaring dichotomy. On one hand, he has always said a lack of championships didn't diminish the legacy of John Stockton and Karl Malone. At the same time, when asked about his accomplishments, he downplays them by saying he's never won a title.
Still, it's hard to overlook Sloan's accomplishments. Entering tonight's game against Houston, he is fifth on the all-time wins list with 984. His .599 percentage is seventh best in history. Those numbers put him in a class with Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach. Yet when Auerbach died last week, and Sloan was asked about comparing himself with the longtime Boston coach, he scoffed.
"I'm not in that category," Sloan said. "I've never won a championship. I just had an organization that's stuck with me and given me a chance."
Since he doesn't consider himself one of the all-time great coaches, I asked him to name some of the best coaches he had ever seen. To which he replied, "Usually the ones that have the best players. You can go out there and say I was a pretty good coach, 'cause I had Stockton and Malone ... That's just the way it is."
That's the way Sloan is, too.