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Utah Jazz: Coach loves the game

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Long before Hot Rod Hundley began talking over the airwaves about ol' cowhide globes hitting home, a young Jerry Sloan spent much of his non-chore-related time hucking a well-used round object toward a bucket hanging outside his grade school in McLeansboro, Ill.

Talk about good ol' memories.

Talk about a good ol' cowhide globe.

The ball Sloan and his brother borrowed to shoot hoops as kids was a great-grandfather to the slickly designed basketballs used nowadays. And forget the synthetic stuff. Six decades ago, the basketballs were all made with soft leather and were cinched together with laces, like footballs, with high ribs forming where the wide straps of hide conjoined over an air-filled bladder.

And, yes, that's a smile that just cracked on Sloan's face.

Just thinking about that well-used basketball — and reminiscing about falling in love with the game — makes his heart warm and feel as fuzzy as the peaches that once sat in the baskets James Naismith used while creating the sport.

You only see those kind of classic balls in museums now.

Fitting, really, because they're almost as rare an artifact as old-school coaches like Sloan, whose hoops accomplishments will forever be on display in the sport's biggest museum, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, after tonight's enshrinement ceremony.

It would be poetic if Sloan busted open a trophy case and shot some hoops with one of the classic balls on display there.

Sloan has been the head coach of the Utah Jazz since Dec. 9, 1988, when he assumed control of the team after Frank Layden decided he'd had enough of the coaching grind. Sloan took over with mixed emotions. After all, he didn't lead a coup or a shady behind-the-scenes mutiny to work his way up the ladder and force Layden out. Sloan was happy as a hog in slop with his right-hand-guy position because Layden wasn't just a boss he enjoyed working with — he was a close friend, too.

"Working with Frank was one of the best things that could happen to me," said Sloan, who was Layden's assistant for four years. "I wish he was still coaching, that's how much I enjoyed being his assistant coach."

Turns out, what he's accomplished in the two decades since replacing Layden has been enough to merit him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Sloan has built a legacy from his longevity.

Not only is Sloan the longest-tenured coach in major U.S. sports but he has racked up seven division titles, led the Jazz to 18 playoff appearances, made two Finals trips, won more games than all but three coaches in league history and became the first coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games with one franchise.

As far as Sloan is concerned, you can go ahead and give much of the credit to Layden.

"I replaced Frank and I always felt this was Frank's team. I just happened to be along at the right time and work with him," Sloan said. "Even up until John (Stockton) and Karl Malone retired, I still felt like they were his people."

Sloan often gives the rest of the credit to guys like the late Larry H. Miller, whom the coach often publicly thanks for keeping him on board for so long, to longtime assistant Phil Johnson, whom he laughingly points out has seen more of the games during Sloan's career than Sloan has; and, of course, to the players.

Regardless of who the credit goes to, the quickly approaching 2009-10 season will be Sloan's 22nd campaign calling the shots for the Jazz. Throw in an undefeated 29-0 college NCAA Division II championship season at Evansville, a gritty 11-year career as a hard-nosed player with the Baltimore Bullets and the Chicago Bulls, a couple of stints each as an NBA scout and assistant, and a 21/2-season-long run as a head coach in the Windy City, and Sloan has compiled quite the career and made quite the living out of his playground passion.

"I haven't accepted too many checks outside of basketball since I was a kid," Sloan said. "Not many people get to do something they love to do and then get paid for it. …

"I just feel like I've been lucky to be a part of basketball for as long as I have."

Sloan's memories of Utah's hoops heydays are vivid and fresh with oh-so-many recollections of success with fellow Hall of Fame inductee John Stockton and Karl Malone, who's all but a lock for enshrinement next year. He's especially fond of who they are and how hard they worked.

He also credits the two all-time NBA greats — Stockton finished his career as the league's career assists and steals leader; Malone ended with the second-most points ever scored — for helping him secure a spot in the Hall.

"They could be (here) definitely without me. They would have made it on their own, there isn't any question about that," Sloan said. "I just happened to be here and have a chance to coach them."

Sloan took a quick second and rephrased that.

"I don't think I really coached them," he said. "I just kind of watched them play (and) got a good seat every night."

Not all of his great basketball memories involve his famous pair of pick-and-rollers.

Sloan's oft-intimidating and gruff visage, chiseled with years of experiencing triumph, tragedy and about everything in between, lights up when he recants tales of playing more than a half-century ago for his grade-school club.

For six years, he went to a one-room school in his Illinois farming community. That one room, by the way, did not come equipped with basketball standards. Didn't matter. They just played outside — under the direction of a guy who taught the three R's for all eight grades and X's and O's as the basketball coach — and they had a hoot in the process.

They even won a championship, which, in seemingly un-Sloan-like fashion, he doesn't shy from kind of bragging about.

"We played in a county tournament, played all the one-room schools," he recalled. "If you're good enough to beat the consolidated schools, you're pretty good. We were able to do that one time, so that was a tremendous thrill for me."

Sloan, a man who equally loves hard work and hard workers, also takes great pride in the fact that he had perfect attendance for practice during his high school career.

Think that's no big deal?Think again.

Consider this: Sloan lived 16 miles away from his high school. He didn't have a car. And practice began in the morning at 7 o'clock sharp, well before the school bus could get him there on time.

So, he had three options: Hoof it, hitchhike or give up hoops.

For Sloan and his buddy, David Lee, begging for rides was the lesser evil of those choices. They became hitchhiking gurus and, to their credit, were resourceful and dependable.

Yep, that's another smile on Sloan's face you sense.

"I feel very good about the fact that I played basketball in high school and never missed a practice," Sloan said. "If you liked to play, you figured out a way to try to do it. And I think I liked to play."

That love for the game continued as Sloan helped his college, Evansville, turn in a perfect campaign. His passion and commitment to hard work — a trait he picked up early in life — kept surging when he was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets and then got picked up in the expansion draft the following year by the Chicago Bulls.

That 1966-67 Bulls team, he said, wasn't supposed to win more than 10 games, according to some. But coached by Johnny "Redd" Kerr — one of the many coaching mentors Sloan quickly credits, along with his longtime Bulls coach Dick Motta, Arad McCutchan from Evansville, Layden and even Johnson, his longtime assistant, pal and coach — the fledgling Chicago club made it to the playoffs in its inaugural year.

Sloan called it one of the "top things" in his career, and it was just the beginning of his successful decadelong run as "The Original Bull."

Sloan, a two-time All-Star player whose No. 4 was the first jersey to be retired by the Bulls, still gets a good chuckle of the "big check" they received for earning a postseason berth.

"We got 440-something dollars," he said, laughing. "We didn't even hardly know at the time we got paid to be in the playoffs. We were just happy to be there. I thought it was quite an accomplishment."

Sloan doesn't come out and gloat about it, but you get the sense he feels the same way about his lengthy stay with the Jazz. He was fired from his first head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls by Rod Thorn during the 1980-81 season, and he figures some naysayers didn't think he'd go too far in his second go-round, either.

"People said I probably wouldn't last very long in the beginning because I would expect too much out of players and have a lot of problems," Sloan said. "I haven't had too many problems with players. Yeah, I've had a problem or two with players that really don't like to play, don't like to work and that sort of thing."

That appreciation of work — and insistence of it from his players — is deep-rooted.

It came from his mother.

"She said, 'Don't ever turn your back on your paycheck' as a young kid," Sloan recalled. "My father passed away when I was 4. You know, you had to learn to work. It's a little bit difficult if you don't work hard."

Even so, and with all the sweat and hard work he's put in, Sloan regrets his championship shortcomings to the point he almost feels unworthy of Hall of Fame recognition. He also loses sleep over losses, which stick in his craw much longer than wins.

And he almost feels bad about riding on the coattails of Stockton and Malone.

"I don't want to step in John and Karl's way. They're the ones that did all the work," Sloan said. "I certainly don't want to take anything away from them by me tagging along. I've tagged along for a long time."

Being inducted has some bitter-sweetness for Sloan. In the past year, he lost several of his closest friends and family members who'd likely accompany him in Springfield this week in a heart-wrenching string of deaths. He mourned the losses of his brother, Charles Ralph "Buck" Sloan; his longtime boss, Jazz owner Larry H. Miller; Kerr, his old Baltimore Bullets teammate and Chicago coach; and his Bulls buddy, Norm Van Lier.

Sloan even admitted that he had a "mixed reaction" when he was named to the Hall of Fame last spring right around the same time his brother passed away.

"It was really kind of tough to think about that (honor) at the particular time," said Sloan, who is one of 10 siblings and was especially close with Buck. "Now, I think about all the people ahead of me and all of the people that have done this. It's just a tremendous honor."

Asked if he has extra pride of being enshrined while he's still an active coach, Sloan quickly went into one-liner mode.

"You know that could change any day," he said, chuckling. He's part serious, though, and the fact that 231 coaching hirings and firings have happened elsewhere around the league during his Jazz tenure weighs on his mind. "Look around and see how many times it's changed. I'm just fortunate to have worked here in this organization as long as I have."

The feeling, no doubt, is mutual.

And whenever his career as the Jazz coach comes to an end — whether on his terms or not — there's one thing that can't change any day.

Sloan will always be in the Hall of Fame, where people will smile while reminiscing about his legacy like he does while thinking about the ball he's had since making that ol' cowhide globe hit home as a kid.

e-mail: jody@desnews.com