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Utah Jazz: Phil Johnson surprised Jerry Sloan by saying he would go too

SALT LAKE CITY — Lost amid all the shock and talk about Jerry Sloan resigning as Utah Jazz coach and Tyrone Corbin taking over, is the culmination of a basketball relationship that has lasted for nearly 40 years.

Phil Johnson has been by Sloan's side for the past 23 years as a Jazz assistant coach and before that as an assistant under Sloan at Chicago and was even an assistant coach over Sloan when Sloan played for Chicago.

So it made sense that Johnson, who at 69 is six months older than Sloan, would leave when Sloan did, although the two had never discussed the possibility during their long association.

"It really surprised him last night when I said I was going with him," Johnson said. "He said, 'what?' I said, 'I came with you, I'll leave with you.' We haven't really talked about it, but I've thought about it a long time."

It was common knowledge that Johnson had been promised the head Jazz job by owner Larry Miller if Sloan should ever leave.

"I had a couple of chances to leave this organization and Larry called me up and said 'I'll never forget this' and he didn't," a choked-up Johnson said.

Two jobs that Johnson was reportedly a prime candidate for in the past decade were at Milwaukee and Denver.

Johnson wouldn't say who offered him jobs, but did reveal something interesting about a time he was being courted for a job.

"On one of them, John Stockton called up and told me I wasn't moving and Karl (Malone) called the next day and said I wasn't leaving," Johnson said. "Then Larry Miller called me the next day and said two players had called and said I shouldn't go, so I decided not to go."

Then Johnson laughed and said, "I probably wouldn't have gone anyway."

Johnson grew up in southern Idaho and after playing for Utah State, became Dick Motta's assistant at Weber State at age 24. Three years later he took over for Motta and after compiling a 68-16 record with three consecutive NCAA appearances in three seasons, he joined Motta in Chicago.

That's where he first became acquainted with Sloan, a player on the Bulls at the time, although Johnson says they weren't close at that time. It wasn't until later when Sloan invited him to be his assistant at Chicago that the two began their close relationship.

Johnson came to the Jazz to be Frank Layden's assistant in the early 1980s and was replaced by Sloan when he went to Sacramento to be the head coach. When Sloan got the head Jazz job in 1988, Johnson, who had since been let go by the Kings, joined him.

When asked why they've been together so long, Johnson said, "We had very similar backgrounds and that really brought us together. We think a lot alike. We've been very honest with each other over time. He knows exactly where I stand and I know exactly where he stands."

Johnson acknowledged he had aspirations to be the Jazz head coach and joked, "I tried to get Jerry out of here for several years" before saying, "I always thought I might want to do it if Jerry left, to be honest. A couple of times he talked to me about leaving and I thought it might be time. But not now."

When asked what he wanted to be remembered for, Johnson said, "I hope they say I was a good teacher and that I tried to get players to do it the right way."

Johnson said he and his wife, Ann, had no immediate plans on what to do now that he's through with coaching, except for maybe one thing.

"We have a summer home up at Bear Lake that may become a winter home," he said.


— Native of Grace Idaho

— Became head coach at Weber State at age 27 in 1968

— Assistant under Dick Motta at Chicago 1971-74

— Became head coach at Kansas City in 1973 at the age of 32.

— Won NBA Coach of the Year after 1974-75 season.

— After getting let go by Kansas City, joined Jerry Sloan at Chicago in 1979.

— Hired as Jazz assistant in 1982.

— Head coach at Sacramento 1984-87

— Rejoined Jazz as assistant under Sloan in 1988