SALT LAKE CITY — The disease that’s stealing Jerry Sloan’s memory hasn’t taken his sense of humor. We are in the lobby of a downtown hotel, this week, meeting several others for lunch. I ask if he ever hears from Jeff Hornacek.
“I don’t talk to someone with that kind of money,” he says.
Lewy body dementia (LBD) raises havoc with memory, movement and cognitive ability. Five years after his diagnosis, Sloan’s hand trembles and his recall wavers. But he still can make people smile. When I saw him a few months ago, I asked what he had been doing lately.
“I had my breakfast,” he said.
There is a quiet, sad sweetness about the former Jazz coach these days. The unflinching warrior didn’t choose this silent war. His stance has always been to outwork the enemy. That now involves a daily four-mile walk. But cold weather and a sick dog have sidelined him the last six weeks.
On New Year’s Day he was entirely his old self, his wife Tammy says. But he later went through what both call a "rough” period. There is no medication that can reverse, slow or stop LBD, but there are treatments to ease symptoms.
Sloan has his own remedy. He attends nearly all Jazz home games, sitting with Tammy, a half dozen rows behind the team bench, willingly shaking hands and posing with star-struck fans. He watches all road games on TV.
Life has humbled him, but that happened long before LBD struck. He grew up literally dirt poor in rural Illinois. He lost his father at age 4, his first wife Bobbye to cancer and, shortly after, a brother passed away.
Throughout, he kept his farmer-dry sense of humor. He once conducted interviews a few feet from a luxury sports car, parked inside the Jazz arena. Asked if it was his, Sloan said, “I couldn’t even afford the tires.”
Recently he had difficulty calculating numbers as they shopped for a car. Yet his memory of names and people remains good. He seems embarrassed when asked if he realizes how revered he is in Utah.
“It’s hard for me to react,” he says.
Tammy dotes on him, cooks for him, protects him. Compounding his battle with LBD is Parkinson’s disease, which inhibits motor skills such as fastening buttons, shaving and tying shoes. It takes two hours to get him ready for the day.
Still, Sloan lunches monthly with a handful of people who have known him well. It includes former players, team doctors, scouts, media members and coaches. Mark Eaton, Thurl Bailey and Frank Layden are regulars, as is former Weber State and Utah football coach Ron McBride. Sometimes coaches from visiting teams stop by to express their wishes and respect.
A week ago, Karl Malone flew in for what Tammy calls “a five-hour lunch.” John Stockton calls weekly, and whenever he's in town takes the coach to lunch. Hornacek, who coached after his playing days, met with Sloan outside the Knicks locker room last year. Andrei Kirilenko once wept at practice over differences with Sloan, yet last season walked down the Vivint Arena hallway, one arm draped around him.
“All his former players call,” Tammy says.
Even Deron Williams, whose clashes with Sloan triggered the coach’s retirement, has since praised the longtime coach.
Tammy tries to limit Jerry’s visitors to his good days. She had difficulty getting him to this week’s monthly luncheon. He became confused, thinking she was trying to trick him into getting a haircut.
“No, no,” Jerry,” she kept saying, “We’re taking you to lunch.”
He forgets many things on his daily schedule, but after lunch remembers I had requested an interview.
“Memory is my biggest problem,” he says. “Some days I can’t keep up.”
Sloan’s voice is hoarse and faint, like fine sandpaper on soft wood, but he smiles and nods along with the others as they recount basketball war stories. Someone mentions the night a Houston cab driver vehemently told Sloan the Rockets would destroy the Jazz. Jerry’s reply: “We’re going to kick their (expletive) so bad it will make their noses bleed.”
After lunch, we walk to the lobby to find a seat. I help him zip on his jacket. He has helped others all his life, making young men into grown ones. When someone in the Jazz entourage once disparaged the team’s travel agent, it was Sloan who apologized. That was the gentle side of the flinty farm boy.
Autograph seekers approached him in airports and restaurants, and he always accommodated. Jazz fans felt he personified them: fearless, loyal, unpretentious, hardworking.
He calls himself “the luckiest guy in the world” to have coached the Jazz and been valued by their fans.
“I appreciate the fact that, win or lose, they were always there,” he says.
Sloan coached 18 years with Stockton and Malone in tow. I mention a highlight video I recently saw of them running the break.
“Anybody that plays that hard, they gotta get better,” he says.
Sloan had offers to coach elsewhere. One was when the league expanded into Miami and he was still an assistant. Then-coach Frank Layden told Sloan if he took the job “you can go with my blessing.” But team owner Larry Miller had other plans, telling Sloan he was “99 percent sure” he would someday be the Jazz coach.
“I had a good time working with Frank. You couldn’t work with a better person. I couldn’t work with a better person,” Sloan says. “He was so kind.”
He marvels the Jazz lost 56 games one season, yet neither he nor assistant Phil Johnson was fired.
“Phil and I had a great relationship. Phil is a very smart guy,” he says. “I’m the dummy.”
Sloan says every time he does an interview he is asked if he could coach today’s high-maintenance players.
“In high school, college, pros, I’ve been able to work with everyone that’s not afraid to work,” he says.
Sloan isn’t afraid to work either, even when the enemy is an insidious disease. His ordeal began five years ago this week. He had slipped on the ice outside a restaurant — the same one he now meets in every month — and broke his elbow. Anesthesia and surgery can trigger the dormant condition related to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Neither of the Sloans pretends it’s not a hardship, but they don’t complain.
“Most days it’s up and down,” he says.
As Tammy arrives to take him home, Jerry suddenly remembers I used to jog during road trips with the team, and asks if I still do. It sounds like the same Jerry, though his wife says he has been off his game lately.
Before they leave, I ask if he likes this year’s Jazz.
Behind dark-framed glasses, his eyes kindle.
“I’ll tell you after the season,” he says.
In that moment it’s 1998 again, the Bulls are in town, and the forever coach is vital as he’s ever been.