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The legend of Jerry Sloan still intact in Chicago as former Utah Jazz coach approaches 77th birthday

CHICAGO — Whenever the Utah Jazz were in town to face the Chicago Bulls, as a player, Karl Malone couldn’t help but glance up to notice No. 4 dangling from atop the United Center.

Even with that legendary presence lingering on his Illinois soil, Malone’s head coach Jerry Sloan never used that as a moment to put himself in the spotlight during their 18 seasons together.

“No, no, no. He didn’t have to make it known,” Malone told the Deseret News. “When you’re a student of the game, you already know about it, so he didn’t have to make it known.

“For the longest, people don’t realize this, is that he had the only retired jersey hanging in the rafters,” Malone continued. “So, if you looked around you knew who Jerry Sloan was, but he never made it known. He’s not that kind of person.”

With Sloan’s memory fading, as he approaches his 77th birthday on March 28, that lifelong impact is still felt throughout the league. In the midst of his five-year battle with Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Tammy, confirmed that “he’s had a bad few months” lately, but the Bulls organization continues to recognize him as often as they can.

On Saturday, the Jazz will wrap up their four-game road trip in Chicago after dropping a 117-114 contest to Atlanta on Thursday night, and the Bulls continue to feature Sloan in their introduction video plus their moments in history showcase.

Sloan has been asked on several occasions to come back as a celebrity ball presenter but was never interested in that even when his health was intact.

“They’ve been really great,” Tammy Sloan said of the Bulls. “They have reached out several times in the past but when he was working, he couldn’t do anything like that, and then after he retired a couple years.”

“I know the Bulls have reached out a couple times and they had an anniversary and they wanted to do something and have him come back,” she added. “He has fond memories but it’s not a trip we can make.”

Back in 1978, Sloan’s No. 4 was the first to be retired by the Bulls after being a member of the inaugural team in 1966. Sloan would go on to become a four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team member and two-time All-Star before embarking on a Hall of Fame coaching career where he racked up the fourth-most victories (1,221) in league history.

In January, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich passed him for third all-time in NBA career coaching victories but has often stated that Sloan has always been an inspiration to him. Every time the Spurs roll into Vivint Arena to face the Jazz, Popovich always looks for Sloan to pay respect if he’s in attendance.

“Consistency, mental toughness, no spin on anything,” Popovich said of what he respects about Sloan ahead of the Spurs-Jazz game on Feb. 9. “Just honesty. Fantastic.”

However, Sloan hasn’t been to many home games after Christmas with his health deteriorating fast. Tammy says, “home is a better place for us right now.”

The Bulls' digital/social media team is currently putting together a graphic and story on Sloan for his birthday next week, according to a Deseret News source. They will also tie in a short video mention on their scoreboard when the Bulls host the Portland Trail Blazers on March 27. The plan was to make it closer to his actual birthday, so it wouldn’t have worked for this next Jazz contest.

Chicago Bulls' Jerry Sloan (4) glides between the baseline and Milwaukee Bucks' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) for two points, Feb. 16, 1974, in Milwaukee.
Chicago Bulls' Jerry Sloan (4) glides between the baseline and Milwaukee Bucks' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) for two points, Feb. 16, 1974, in Milwaukee.

As a kid growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Washington Wizards forward Jabari Parker said he was well aware of Sloan’s legacy. He also had a brief tenure with the Bulls this season, but his father, Sonny, was a former NBA player who first imparted knowledge of Sloan and other legendary hoops figures through trivia questions and other strategic methods.

“He wanted to make sure that I knew everything so, yeah, I definitely know Jerry Sloan,” Parker recalled. “He was definitely a neighborhood legend. He played for the Bulls and was one of those first Bulls to ever play.

“My dad watched him and even as a coach, I’ve heard great stories about him because Greg Foster was my coach out in Milwaukee and he was a player for the Utah Jazz during that tenure when they went to championships and stuff so I hear nothing but great things about Jerry.”

Patrick Beverley is another tough-nosed Chicago native playing for the Los Angeles Clippers. Like Sloan, he loves to scrap on defense and still recalls meeting the legendary coach during his pre-draft workout in Utah.

Growing up, though, Beverley admitted to not knowing as much about Sloan’s legacy throughout Chicago but as his knowledge of the game increased, he quickly realized his many accomplishments.

“I learned the impact on the basketball side and the impact that he definitely had here, the respect that he had here,” Beverley said. “I was fortunate to be able to come out of the draft to meet with him when I worked out for the Utah Jazz also. I know very little about him, but I know a lot about him at the same time.

“I’ll definitely keep him in my prayers.”

Sloan currently resides in Salt Lake City, but during the offseason he returns to his big farm in Southern Illinois, where he spends most of the summer. Tammy says he still keeps in touch with the friends that are alive from Illinois because he also served as a Bulls scout, assistant and head coach before being hired as the Jazz’s sideline leader in 1988.

Saturday’s contest against the Bulls will mark the Jazz’s lone trip to Chicago this season and for the ones around the league who aren’t aware of No. 4’s legacy, Malone is here to speak up for his former coach.

“The younger guys might not know who Jerry Sloan is but maybe they know who Karl Malone is and that’s what he meant. He made me who I am,” said Malone, the NBA’s second all-time leader in total points scored. “Enough said. You might not know who Jerry Sloan is but if you look at Karl Malone, that’s who Jerry Sloan is. He made me the person I am and the player I am.”