Utah Jazz Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan took the franchise to the next level. Here’s how the no-nonsense coach will be remembered
SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Sloan, the tough, no-nonsense coach who guided the Utah Jazz through their glory years, died Friday at the age of 78.
In the fall of 2015, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, both contributing factors in his death.
Sloan was head coach of the Jazz for 23 years and led them during the Karl Malone-John Stockton era. His Jazz teams earned 19 playoff berths, six division titles and two appearances in the NBA Finals, where they had the misfortune to meet Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. They lost both series 4-2.
There is a long list of superlatives that could sum up Sloan’s career, but two stand above the others: He was the longest tenured coach in professional sports when he retired abruptly in the middle of the 2011 season and he is the fourth winningest coach in NBA history, with 1,221 regular-season victories in 26 seasons, counting three seasons as head coach of the Bulls.
Sloan coached so long and so successfully that it was easy to forget that he had been a good player — a two-time All-Star who was named to the NBA All-Defensive team six times during his 11-year career. He is one of the few men in professional sports who has had his number hoisted into the rafters of the local arena by two teams for two roles — first, as a player for the Bulls (the first in franchise history to be so honored) and, second, as a coach for the Jazz, whose banner is emblazoned with “1,223” — the total of his regular-season and playoff victories with the Jazz.
In all, Sloan spent 45 years in the NBA as a player, scout, assistant coach and head coach. He also was an assistant coach for the 1996 gold-medal Olympic Dream Team. The one thing that eluded him was a championship.
Sloan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
Sloan reflected the humble, hardscrabble circumstance of his youth, imbued with a work ethic, toughness and pragmatism. He was the youngest of 10 children raised on an Illinois farm. His father died when he was 4, creating more hardships for a family already faced with meager means. They grew and hunted much of their own food.
“He lived in as much poverty as any NBA player,” said his late first wife and high school sweetheart, Bobbye.
In some ways he never fully left that life. Despite fame and million-dollar salaries, he often drove to the arena in an old van, parking it alongside the luxury cars his players drove. Pretentious, he was not. In the offseason he returned to his Illinois farm, rising at dawn each morning to work in the fields in bib overalls or an old Jazz polo shirt. “Nobody does this unless they have to,” Bobbye would tell him. His reply: “It’s cheaper than a psychiatrist.” His old friends said he never changed despite his worldly success.
Once, when asked about Sloan, Frank Layden, the team president at the time, said, “He’s a farmer. He gets up in the morning and says let’s get the job done.”
He could accept losses, but he abhorred, above all, anything less than an intense effort by his players. He talked frequently of his respect for the game and, unlike some of his coaching peers, he refused to sit his star players late in the season to rest them for the playoffs. He reasoned that people paid money to see the players and had to work jobs a lot more difficult than playing basketball, so he put them on the floor.
He demanded discipline, even from a generation of players that wielded power via multimillion-dollar contracts that made them more valuable than coaches. He demanded that players wear their socks four inches high, that their shoes be the same color shoes, that jerseys be tucked and shoes tied, even on the bench. He even dictated where they sat on the bench. Malone, who enjoyed superstar status, once announced he was going to wear black shoes. Sloan told him “not on my team,” and that was the end of that.
While the NBA game drifted increasingly to a selfish, star-oriented, one-on-one game that rewarded scorers, Sloan demanded team play. Former player Matt Harpring once described Sloan as “an old-school coach. We don’t play playground basketball. We pass, cut, move the ball, play tough defense. People think that’s a lost art. ...” Sloan liked to say, “I’m not a me-first coach.”
Sloan might never have thrived as a coach if he had not come to the Jazz and, specifically, to Layden and owner Larry Miller. His first head coaching job had ended badly with the Bulls. In 1981, he was fired midway through his third season despite taking the team to a rare playoff appearance the previous season (years later, his Chicago GM, Rod Thorn, would apologize to Sloan for firing him). As it turned out, the Bulls performed poorly the next three years until Jordan showed up. It’s intriguing to wonder what might have happened if Sloan had still been with the Bulls when Jordan arrived.
Sloan, his feelings hurt (as he would say later), returned to his Illinois home and farmed full time while watching his three children play school sports. After 2½ years out of basketball, he was ready to return to the game. He coached a CBA team in nearby Evansville and then was hired by Layden as an assistant coach. Four years later, Layden elected to become general manager and gave his coaching job to Sloan. Layden had started the rebirth of the Jazz, a previously moribund franchise, but as he graciously put it years later, “I took them as far as I could take them. Jerry took them to the next level ... if you can’t make the sale, turn it over to another salesman to close the deal.”
In Miller, Sloan had the perfect owner to facilitate his success. Unlike his contemporaries, Miller didn’t believe in letting players manipulate teams and coaches with their star power. He gave complete authority to Sloan to coach the team as he wanted. Miller broke with fellow owners in another way as well: Instead of changing coaches when teams slumped, he believed in hiring good coaches and then sticking with them. It brought stability and consistency to the franchise. Sloan and the Jazz thrived for decades, and his longevity was a marvel in a profession where job turnover was the norm.
Sloan had the full support of management to back him up as a coach, but he was also well served by a don’t-mess-with-me aura. He was Clint Eastwood of the hardwoods. Almost no one dared cross Sloan, not even larger, stronger, younger basketball players.
Layden once told reporters, “Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner; at his age, you might even lick him, but you’d lose an eye, an arm, your testicles in the process, everything would be gone. He’s a throwback, a blue-collar guy, a dirt farmer. ... He’s loyal. He’s a hard worker. He’s a man.”
“Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner; at his age, you might even lick him, but you’d lose an eye, an arm, your testicles in the process, everything would be gone. He’s a throwback, a blue-collar guy, a dirt farmer. ... He’s loyal. He’s a hard worker. He’s a man.” — Frank Layden
Sloan once stormed onto the court to confront Pistons bad boy Dennis Rodman after the latter roughed up the Jazz’s smallish guard, Stockton. Rodman egged him on, and Sloan, as Deseret News reporter Brad Rock later recounted, “doubled his fist and drew back, but was restrained by assistant coaches.” After the game — after he had slapped away Rodman’s hand in an attempted postgame handshake — Sloan told reporters, “It’s a part of the coach’s job and sometimes it can get ugly, looking out for your players.”
One reporter echoed the sentiment of many when he said, “Anytime they want to let Rodman and Sloan go at it, I know where my money is. And it wouldn’t be a long fight. I saw Jerry Sloan play. He didn’t get his reputation for nothing.”
As a player, the 6-foot-5 Sloan was legendary for his physical, aggressive, go-to-the-floor style of play, especially on defense. His attitude was reflected in one incident. Sloan attempted to take a charge by stepping in front of 7-foot Wilt Chamberlain during a Bulls-Lakers game in L.A. “Step out in front of me again and I’m going to run over you,” Chamberlain snapped. Sloan replied, “I’ll be right here. You can’t do anything more than stomp on me.”
During his playing career, Sloan collected numerous broken bones, pulled muscles, floor burns and bruises. His nose was broken so many times that he stopped getting it fixed. His elbow required surgery after years of slamming it into the court. He once popped a pelvic tendon, and the noise was so loud that Bobbye ran out of the stands onto the court. “He was in the hospital so many times,” Bobbye said. His knees were drained more than 20 times. He tried to come back from knee surgery for a 12th season, but the damage was too extensive. As Bobbye recounted, “The team physician used to tell him, ‘You know you’re going to pay for this.’”
And he did. In later years, most of his joints became arthritic. Much to his regret, he had to give up recreational running and settle for daily walks because of his knees. He couldn’t even straighten his elbows — both were locked at an angle.
He left the game reluctantly. Basketball had been a lifeline to the world for a shy, quiet farm kid. He signed to play basketball for the University of Illinois, but lasted only a few weeks before he returned, feeling homesick and lost on the big campus. After working in the oil fields, he agreed to play for the University of Evansville, an hour’s drive from his home.
He led Evansville to two NCAA Division II titles, capped by a 29-0 season during his senior year, and was a second-team All-American and the sixth overall pick of the 1965 NBA draft.
Sloan’s potential as a coach was spotted early. As Sloan told the Deseret News years later, “My college coach (Arad McCutchan) told me when I was a sophomore that he wanted me to come back and take his place after I’d played 10 years in the NBA. I thought, the guy’s half crazy. I was still wondering if I could play in college. As it turns out, that’s what happened. I did replace him.”
After retiring from the NBA, Sloan agreed to replace his old coach at Evansville, but five days later he changed his mind. A year later, the Evansville team was killed in a plane crash, including Sloan’s replacement, Bobby Watson. Sloan was hired for a year as a scout for the Bulls and then became an assistant coach and finally the head coach, starting a career that would end in Salt Lake City three decades later.
Sloan once allowed that people had always told him he was an intimidating man — he said this with a shrug, as if it perplexed him — but Bobbye described him as soft-hearted and sentimental in their home life and nothing like the tough man people would have expected. They raised three children together.
Bobbye, his wife of 41 years, died of cancer in 2004 at the age of 61. Sloan married Tammy Jessop in 2006 and, after retiring from the Jazz, settled in Utah, the place where he’d twice brought the hometown team to within two games of a world championship.