SALT LAKE CITY — When news of the death of Jerry Sloan was announced on Friday, there was an immediate outpouring of support, condolences and grief from the NBA world. It’s the kind of response you would expect for a man who spent 23 seasons coaching one team, the Utah Jazz, and even more of his life around the game.
The way someone impacts the people closest to them is often the mark of a person. The way they impact people who have little or no connection to them can often say even more.
The way that Jazz fans revere Sloan was not without merit. He lived up to his reputation of being tough but fair, serious but funny, ferocious but gentle and hard-nosed but kind.
On Friday evening, I asked Jazz fans to send me some of their memories of Sloan in order to illustrate what he was like for those who never played with him or for him, and as expected, his qualities shined through in every interaction with his adoring fans.
After Sloan retired in 2011, he continued to attend Jazz games, seated just a few rows back from the floor. One night, Josh Patterson, a 15-year-old fan seated close to Sloan, nervously approached him and asked for a picture. As Patterson’s hands shook trying to get the camera on his phone ready to go, Sloan calmed the young fan, telling him to take his time.
Sloan noticed a basketball photo as the screen saver on Patterson’s phone, told the boy to sit down and spent a few minutes talking hoops.
“I got my picture, and a whole lot more,” Patterson said of the interaction.
I was a naive 15 year old and I’ve always been a proponent of not bugging celebrities because I’m sure they get tired of it. I was at a Jazz/Heat game. My parent encouraged me to go meet him since I was seated next to him. I went up to him and asked for a picture (1/2)— Josh Patterson (@Joshpatty4) May 22, 2020
He kindly said yes. My hands were shaking and he could tell that I was struggling to get the camera on my phone. He told me it’s okay and to take my time. He saw my screen saver of me managing basketball. He told me to sit down and we talked ball for about 5 min. I got my picture— Josh Patterson (@Joshpatty4) May 22, 2020
Ashleigh Jackson never met Sloan, but had also never known anyone else to be the coach of the Utah Jazz.
“The day Jerry retired I was devastated,” Jackson said. “When he would come back to games I would debate going over to shake his hand. I never did, and especially today, I regret that.”
There are more of us who will never meet our idols than there are who will. That doesn’t diminish what they mean to us and it doesn’t mean they didn’t know the impact that they had. Sloan was grateful for Jazz fans and said so many times. Rather than focusing on regret, focus on the joy that Sloan brought to so many gratitude that you were able to witness it.
The day Jerry retired I was devastated. I cried in my apartment for hours. He was the only coach I ever knew to that point. When he would came back to games I would debate going over to shake his hand. I never did, and especially today, I regret that. #ourcoach— Ashleigh Jackson (@justbeingme_aj) May 23, 2020
It probably wouldn’t be a complete Sloan story if not for a touch of humor, and for that I turn to fan David Marshall.
“I am sitting behind [the] Jazz bench, Jerry is just ripping an official with all the colorful language you can imagine,” Marshall said. “The ref says ‘I’d give you a call if you’d treat me like a human’ being. The play continues and Jerry turns to Phil Johnson and says ‘I didn’t know he was human.’”
I am Sitting behind Jazz bench Jerry is just ripping an official with all the colorful language you can imagine. The ref says “I’d give you a call if you’d treat me like a human” being. The play continues and Jerry turns to Phil Johnson and says “I didn’t know he was human.”— David Marshall (@bwfanzzz) May 22, 2020
As many of you know, I’m new to Utah and only came on as the Jazz beat reporter in December. I never knew Jerry Sloan. I knew of him, but not in the way that many of you did.
That said, I’m obsessed with Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction speeches. They’re one of the many unusual things that I’ve become obsessed with over the years as a hoops junkie. I’ve watched every speech I can get my hands on and have rewatched more than is necessary.
Sloan’s Hall of Fame speech is one that I’ve always remembered, and it’s the first thing I think of when I hear his name. Sloan was enshrined in the Hall in 2009. Also in that year’s HOF class was John Stockton and Michael Jordan. As you can imagine, being enshrined along with Jordan can mean being overshadowed a little bit.
I’ll admit I knew very little, if anything, about Sloan 11 years ago, but in the opening minutes of his speech, he said something that caught me and earned my respect immediately.
Sloan spoke about growing up in rural Illinois and attending a one-room school that housed every grade through eighth and having a teacher who was also the basketball coach.
“At that time the boys and girls played on the same team,” Sloan said.
To a girl who grew up loving basketball more than anything, what Sloan said a few moments later meant more than he ever knew.
“Playing on the same team with girls was a true motivator for me,” Sloan said. “I was secretly happy they were not allowed to play once we reached high school because many of them were much better than me. My best friend David Lee had a sister who was on our team and was better than either one of us.”
Here was a man who was an NBA player and had been a professional coach for more than 20 years, was being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame and he wasn’t afraid or hesitant about propping up the skills and equality of girls and women who play the game.
Over the years I’ve of course learned more about Sloan and have come to respect him more, just as anyone else who knows anything about him.
That’s what I’ll remember the most about Sloan. He didn’t have to meet you or even know about you to earn your respect or to make and impact. He did it by just being himself, being tough but fair, serious but funny, ferocious but gentle and hard-nosed but kind.