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Jerry Sloan has coached the Jazz for the past 21 seasons.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Utah's Sloan embodies relentless work ethic of his team

By Fran Blinebury, for
Posted Sep 11 2009 9:32AM

Some people, it is said, are an open book.

Jerry Sloan doesn't even have a cover.

"I'm just another guy," he says with a shrug, stretching his arms out and turning his palms up. "What's to know?"

There's plenty to know about the man who has been on the job longer than any other coach or manager in American professional sports. But none of it's very complicated or far from the roots of Sloan, who grew up on a farm in southern Illinois.

"As a guy, he's kind of that laid back, Midwestern piece of red meat, a boat-on-the-lake-and-a-beer-in-hand-and-he's-happy type," veteran guard Derek Fisher once said.

As a coach, Sloan simply believes in sinking his teeth into that red meat and never letting go.

With all of the games he has coached for the Utah Jazz over the past 21 seasons (1,859) and all of the career victories (1,137) -- which have moved him into fourth place on the NBA's all-time list, behind Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson and Pat Riley -- you can ask Sloan for a favorite memory and it won't be anything that happened under the bright lights of a crowded arena.

"In 19 years, John Stockton never once lost a suicide drill in practice," Sloan said. "Well, there was one day. He was sick. But he still ran it. That's the important thing.

"John didn't need all the attention that comes with making All-Star teams or getting his name into headlines. He just loved to compete."

Which is a line the 67-year-old Sloan could have printed on his business card ... if he believed in carrying such a thing.

The combinaton (from left) of Karl Malone, Jerry Sloan and John Stockton helped the Jazz hum along for years.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Now he can add another line: Hall of Famer.

"It's really flattering for me to be involved in it," Sloan said of his selection. "It wasn't something that I'm about or tried to be about as far as playing and coaching. Just try to do your job and go home and get ready to go again. That's about it. I don't need the recognition, really.

"I don't know what else to say. Obviously, when I look at my career, I've been around a long time. But we've never won a championship or any of those things. So I'm amazed.

"I've thought back a lot. I think back to coach (Dick) Motta, whose teams I played on for eight years. He coached at every level. He won a world championship with the Washington Bullets. He had a different kind of career because he took on some bad teams and made them better. So I see a guy like that and I wonder why he's not there in place of me. I just happened to be lucky from a coaching standpoint to have some competitive teams."

For 18 seasons, Stockton and Karl Malone were the on-court extensions of Sloan's own personality, a pair of Hall of Famers who shared their coach's mentality for showing up every day and doing their jobs. They twice went to the NBA Finals, losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1997 and 1998.

"Were we disappointed that we didn't win those?" Sloan said. "Sure, but I didn't feel bad. If you go and you play and you put everything into it, there's never any reason to feel bad.

"Hell, John and Karl would have liked to have won as much as anybody that ever played the game. But you have to be realistic and fair and honest about it. There's another team that's pretty good, too. That's just the way it is.

"To me, the toughest part is not the losing. It's coming back after you've lost and seeing who you are then. That's the most critical thing to me. A lot of guys say, `Oh, well, I tried. It's not quite as important anymore.' I just want to know if you're gonna work as hard today and tomorrow. That's all I care about."

He has been criticized at times by Jazz fans for being unbending, unchanging, single-minded. But it never shows in that soft, away-from-the-court voice that has the slightest hint of a drawl. The late Larry Miller was always one of the most publicly visible, temperamental, emotional owners in the NBA, which made it even more surprising that he never wavered on Sloan. Instead, Miller who died of complications from diabetes on Feb. 20, steadfastly backed Sloan and often campaigned for him to get Coach of the Year, an award that the new Hall of Famer has never won.

"Aw, that's the kiss of death anyway," Sloan said. "They give it to you one year and two years later they fire you."

From the days when Frank Layden laid the foundation for the franchise in Salt Lake City and Sloan was his assistant, the Jazz always have had the head coach as the center of their universe and sought players who could fit in. Phil Johnson was named Coach of the Year in 1974-75 with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings but has spent more than two decades as Sloan's right-hand man in Chicago and Utah.

"People always ask me what's changed over the years," Johnson said. "We all evolve. We matured. But the major things have not changed with Jerry. His consistency is probably the key to all of his success.

"The basic philosophy and premise of how we want to play and how we want players to act, both on and off the court, has not changed."

Sloan married Bobbye, his high school sweetheart, and buried her 43 years later. He missed only a handful of games when her cancer was diagnosed for the second time in January 2004. Coaching was his escape. Now he has a new marriage to Tammy and the same principles.

There have been players through the years who have not been able to cope with Sloan's philosophy and personality, and they have moved on. There are some on his current team who might find him pricklier than a cactus. But they comply because they know he is genuine and know he can make them win.

"By far, the strictest coach I've ever had," the 25-year-old Deron Williams said. "I don't think I'll ever get used to it. But it is what it is. What can you do? He's the boss man."

Most of his players will go on to tell you what they like about playing for Sloan is that, at the core, all he expects of them is to be responsible and act like men. That ethic comes from being one of 10 farm kids raised by a single mother in McLeansboro, Ill., where Sloan rose at 4:30 a.m. to do his chores, walked 1 1/2 miles and then hitch-hiked the rest of the way to school so he could arrive for 7 a.m. basketball practice. It's the same guy who, as a young NBA player with the Chicago Bulls, arrived at 4:30 p.m. for his first home game, had his ankles taped and was sitting fully dressed in uniform at his locker when Motta arrived at the arena. Motta told Sloan to get a hobby.

He stayed close to home to play college ball at Evansville, where he led the Purple Aces to a pair of NCAA Division II national championships, including a perfect 29-0 record in 1965.

"Before I had ever played a single game for Evansville, my college coach, Arad McCutchan (Hall of Fame, 1981) told me, 'Ten years from now or whenever you get finished playing professional basketball, I'd like for you to come back and be the coach at Evansville,' " Sloan said. "That ended up happening."

But a short time after accepting the job, Sloan resigned. He never coached a single practice. That abrupt change of heart likely saved his life. On Dec. 13, 1977, just 90 seconds after takeoff, the charter flight carrying 29 members of the Purple Aces basketball team and staff crashed amid the rain and fog at the Evansville airport and everyone aboard was killed, including Bobby Watson, who replaced Sloan as head coach.

"So basketball is here one day and gone the next," Sloan said. "I was blessed. I went back there to coach and it quickly looked like one of those things that weren't going to work out, so we left. And I end up still alive."

Now, more than three decades later, he is a living fixture in Utah and in the NBA.

"Coaching wasn't something that I thought of a great deal," Sloan said. "As a player I was worried about playing rather than trying to coach. Once I got involved in coaching I realized how little I know about the game.

As a player for the Bulls in the 1960s and 70s, Jerry Sloan made his name with hard-nosed defense.
NBA Photos

"It's just kind of strange being in one place as long as I've been and not being fired. I lost 56 games one year and still was able to keep my job. I was blessed to be able to work for an organization that was able to look beyond some of those things and kept me around.

"I've really had terrific coaches to work with. Phil Johnson has been my assistant coach all through my career, a great coach and a great friend. It's a fun thing to look back on --- the coaches, the fun players we've had, the great players, some that weren't great, but always seemed to play hard for us. Those are the things that stick out in your mind.

"A lot of guys have succeeded in this business because of effort. And a lot of players have failed because of a lack of it. Really, I just love to see guys compete."

He expects his players to live up to his standards and makes no excuses when they don't. Two seasons ago, when the Jazz were booed at home during a dismal loss to the Phoenix Suns, Sloan understood.

"I've always felt if they boo, they have a right to boo you," he said. "They're trying to tell you something. They expect more. I've argued with players on that for years, even in my playing days.

"To me, that's when you find out what you're made of. If they boo, you can curl into the fetal position and say, `I'm not supposed to be booed. I'm this, and I'm that.' Or you can do something about it."


Jerry Sloan, the Hall of Famer, chuckles.

"Of course," he said, "I've always been a little different."

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