Posted Apr 2 2010 11:41AM
There are no excuses for not trying.
That's as deep as you need to go to get to the essence of Jerry Sloan.
Way back in the middle of November, after the Utah Jazz had stumbled out of the starting blocks 4-6, their coach perched comfortably on the courtside press table following a morning shootaround and was calmer than a Hindu cow.
"When they all decide they want to work harder, do all of the right things, eliminate the mistakes and play together, things will turn around," Sloan said. "It's pretty simple, really."
There are no complicated offensive systems, no stacks of sabermetric numbers, no high-fallutin' philosophies to explain the way Sloan coaches basketball.
Play smart. Play hard.
"It's the only way I know," Sloan says with a shrug.
Sloan's way has been working now for 22 years in Utah and maybe never better than this season, when he's kept the Jazz from jumping off the tracks and turned them into an unlikely force near the top of the Western Conference standings.
The win over Golden State on Wednesday night marked the 13th time that one of Sloan's Jazz teams has won 50 games in a season. This will be the 19th time in his tenure that Utah will be in the playoffs. With the regular season heading into the homestretch, the Jazz could be the No. 2 seed in the West (which is where they sit today).
Who thought that was coming the way this season began amid questions and injuries and controversy? And that was only Carlos Boozer.
After a summer when Boozer and the Jazz organization didn't seem to be reading from the same book, let alone on the same page, as the power forward's views and intentions on free agency changed, the atmosphere was almost toxic inside EnergySolutions Arena when Boozer started slowly due to a nagging knee injury.
The Jazz were already playing without Matt Harpring, their bull in the china shop who was forced to retire after his body simply broke down. Shooter Kyle Korver has struggled for much of the season following knee surgery for bone spurs and has just returned to form. There have been times when All-Star Deron Williams, center Mehmet Okur and lately forward Andrei Kirilenko have been ailing and out of the lineup.
What's more, a Jazz team that needed depth more than ever wound up trading away a pair of young guards -- Eric Maynor to Oklahoma City and Ronnie Brewer to Memphis -- in the middle of the season strictly for financial reasons.
"What are you gonna do, cry about it?" Sloan asked.
It has long been Sloan's mantra that you learn far more about a player after a loss than following a win. It was most definitely time for self-discovery up and down the roster when the Jazz lost three times in their first four games of 2010 to fall to 19-17, looking like little more than a mediocre team that was running in place.
But since that time, the Jazz have stood up, going on a 31-9 tear that has enabled them to overtake the Denver Nuggets for the Northwest Division lead. They're tied with Dallas in the Western Conference for the No. 2 seed, but hold the tie-breaker over them.
They are a team that is a reflection of its coach, a guy who likes to work with basketball and play with tractors back on his southern Illinois farm in the offseason. You keep plowing the fields, planting the seeds and figure that something will grow.
There was a fuss made the other night when Sloan's Jazz and Don Nelson's Golden State Warriors met up. The number of games the two had won -- 2,517 -- was the most ever for two coaches in one NBA game. Nelson (1,330) needs three more to pass Lenny Wilkens as the all-time winningest coach in league history. Sloan (1,187) is in fourth place.
While their longevity is a marvel, the pair of dinosaurs might as well come from different ends of the earth. The peripatetic Nelson has racked up his total bouncing all over the NBA map, building teams with unusual lineups, an unorthodox style and often becoming the center of attention. Meanwhile Sloan has stayed put for more than two decades in the same place, winning 1,093 games with the Jazz -- the most ever by any coach with a single franchise -- with a style that is as hard and plain as concrete. He's never once been named Coach of the Year.
"I've never thought about records or anything like that when I've been in coaching, never thought about those things when I played," Sloan told the media in Salt Lake City. "I think those things just happen, and you go on about your business."
The Jazz business now is no different than in the heyday of Karl Malone and John Stockton, according to their coach. No different than back in those struggling days of November, when Jerry Sloan and his Jazz might have figured it was going to be a long, difficult climb from a 4-6 start.
But there are no excuses for not trying.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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