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David Aldridge

Jerry Sloan was no stranger to having brush-ups with his players over the years.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

Confrontations or not, Sloan's decision to walk was his own

Posted Feb 10 2011 9:16PM

Did Deron Williams have an argument with Jerry Sloan Wednesday that was the final straw, forcing Sloan's resignation?

Yes. But, no.

Nobody was going to tell Jerry Sloan it was time for him to go. He'd know weeks, months, maybe years before anyone else. The great ones always do.

That's why Sloan always was on a year-to-year deal in Utah the last few years, free to come back -- but also free to leave whenever he thought it was time. Every summer, Sloan would return to his farm in McLeansboro, IL -- downstate -- and decide whether he had enough left in the tank to take one more run up the mountain, to try and win that elusive title that he'd been denied for two decades -- shut out by Magic's Lakers, then Michael's Bulls, then Kobe and Shaq's Lakers, then Tim's Spurs. And he'd always come back for another assault.

The tank was too close to empty on Thursday, and so, the 68-year-old Sloan decided that 23 years on Utah's bench was enough. Did he knock heads with with Williams? No question; Sloan was hell on point guards, demanding they run his sets and set the back picks he wanted. But it's hard to believe that a coach as tough and combative as Sloan -- who threw Greg Ostertag off his bench more than once for giving him lip; who fought the late Norm Van Lier out the door and into the hallway in a '60s NBA game when Sloan was in Baltimore; who regularly called his team words I can't reprint here -- would shy away from a fight if he thought he was right.

It seems more likely that Sloan saw the handwriting on the proverbial wall, that he might lose this fight if Williams, whose unhappiness in Utah the past year has been obvious to anyone who asked, decided he could no longer abide playing in Salt Lake City when he became a free agent in 2012. Williams' crack a few weeks ago that Utah has "been running the same plays for 23 years. Why change now?" made his feelings about Sloan's offense clear.

But it's too simplistic to say one altercation in a locker room made the difference.

Williams wasn't just frustrated with Sloan; he's been unhappy with the Jazz's front office for a year, ever since Utah traded guard Ronnie Brewer to Memphis for a 2010 first-round pick instead of signing him to a long-term deal. Williams knew Carlos Boozer had one foot out the door already, but he really was chapped when the Jazz lost both Kyle Korver and surprising guard Wes Matthews in free agency. That the Jazz salvaged the offseason as best as possible by getting Al Jefferson from Minnesota was only half-satisfying, for Jefferson has taken a while to learn the offense and Utah's continuity has been affected.

And the clock was already ticking in Utah, with the Jazz fully aware that with every passing second toward 2012, Williams had more and more leverage.

Sloan knew this, too. And if there's one thing Jerry Sloan is, it's fiercely loyal to the team that has backed him for years and years, throughout the occasionally loud chorus from some that the game had passed him by and that Utah needed a shot in the arm. If his presence was in any way a hindrance to keeping Williams around, he would jump before he was pushed.

The Jazz got off to a sizzling start, but those incredible comebacks during the first half of the season -- Utah overcame 12 double-digit deficits the first two months to win games -- may have masked the problems the players had getting used to each other.

Guard Raja Bell told me last month that part of Utah's problem was that it wasn't getting out and running effectively, and that the guards had to push the ball more.

"If we get up and down early, that gets us off to a good start," Bell said. "Then we can always rein it back it and feed our horses in the paint, and slow it down. But I think it's important for us to maintain that first-quarter pace up, 'cause it makes us run...I think (the big men) do a good job. More than anything, it's the guards, the people with the ball pushing it up. And the bigs usually follow suit. If you come down slow and put it into them, they're fine with that. But if you get up and go, the bigs usually figure out where to go. They'll go with you. So I think it's on us to get out and go."

I asked Williams about that theory.

"I'm trying to push the ball, man," Williams said then. "That's what I'm trying to do. That's what I want to do."

And that was it.

But I believe Sloan when he said he didn't have as much energy as he used to, and that that was enough for him to know it was time to go. Sloan has always been a pro's pro, but he's never claimed to be smarter than he was, and he wasn't a basketball lifer. He'd gotten perspective three decades ago, when he'd accepted the head coaching job at the University of Evansville, his alma mater, in 1977, after his playing career ended. But Sloan changed his mind and never coached a game for Evansville. Later that year, in December 1977, the entire Evansville team and coaching staff was killed in a plane crash. So while Sloan always demanded his team's best effort, he understood that losing wasn't death. Truly, it wasn't.

When I first started coveraging the league -- I actually covered Sloan's first game in Salt Lake City in 1988 -- no one could put away more booze than Sloan. He would sit at a bar and regale you with stories, each funnier than the last, for hours, with his consigliere, assistant coach Phil Johnson. Sloan was what they would call a charming drunk. But he was, often, drunk. A few years ago, he quit drinking and smoking. He did not make a big deal of it. But one of the main reasons he did so was he wanted to change his priorities. Winning never consumed him as much as the pursuit of winning, but even that wasn't as important to him in his later coaching years.

What was important was spending quality time with his wife of 41 years, Bobbye. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, she fought bravely, sending the disease into remission for six years. During that time, Sloan wondered if he should keep coaching -- and every time, Bobbye sent him back up the mountain. Unfortunately, the cancer came back, and in 2004, Bobbye died. So, no, losing a buzzer-beater to the Lakers wasn't going to make Jerry Sloan crazy. (Sloan has since remarried and is by all accounts very happy.)

When Sloan was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, his speech wasn't as notorious as Michael Jordan's, or as funny as John Stockton's. It was a list of thank yous from a guy who never thought he was especially talented, though he was -- Sloan said there were a lot of players better than him in high school, including a lot of girls. Sloan, who rarely showed emotion in public, wept. "This is pretty tough for me," Sloan said then. "This is not something I like to do. But I guess I should get started on it."

So a guy like Sloan, who was closing in on Don Nelson's record for coaching victories -- he had 1,221 -- could walk away quickly, and without a second thought. Maybe he jumped before he was pushed. Given the Jazz organization's sense of omerta, it's unlikely we'll ever get the true story for a long time. But one dustup with a point guard -- one of a hundred, one of a thousand he had over the years with his players -- wouldn't be enough to push out one of the toughest head coaches the NBA has ever produced. Maybe it was just like Jerry Sloan said: coaching is a young man's business, and he isn't a young man any more. Perhaps, it was just time. The great ones know when they're done way before the rest of us.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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