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Fran Blinebury

For more than two decades, the Utah Jazz did their best to mirror the hard-nosed approach of Jerry Sloan.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Sloan leaves Jazz as epitome of consistency

Posted Feb 10 2011 6:56PM

Jerry Sloan grew up on a farm in McLeansboro, Ill. So he always knew there was a time to take the crops in.

That it came this week instead of last week, today rather than tomorrow, is irrelevant.

"You do it 'til they don't want you anymore," Sloan once said. "Or it stops being fun."

In this case, probably more than a little bit of both.

Maybe it was halftime of Wednesday night's home loss to the Bulls, following a locker room clash with star guard Deron Williams, when Sloan stopped hearing the calliope music inside his head and decided to resign as coach of the Jazz.

Or perhaps it was when he agreed to a one-year contract extension through next season, but cautioned that it didn't necessarily mean he'd be around next season.

After 23 seasons standing, stomping and screaming in front of the Jazz bench, the 68-year-old Sloan was aware of the nearing expiration date stamped on his carton, but it never changed his demeanor or affected his style.

How much has the league, the game, the world changed in the time that he's been stalking those rabid sidelines in Salt Lake City?

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 40 current NBA players were not even born when Sloan succeeded Frank Layden as coach of the Jazz on Dec. 9, 1988 and began carving out a plain-spoken, no-excuses legacy that is not likely to be matched.

"My time is up. It's time to move on," Sloan said through tears at the official news conference. "I thought about it a few days ago. It just seemed like this was the time to do it.

"I only have so much energy left. My energy level dropped off a bit....Let's move forward. That's the only thing I can tell you.

"I've had confrontations with players since I've been in the league, a number of guys. But those things are minor as far as going forward."

What was major is the impact that Sloan had on stabilizing the Utah franchise, establishing the Jazz as a perennial playoff team, and forging a common identity with his bookend superstars Karl Malone and John Stockton. Both are among the greatest players in the history of the game. Both are with Sloan in the Hall of Fame.

More than any of that, both are reflections of his respect for an honest effort.

"It's showing up every day and putting the best into whatever you are doing that tells who you are," Sloan said.

That's the simultaneously majestic and simple description of the Jazz under Sloan: workers.

The durable Malone played in 80 or more games in 17 of the 18 seasons he was with the Jazz. Stockton played in all 82 games in 16 of his 19 NBA seasons.

What all three shared was the empty feeling of having never reached the pinnacle of winning a championship, though coming agonizingly close with back-to-back losses to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 1997 and 1998.

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

"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 just gonna work as hard today and tomorrow. That's all I care about. I want to know if you still can pick yourself up and do it again."

For more than two decades, his teams always did.

"People always ask me what's changed over the years," said Sloan's longtime assistant and friend Phil Johnson, who also resigned. "We all evolve. We mature. 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's was a style that ran up a 1,221-803 career coaching record, making him the third-winningest coach in the NBA as his 23 years on the job with the Jazz made the him the longest-tenured coach in American professional sports. Yet somehow he was never named Coach of the Year.

"Hell, that's the kiss of death," he always chuckled. "They give that to you and then usually fire you a year or two later."

His was a philosophy that was cultivated from seedlings out of that hardscrabble upbringing as one of 10 farm kids raised by a single mother in McLeansboro, who rose at 4:30 a.m. to do his chores, walked 1 miles and then hitch-hiked the rest of the way to school so that he could arrive for 7 a.m. basketball practice.

His was an innate, relentless drive that, early in his rookie NBA season as a player with the Bulls, had him showing up at Chicago Stadium at 4:30 p.m. for a home game, getting his ankles taped and was fully dressed in uniform and sitting at his locker when head coach Dick Motta arrived at the arena. Motta told Sloan to get a hobby.

That drive took him through an 11-year playing career, a stint with the Bulls as head coach that got him fired and then a run of nearly a quarter century in charge of the Jazz, never taking anything for granted.

"I entered every day knowing this could be my last day," Sloan said. "I know that sounds corny. I'm a corny guy."

A plain-spoken farmer at heart, who just knew when it was time to rotate the crops.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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