Posted Mar 18 2011 10:07AM
Spend 22-plus years in a relationship and you might wind up with some nice anniversary gifts.
What Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson have are more than two decades of highs and lows, ups and downs, ins and outs and more than 2,000 trips around the NBA block together that add up to more than an impressive win-loss record.
They were alternately describing each other and not-so-coincidentally themselves.
Now there's one more trait they share: Retired.
Sloan stunned the basketball world on Feb. 10 by resigning from his job as head coach of the Utah Jazz and Johnson, his top assistant, surprised Sloan by walking out the door with him.
Johnson's decision wasn't in protest, but simpatico. After all, for those many years they shared the same locker room, the same bench, the same way of looking at basketball and life.
"Straightforward," Johnson said.
"Just do your job," Sloan said.
For 23 seasons in the saddle, they were Butch and Sundance without the bank robberies and Bolivian army, a pair of kindred spirits who could practically finish each other's thoughts and even seemed to share the same body clock.
"A few years back, Jerry lived in a condominium not far from my house," Johnson said. "We never called each other on the phone to coordinate anything. But almost every day when I'd get in my car to go to work, we'd both get to the same corner at the same time."
"Yup," Sloan chuckled. "We pulled into the parking lot at Energy Solutions Arena so many times together that people might have thought we were following one another."
Now five weeks after the blockbuster announcement -- and three weeks after the trade of All-Star point guard Deron Williams to New Jersey -- the Jazz are 5-10 in their absence and struggling to get back into the Western Conference playoff picture. But for the first time in roughly half a century, neither Sloan nor Johnson is on the inside of the game that shaped their lives.
"I guess you could say I'm piddlin' around," Sloan said from his farm in McLeansboro, Ill. "It's something that I've really wanted to do for a long time, but never could because of the basketball season. Now I'm back with no schedule, no timetable, getting to spend time with family and friends."
Sloan jokes that his 2,000 acre farm "is so poor that rabbits have to carry their lunch across it." But the truth is it is rich in the life experiences that formed his playing and coaching careers and would eventually forge the bonds with Johnson.
"He grew up in southern Illinois and I grew up in southern Idaho, both farming areas," Johnson said. "Not a lot of money and stuff, a lot of the same background."
Their working relationship actually dates back four decades when Johnson coached Sloan as an assistant under Dick Motta for the Chicago Bulls from 1971-74.
"I can't say I got to know Jerry well then," Johnson said. "He was an intense guy and concentrated entirely on his career and making himself the best player he could be."
Despite the fact that Sloan is the only coach in NBA history to win more than 1,000 games with the same franchise, Johnson is the one with the lone Coach of the Year Award (1975) between them for his stint with the KC/Omaha Kings. When he was fired by the Kings in 1978, he went to work as Sloan's assistant in Chicago, then moved to become an assistant in Utah, then returned to the Kings as head coach for nearly three years in Sacramento.
They were reunited in Utah when Sloan succeeded Frank Layden as coach of the Jazz in December 1988. By then they had both been fired as head coaches and so they shared those scars.
But it was more than mutual commiseration that kept them working side-by-side for 23 seasons. They took the Jazz to the playoffs 15 straight seasons and 19 times in 23 years. They took the Jazz to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. They kept the small-market Jazz consistently in the elite echelon of the NBA with a basic pick and roll offense and rarely doubling man-to-man defense that were beautiful for their simplicity and effectiveness.
"People say 'same old offense,'" Johnson said. "So how come it worked? And how come about eight different teams copied it?"
"I believe in using what works," Sloan said.
They used each other to shape game strategies and opinions and to keep each other motivated and sharp.
Why did a keen basketball mind such as Johnson never pursue another job as a head coach? He was voted by the league's general managers as the NBA's top assistant coach four different times. Quite simply, there weren't many that offered him as much responsibility and challenge that Sloan allowed.
Then there was the one time that a team made overtures.
"The next morning John Stockton calls me and says, 'You're not leaving,'" Johnson said. "Then Karl Malone calls and says, 'You're not leaving.' Then (team owner) Larry Miller calls me and says two players had called him and said I shouldn't go. So I decided not to go.
"The truth is I probably wouldn't have gone anyway," Johnson said. "But Larry Miller told me, 'Phil, I'll never forget this.' And he didn't. There has always been something special with the Jazz and working with Jerry. But, yeah, we used to occasionally talk about my leaving. It just never seemed like the time."
They'd chat after practices, after games, on the long flights that are part of the NBA existence.
"It's been a great relationship," Johnson said. "A lot of loyalty. But not blind loyalty. I was always allowed to have my opinions and to have my say."
"Definitely, it wasn't a 'yes-man' kind of thing," Sloan said. "I didn't want that and Phil would never have done that. Oh, Phil told me when he thought I was wrong, plenty of times. I listened. Then I made my decisions. I was the head coach. But he was someone who knows a lot of basketball and someone I trusted and respected. I think that's what made it work.
"Why didn't he ever leave? Hell, I don't know. He sure could have."
Johnson used to think about replacing Sloan on the sidelines if the boss ever stepped aside. But Sloan kept on going and going. Then the talk turned to who would leave first.
"Jerry would say, 'I'm not sure I can do this anymore' and then I'd say, 'I'm not sure I can do this anymore,' " Johnson said. "Then we'd shrug and go on."
Until that one day in February.
There was no breaking point, they say. There was no single incident or player that made the decision. They won't lay the blame on Williams' doorstep and don't want anyone else to make that mistake.
Now the Jazz are a different team.
"Ty Corbin will do fine," Sloan said. "He's been working hard to prepare for this. He's got Scott Layden with him. They'll get things turned around and going right.
"I follow the league by keeping up with the scores on TV. Don't get much in way of newspapers here on the farm. I haven't watched any games."
Johnson, who still lives in suburban Salt Lake City, goes to the health club for workouts and keeps a comfortable distance from the league.
The two men who were practically joined at the hip for more than two decades haven't stayed in constant contact talking about what they did, where they went or how they did it.
"It'll happen," Jerry Sloan said.
"I'm sure we'll eventually get together," Phil Johnson said.
Maybe just arrive again one morning at the same corner.
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