"Jerry Sloan is the Bulls history. He is Mr. Bull."

Sloan was admired, respected and feared around the NBA.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

Sam Smith pays tribute to "The Original Bull" Jerry Sloan, who's No. 4 hangs in the rafters at the United Center.

Jerry Sloan died Friday. They need to lower the flags here in Chicago for the Basketball Hall of Famer who was enshrined in 2009 for his winning career as Utah Jazz coach. Because Jerry Sloan in his crusty stoicism evoked the spirit and culture of this great city perhaps better than any.

Because Jerry Sloan was about work. Nothing fancy. He wasn't the most talented or the most famous. He didn't possess the seismic natural gifts. The glare of attention didn't come his way. Better than a hard hat, he actually did come to work in a John Deere cap. Sloan's game even resembled a tractor, determined, relentless, austere and reliable.

Jerry Sloan, No. 4, was the first Bulls player to have his number retired. There wasn't much grace associated with Jerry. Unless you delight in watching someone take a charge or charge at Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was the strongest and most feared player of his day. Players ran from Wilt. Jerry ran toward him, leaping in front of Wilt to take a charge and then leaping up in front of a glaring Wilt to challenge, "I'm not scared of you!"

Jerry Sloan made you smile amidst the mayhem.

Many played the game better and were more successful. Though he minimized it publicly, it haunted Jerry into his retirement of failing to win a championship for the Bulls with some of the franchise's greatest and most overlooked teams in the 1970s. He'd say decades later how he regretted not winning a championship "for those fans."

But Jerry was a winner. And he brought such joy in perhaps saving professional basketball for Chicago as an original Bull in 1966. Sloan's pride and passion produced a style of play that celebrated Chicago as few have. It highlighted the soul of the city. Chicago stands for work as much as New York represents finance and Los Angeles glamor. The great labor movements of the 19th Century began in Chicago. The working man finally began to hold his head high and gain some respect in Chicago, the Haymarket Affair and Pullman strike being vital pieces of the bold tapestry of the American labor movement.

Chicago basketball appropriately glorifies Michael Jordan and the 1990s champions, much regarded as among the few best teams in American sports history. That was emphasized with the recent showing of the 10-part Last Dance documentary.

No one will do a documentary of Sloan's 1970s Bulls, a rollicking rambunctious group led by Sloan with Stormin' Norman, Butterbean and Chet the Jet. They had the names if not the fame. They never could get past the giants of the era, Wilt and Kareem, despite seasons with up to 57 victories and brutal and oh-so-close playoff series. But if there were a documentary, it might be titled "Cutting in." Because that's who those guys and Sloan were, the guys who might interrupt the glossy proceedings so the overlooked little guys could have their chance.

You know if the Bulls ever had won that title back then, they'd have been spraying beer all over the locker room.

Champagne! Are you kidding? Gimme a break!

Jerry Sloan's No. 4 retired in the rafters at Chicago Stadium.

Jerry Sloan's No. 4 retired in the rafters at Chicago Stadium.

Sloan, 78, revealed in 2016 he had Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia. Sloan never was one to seek attention, but he said people were asking. So he told Steve Luhm of the Salt Lake City Tribune, "I don't want people feeling sorry for me." That was Jerry. Nothing to see here. Keep moving.

It's what he did, constantly moving from the two-mile walk after morning chores from the Gobbler's Knob farm in rural southern Illinois to the main road where he could hitchhike to the one-room schoolhouse to Dick Motta's early version of the triangle offense. That wonderful Bulls team lacked the talent of a Jordan. Which generally makes the ultimate difference. But there were so many eerie similarities from its impregnable defensive wall to its relentless offensive movement with few plays, the offense mostly responding to defensive actions. It played deliberately featuring the offensive forwards, Chet Walker and Bob Love, because there wasn't a center in Tom Boerwinkle to match the Goliaths of the game. Opponents understood it wasn't just a contest. It was a reckoning to face Sloan and those Bulls.

Because the first introduction was to the ubiquitous guards, Sloan and Van Lier, waiting, in your face, annoying, impatient and uncompromising. They were the scourge of the NBA. I'd love to see Norm's No. 2 up there sometime right beside Jerry's No. 4. Chet's No. 25, also.

Jerry Sloan is the Bulls history. He is Mr. Bull.

He came to the Bulls in the 1966 expansion draft and remained through 1976, the starting shooting guard for 10 opening days, at 6-5 the team's leading rebounder and handing off the Bulls to the modern NBA era. He made a pair of All-Star teams and six all-defensive teams, though individual honors and statistics never was what Jerry Sloan was about.

He isn't among the leaders on many all-time Bulls franchise lists anymore, other than minutes and games played. Though the 6-5 Sloan is fifth alltime in total rebounds. No one else among that top 10 is under 6-8.

He was mostly about being there for his teammates. Like the game against Kareem's favored Bucks shortly before they stopped the Lakers record 33-game winning streak. It was a rare Chicago Stadium home sellout, among just four that season. Jerry's not missing that. Sloan's sister-in-law had died and the funeral was that day in St, Louis. He was a pallbearer. As the team minutes before game time was making plans to play without Sloan, he walked into the locker room. Then he played 44 minutes and led the Bulls to the win with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Chet Walker would remark that day, "Sloan, you've got to be the most dedicated man in the world."

Jerry was, to his family, his players, his teams and especially to the sanctity of the game.

I recall a game when Ricky Davis was trying to get a triple double at the end of a blowout win over the Jazz and shot at his own basket to get a rebound. Sloan had one of his players try to tackle Davis afterward and then said, "I would've knocked him on his a**. You try to embarrass a team after a 20-point lead, you're g*d d*mn right I'd knock him down. They can put me in jail or whatever they want for saying that, but that's the way it is."

Though he was a fierce competitor, Karl Malone wasn't a fighter. Jerry was. There was a time when Kenyon Martin took a cheap shot at Malone, who didn't respond much. Sloan did, charging at Martin and being restrained. You always wanted Jerry Sloan on your side.

Jerry was the guy media most loved. He also was something of an ink stained wretch, an old shorthand for newspaper writers. Because after games when the coaches would wander off to the cocktail hours it was Jerry—also Rudy Tomjanovich, the pride of Hamtramck—who'd join the writers with pitchers. Not that the writers were more interesting. They just hung out with the factory workers. Jerry didn't suffer fools, and he wasn't about trying to fool you.

On road trips, he most enjoyed shopping for old tractors. Some guys collected phone numbers. Jerry collected old farm tractors, dozens stored back in his farm in McLeansboro. So revered was Sloan with those early Bulls they'd have the league allow the team to schedule regular season games in Evansville, where Sloan led the small college team to a pair of national titles after finding the U. of Illinois and Southern Illinois just too big. Jerry went home to be with his high school sweetheart, Bobbye, who died in 2004. And to pursue his life's fate, if not dream, working on an oil rig. But Bobbye got him back to basketball and Evansville.

Just ready to work. Jerry's dad died when he was four, so he had to run things. He ran in many ways, especially on the basketball court. There was a story about Sloan's mother, Jane, after Jerry's team lost a high school playoff game. Moms weren't in the stands then. There were chores. "How had you done?" she asked that next morning of Jerry. "Lost," he replied. "You must not have worked hard enough," she responded. It also was a Sloan family tradition.

Jerry Sloan was a two-time All-Star as a Bull and made All-Defensive First Team four times..

Jerry Sloan was a two-time All-Star as a Bull and made All-Defensive First Team four times.

It burned at Jerry he never was able to win that NBA title, either as a player and then the two excruciating losses to the Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 Finals. He'd quietly lament how unfulfilling it was. Still, he stood proud and defiant. I loved when the Jazz got down to the Bulls in some of those series, especially after that 42-point loss in 1998. Sloan would smile and say he was excited because he was anxious to see how the players responded. You knew how Jerry would respond. He imbued that fire and desire in his teammates and players alike. The Jazz would get off the floor in that series to come within a Michael Jordan miracle minute of a seventh game and perhaps that elusive title.

Still, I recall Sloan saying after one of those playoff defeats, "A lot of guys will show their rings to you who didn't have anything to do with winning a championship. There's something to be said for coming back after you lose, for putting yourself on the line, for having the will to try it again and again, for putting every ounce of energy into achieving something after you've fallen short. That's the kind of guys we've always had here."

That's what Jerry Sloan brought to the game and it imbued in others the abilities and desires to raise above their levels, not unlike the demands and depredations we'd see sometimes with Michael Jordan.

Jerry never was the star player. He didn't score much, never averaging 20 points in his playing career. Though he may have invented the concept of being a two-way player. He was earnest at that opening training camp at North Central College in 1966 when he said he hoped to make the team. Nothing ever was givem; it shook be earned. "Some vital parts of the game aren't put in the proper perspective," Sloan once said during his playing years. "Only scorers are considered stars, but they miss the real fun. Playing the game at both ends."

Motta always said he built the Bulls around Sloan even with the scoring stars of Walker and Love. Motta explained about Sloan to inaugural Chicago Tribune Bulls writer Bob Logan: "He holds, he grabs, steps in their toes, anything to slow them down. Jerry goes a little crazy out there. He stands on defense with his arm out like a telephone pole and his hands are like hams. The big bony knee is stuck out to block the other way. Sloan just dares those monsters to win over him."

Sloan was admired, respected and feared around the NBA. The stars of the game detested playing against him because Jerry was just so humble. He wasn't celebrated like they were. But he believed he could compete with them.

"I take a lot of punishment and I don't complain," Sloan once said back then. "But I never step back no matter who tries to run over me."

Chicagoans get overlooked. But they don't step back.

Jerry coached the Bulls for two and half seasons from 1979 through 1982, replaced by his longtime friend and assistant Phil Johnson. They eventually left together for Salt Lake City, where Jerry became one of the winningest coaches in NBA history. He just brought Illinois and Chicago to the Wasatch.

On the WGN broadcasts in the late 60s from those games at the Amphitheater, announcer Don Harris used to extend Jerry's last name into a pair of syllables, "Sal-Own!" Perhaps the inspiration for a TV station's slogan? Jerry Sloan was Chicago's own.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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