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'Jerry Sloan was a warrior': Remembering the life and legacy of the legendary Utah Jazz coach
Jerry Sloan, the Hall of Fame coach who spent 23 seasons at the helm of the Utah Jazz, died in the early hours of Friday, May 22, 2020, at his Salt Lake home. He was 78.
“Jerry Sloan will always be synonymous with the Utah Jazz,” the team said in a statement. “He will forever be a part of the Utah Jazz organization and we join his family, friends and fans in mourning his loss. We are so thankful for what he accomplished here in Utah and the decades of dedication, loyalty and tenacity he brought to our franchise.”
Sloan died of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, diseases he’d been fighting since at least 2015.
It was an honor and a privilege to have one of the greatest and most respected coaches in NBA history coaching our team,” Jazz owner Gail Miller and her family said in a statement. “We have appreciated our relationship with Jerry and acknowledge his dedication to and passion for the Utah Jazz. He has left an enduring legacy with this franchise and our family. The far-reaching impact of his life has touched our city, state and the world as well as countless players, staff and fans. We pray his family will find solace and comfort in Jerry’s life and it is with much gratitude, yet sadness, that we honor him at his passing.”
Sloan is survived by his wife Tammy and his children Dr. Brian Sloan (Leslie), Holly Sloan Parish (Tim), Kathy Sloan Wood (Todd), and Rhett Jessop.
“Like Stockton and Malone as players, Jerry Sloan epitomized the organization. He will be greatly missed. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Tammy, the entire Sloan family and all who knew and loved him,” the Jazz said.
Sloan was born on March 28, 1942 in McLeansboro, Ill. The youngest of 10 children, Sloan learned principles that would one day turn him into a relentless defender and later one of the greatest coaches in NBA history—nothing is given, it is only ever earned.
“At the end of the day, he could look back and nobody gave him anything,” said Karl Malone, who became a Hall of Fame forward under Sloan. “He earned everything he got.”
Sloan’s father died when Sloan was just four years old. As a boy, he grew up working the family farm in the morning, hitchhiking to school, studying and dedicating himself to basketball.
During high school, Sloan met Barbara Lou Irvin. Jerry and “Bobbye” would marry in 1963 and raise three children together during their 41 years of marriage before her passing in 2004.
At Evansville College, Sloan led the Purple Aces to two Division II national championships while earning All-American honors three times.
He was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets with the fourth overall pick in the 1965 NBA Draft. The next year, the expansion Chicago Bulls tabbed Sloan to be the franchise’s first player, earning him the nickname “The Original Bull.” During his playing days, Sloan was known as a hard-nosed competitor and one of the game’s best defenders.
That’s what stood out to Jazz vice president of player personnel David Fredman when he met Sloan for the first time. Fredman grew up in southern Illinois and had been following Sloan since his high school days.
In 1974, Fredman was working for the New Orleans Jazz. He watched the Chicago Bulls, led by Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan, bully Jazz star Pete Maravich on the court.
“They were knocking Pete around. Knocking him down. If a foul was called, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you put a dress on him?’” Fredman recalled. “Then I met him in the locker room after the game. I introduced myself, and he couldn’t have been nicer.”
That was Sloan. Ferocity on the court, tenderness off it. A combination that endeared him to countless coaches, friends and players during his Hall of Fame career.
“I don’t care who you are, if you know anything about basketball, you know Jerry Sloan was a warrior,” said Frank Layden, Sloan’s predecessor in Utah. “He played his heart out.”
Sloan played 11 seasons in the NBA, averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds a game and was a two-time All-Star selection before a knee injury forced him into retirement. The Bulls would later retire his No. 4 jersey, the first such honor in franchise history.
In 1977, Sloan was named the head coach of his alma mater, Evansville, but resigned just a few days later, citing personal reasons. Later that year, the entire Evansville basketball team and coaching staff died in a plane crash.
“That … made me realize that there are a lot more things more important than basketball,” Sloan said during his 2009 Hall of Fame address. “But I love this game. I will always be grateful for what it has given me.”
Sloan, though, would be the first to tell you that the game gives you only what you earn.
“Eighteen guys go to camp; eighteen guys fight for a job,” Sloan once said. “You are not given one.”
Sloan earned the job of head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1979 but was fired after going 94-121 in his first 2 ½ seasons. Sloan earned a spot on the Jazz bench in 1984, coaching as an assistant under Layden. And when Layden resigned in the middle of the 1988 season, Sloan took over the reins as the sixth head coach in Jazz history.
“I think that Jerry’s work ethic was infectious. His reputation preceded him,” Layden said. “Everybody knew Jerry was a tough guy. But what they didn’t see was Jerry was a very balanced human being. He knew when the guys needed a day off. He knew when a player needed to be chewed out or be patted on the back. That’s what coaching is about. It’s about relationships. You could see the players we had and they were going over to Jerry to see what he thinks, I knew he had their trust.
“We had to take another step, and I knew Jerry could do that. And he did. He took us to a level I couldn’t.”
Over the next 23 seasons - an NBA record for coaching tenure with a team - Sloan and the Jazz would become synonymous with one another. The coach led the franchise to 1,223 victories, 19 trips to the playoffs, and two trips to the NBA Finals.
“His teams embodied as close as you can get to perfection offensively,” said Hall of Famer Pat Riley. “I mean, they would cut you up.”
Former Jazz assistant coach Gordon Chiesa recalled Sloan’s words in a heartbroken locker room after the Jazz lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1996 Western Conference Finals.
“In that moment, I remember Jerry saying, ‘We’ll be back here,’” Chiesa recalled. “And Jerry’s word and his handshake were better than any legal contract. When he said to you, ‘It’s going to get done,’ it was going to get done.”
The next season, Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton’s buzzer-beater in Houston sent the team to its first NBA Finals.
“These guys have been criticized the last few years for not getting to where we’re going, but I’ve always said the most important thing in sports is to keep trying,” Sloan said afterward. “Let this be an example of what it means to say it’s never over.”
Sloan developed a special bond with Jazz fans, the state and, especially, his players.
“He was a get your nose in there, get it busted, wipe it off and go back and do it again kind of guy,” said former Jazz center Greg Ostertag.
“He was tough but loving,” retired Jazz forward Bryon Russell added.
“He was a no-nonsense coach,” said Jazz broadcaster and former player Matt Harpring, who played for Sloan from 2002-09. “If your shoes weren’t tied, if your drawstring was hanging out of your shorts, if your shirt wasn’t tucked in, if you weren’t doing a drill right, he’d call you on it. He’d call everyone on it. He was yelling at Karl and John in their 19th years. And there was no back-talking. Everyone knew that Jerry had the authority, and you didn’t challenge it.”
But over time, Harpring saw Sloan’s other side. The tough coach would also prove to be a caring teacher who understood a player struggling through a knee injury, who made an effort to talk to his family at games, a friend.
“He was just a good human being,” Harpring said.
Sloan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. He finished his historic coaching career in 2011 with the third-most wins in NBA history and the sixth-best winning percentage of all time (.603), and was one of only two coaches to win 1,000 games with one franchise. The Jazz raised a banner with 1223 (combined number of regular season and playoff games won under Sloan) in 2014, and he was honored with the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Basketball Coaches Association in 2016.
“Coach Sloan is what the NBA should be about,” Stockton said. “Committed to your teammates, your coaches, your organization and the game of basketball, he's never asked for credit. In fact, he avoids it. His record speaks for itself, and he's created an environment for his teams to win—and they do. I’m fortunate to have played for him.”