Williams, Sloan put the past where it belongs
I. THE CALLS
There are two calls that define Deron Williams’ relationship with the Utah Jazz.
The first was a “Twenty-Two,” a play designed to feed the center on the left block. Back in February of 2011, the brash, young All-Star point guard says he knew his big man preferred the other side of the floor.
“So I just made a call,” Williams said.
That was the first call: flipping Twenty-Two.
The second was the one he couldn’t bring himself to make.
Williams often thinks about his time in a Jazz uniform. During those six seasons in Utah, he enjoyed the best moments of his NBA career. Perhaps his worst, too. The way his time with the team ended hung over him, but he couldn’t find the right time to make amends.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years,” he said. “Just kind of stubbornness and nerves and all that played a part in why I never reached out.”
That changed earlier this summer. Seven years after his falling out with Jerry Sloan prompted the Hall of Fame coach’s resignation—and Williams’ eventual trade out of Utah—the point guard found himself face to face with his old coach.
Sitting at a table in Sloan’s home office, the two men had their first extended conversation since what Williams refers to as “the infamous day.” Williams is 34 now, older and more contrite. Sloan is now 76. His health is deteriorating and, as he battles Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, he can lose his train of thought.
“But I’ll tell you what,” Williams said, “he does remember a lot. That’s for sure. The good, the bad, the ugly.”
II. LOOKING BACK
The breaking point came February 9, 2011.
But the tension between the legendary coach and the star point guard had been building for some time.
“Clearly Deron wanted to win and clearly Jerry wanted to win,” said Greg Miller, the CEO of the Jazz and the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies at the time. “But I think they were at least one tooth out of sync on the best way to do that.”
As Williams’ star had grown, Sloan felt, so had his ego. Early in the season, Williams said Sloan had called him out after overhearing the guard talking with teammates about the group’s struggles with pick-and-roll defense.
“Do you want to coach this team?” Sloan asked him.
It was the same question Sloan asked in the locker room at halftime of a game against the Bulls in February after Williams had made the call and changed the play without consulting Sloan.
“You’ve got the power,” Williams replied. “You’ve got the juice.”
(One recently published account of the argument suggested that Williams said “I have the juice,” but Williams says it was just the opposite. “I’m smarter than that,” Williams said recently, reflecting on the argument. “I know who has the power in Salt Lake City, Utah.”)
Sloan turned to Miller, who was in the locker room, and said he wanted to meet with him after the game.
As halftime ended, Sloan and his players came together for a cheer. Usually, the coach would say “1, 2, 3, Jazz!” That night, Williams recalled, Sloan said “1, 2, 3, good luck.”
They went out and finished the game, a loss to the Bulls. Afterward, Sloan told Miller that he was done coaching.
“That particular evening, the events just came to a head. It became more than he wanted to deal with,” Miller said. “Jerry made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the situation, and I and several others tried to rally around him and express our support to him and encourage him to fight through it.
“It was clear fairly quickly that Jerry was really tired.”
Early the next morning, Sloan met with team management one more time to discuss his future. By the afternoon, his tenure as the head coach of the Utah Jazz had ended.
“Twenty-six years is a long time to be in one organization. I’ve been blessed,” an emotional Sloan said at his press conference. “But today’s a new day. I get this over with and I know I’m going to feel much better. My time is up and it’s time to move on.”
Whenever he would think about it for years afterward, Miller would be filled with disappointment.
“There was frustration and anger that a player as good as Deron and a coach as disciplined and gifted as Jerry weren’t compatible and it blew up,” he said.
But as time went on, Miller started to feel differently.
“It felt like a loose end.”
III. WHAT IFS
What if he hadn’t?
What if he hadn’t been so stubborn early in his career?
What if he hadn’t changed the play?
How would basketball history be different?
Williams certainly has his regrets.
“How it ended has always hung over my head and affected me,” he said. “I wish I would have handled it differently.”
Williams was traded shortly after Sloan’s resignation. The deal, orchestrated by then-general manager Kevin O’Connor, brought Derrick Favors and a number of other assets—including a future draft pick that, through a series of trades, eventually became Ricky Rubio—to Utah.
Williams understands why he was traded. The franchise’s loyalty had always been with Sloan, the team’s coach for more than 20 years. Besides, Williams was about to be a free agent and, he said, there was “strong possibility” he would have left anyway.
He also understands the boos he endured for years with each trip he and his teams made back to Salt Lake City.
“They stood behind a Hall of Fame coach that had been there for over two decades,” he said.
Looking back, Williams wishes he would have done a better job of that himself.
“There are a lot of things I could have handled better, but I was stubborn,” he said. “I was young and stupid. I could have just came in there and shut up, which would have been the smart thing to do, the right thing to do. He’s the coach.”
He added, “But at the time, how I was—my competitiveness, my stubbornness—sometimes it just got the best of me.”
IV. THE MEETING
Williams played six more seasons in the NBA after leaving Utah, making stops in Brooklyn, Dallas and Cleveland. During that time, he only spoke to Sloan once—a brief conversation before a game while he was with the Mavericks. But Williams had long thought about reaching out and trying to clear the air with his Hall of Fame coach.
Then one day last spring his phone rang out of the blue when Jazz president Steve Starks called to introduce himself and suggest a meeting take place. Deron’s response was immediate. “I would love to do that,” he said when offered the opportunity to participate.
Even before Starks started his career with the LHM Group, he had been a Jazz fan. He watched Williams dominate opposing point guards, watched him lead the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals.
“I just remember how much I enjoyed watching Deron Williams play,” he said. “The crossovers and the pull-ups. There was a tenaciousness about him that was really fun to watch.”
And after taking over as team president in 2015, Starks watched fans and, in some ways, the organization itself struggle to reconcile the success of those teams with the way that era ended. The Jazz president also saw Sloan’s health declining and worried that pride might prevent the coach and player from ever meeting again.
“The thought of Coach Sloan passing away at some point before this meeting took place, to me, was terrible,” Starks said. “As Deron’s career started to wind down and Coach’s health declined, enough time had passed—and now it was time to come together. I really believe if the meeting didn’t take place, both of them would regret it.”
So, in the spring, he started making plans.
The first call was to Miller. Then the team president called Sloan and Williams. “Everybody eagerly agreed to the meeting so we set a date,” Starks said
On June 19, Williams toured the newly renovated Zions Bank Basketball Campus with Starks and Miller. Williams enjoyed seeing the new facility and some old faces around the office then the three men drove to Sloan’s home at the south end of the valley.
For more than an hour, they sat with Jerry and Tammy Sloan at a round table in the coach’s home office.
Face to face with his old coach, Williams apologized.
“He was very penitent and, in my observation, very sincere in what he said to Jerry,” Miller said.
Sloan, however, was not receptive to the apology.
At least not at first.
“Jerry’s a tough guy,” Miller said. “He’s got a lot of pride.”
“I got to see the vintage Coach Sloan,” Starks added. “Coach was tough. He said things that he felt like he needed to say and got things off his chest.”
Williams and Sloan continued to talk, the player apologizing multiple times to the coach. Williams said he’d been stubborn. He told Sloan that he played for multiple coaches after leaving Utah, Miller recalled, “and that he learned more from Jerry than he did from the other coaches combined.”
Miller, Starks and Tammy Sloan left Williams and his Hall of Fame coach alone for a while after that. The two men talked and looked at photographs in Sloan’s office.
“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”
Finally, they shook hands.
“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”
“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” Starks said.
Even after he was traded by the Jazz, Williams has kept his house in Utah. Now Starks hopes he feels like he has something more.
“Hopefully Utah is his basketball home and he feels like he’s part of the Jazz family,” he said. “It would be fun to have him come to games and once again be connected to the organization and fans.”
Williams left the meeting feeling like a weight had been lifted.
“I got a chance to apologize for how things went down,” he said. “He got to voice his opinion about all the times I was a little s— to him and was a pain in his ass, and for him to get things off his chest. I think it was good. There was nothing bad about it. It was only positive.”
In the car ride back to the practice facility, Miller also felt a sense of peace.
“It left me feeling really good about the situation,” he said. “Deron had done all he could to put it behind him and make it right. “From a franchise standpoint, from our family’s standpoint, we feel like we have closure.”