Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan an icon in Utah, beyond

Legendary coach, who led Jazz to 2 Finals, passed away at 78

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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May 22, 2020 10:57 AM ET

Jerry Sloan guided the Jazz to 15 consecutive playoff appearances from 1989 to 2003.

Jerry Sloan often was at his best when circumstances weren’t.

Winning was one thing for the ultra-competitive, no-nonsense NBA lifer, a Hall of Famer who was on the scene for more than 50 years as a player and coach. But losing, or some other sort of adversity facing him or the men he led, was when Sloan truly came alive. Fully locked in, his intensity dialed up, eyes laser sharp, another battle to fight. Survival time.

Wayne Boultinghouse, Sloan’s roommate and teammate at Evansville College back in the early 1960s, sized him up year ago. The Utah Jazz’s legendary coach, Boultinghouse said, was driven not so much by his desire to win but by a desire to “never be perceived as failing.”

Kevin O’Connor, the Jazz’s former general manager for much of Sloan’s 23-year run with the franchise, once said of him: “When things are good, he’s OK. Decent. … When things are bad, he’s best.

“He knows everyone’s going to fail. He wants to see how guys respond to failure in a game or a season, and how they come back.” 

The “foxhole guy” about whom O’Connor talked never faced a bigger challenge than in the late chapters of his life. Sloan was diagnosed in 2015 with the Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia that eventually took his life on May 22, 2020, the Jazz announced

In their statement, the Jazz said: “Jerry Sloan will always be synonymous with the Utah Jazz. 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. 

“Our Hall of Fame coach for 23 years, Jerry had a tremendous impact on the Jazz franchise as expressed by his banner hanging in the arena rafters. His 1,223 Jazz coaching wins, 20 trips to the NBA Playoffs and two NBA Finals appearances are remarkable achievements. His hard-nosed approach only made him more beloved. Even after his retirement, his presence at Jazz games always brought a roaring response from the crowd. 

“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.”

Sloan’s condition worsened in the summer of 2019, leading to a sensitive story by Gordon Monson of the Salt Lake Tribune in July that stunned some readers with one particularly harrowing takeaway: the fourth-winningest coach in NBA history and tough-as-nails sideline presence for the Jazz, according to someone close to Sloan, was described then as “dying.”

Every day is different for him, some better than others, most not so good. It’s basically a slide into oblivion. He’s frail. He’s physically and mentally limited. Around the clock care is required for him. Although, in the more recent past the old coach has been able to attend Jazz games, he will go no more.

He still likes to visit with friends in his private space and trade stories, when he’s up for it. Sloan walks when he can. His wife, Tammy, has been a saint and a stalwart in doing whatever she can to help her man, the man, spending time and sharing love with him as much as possible. His mind, though, is slipping away.

When Sloan went public with his ailments in 2016, his good days heavily outnumbered his bad. The balance tipped over time, though, causing him to seek full-time care in the spring of 2019 in a residence facility. For the coach, his family and his friends, the ordeal was mostly private and relentless, as gritty and unflinching as the man himself. 

For those who came to know him around the NBA, whether as peers, rivals or admirers, it brought reflection, and a renewed appreciation of his style and achievements.

“A man’s man,” longtime player, coach and broadcaster Doug Collins told NBA.com, rattling off thoughts and images conjured by a mention of Sloan. “No pretense. Day’s work for a day’s pay. Do things the right way. Compete. Play to win. Be a team.”

Collins grew up in Benton, Ill., 25 miles from McLeansboro. Nine years younger than Sloan, he tracked the grass-root legend’s progress.

 
Jerry Sloan's legacy as a player and coach will never be forgotten.

“He was my boyhood hero,” Collins said. “I watched him play in high school. I watched him play at Evansville with the Purple Aces, with the T-shirts jerseys they used to wear. And I was almost his teammate.”

In the summer of 1973, after Collins had been picked No. 1 overall by Philadelphia, the Bulls were about to acquire him for center Clifford Ray and guard Bob Weiss. But Ray failed the physical and the Sixers scuttled the deal.

Said Collins: “I have so much respect for him. He never wanted to be in the bright lights. I think his most fun time was being in the gym, working together with [assistant] Phil Johnson behind the scenes.

“Jerry in a lot of ways was pretty shy -- I think that’s one of the things he has in common with John Stockton. Jerry saw a lot of himself in John. Competing, toughness, and how Stockton never wanted any of the other stuff -- he just wanted to play.”

That’s what Sloan wanted, an opportunity he might never have gotten if not for his father’s passing when Sloan was 4 years old. One of 10 children, his role as early as second grade was to work, to help the family at home in rural southern Illinois. His father, Sloan said, might never have countenanced basketball, even as the lean teenager managed to handle both. He routinely rose at 4:30 a.m. to get his chores done before heading two miles to McLeansboro High for practice at 7 a.m.

When it was time for college, Sloan went to the University of Illinois but left abruptly before the season began. He flirted with attending Southern Illinois, too, but scratched that. Finally, he enrolled at Division II Evansville College.

Those false starts stuck with him, said Collins, who took over Sloan’s summer camps in Chicago after succeeding him (a couple of hires removed) as Bulls coach in the 1980s.

“When you think of rough, tough Jerry Sloan, you don’t know that Jerry had a real soft spot for kids at his camp who would get homesick,” Collins said. “Jerry suffered from terrible homesickness when he was a kid -- it’s one reason he went to Illinois for a little bit and then came back. He told me one day, ‘Doug, you’ve never been sick in your life until you’ve been homesick. It’s the worst feeling in life you can ever have.’”


Never outworked as a player

Sloan’s intensity defined him as a player. He approached every game like a clenched fist. At Evansville, he helped coach Arad McCutchan to consecutive Division II championships, earning tournament MVP honors in both 1964 and 1965. As the No. 7 pick overall by Baltimore, Sloan was drafted after Rick Barry and Dave Stallworth and right before Billy Cunningham.

Sloan was a bit player as a rookie, averaging 16.1 minutes, 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds for a Bullets team built around Walt Bellamy, Gus Johnson and Bailey Howell. After the season, he was made available for the NBA’s first expansion draft and the new Chicago franchise snagged him, heeding advice from ex-Bullet and inaugural Bulls coach Johnny (Red) Kerr.

Using the summer of 1966 back in Evansville to remake his game, Sloan showed up as a different player for the Bulls. He was stronger, his skills honed, to the point he averaged 17.4 points and (as a shooting guard) 9.1 rebounds. He made the first of his two All-Star appearances that season.

Jerry Sloan (4) was the first player to have his number retired by the Bulls.

While in Chicago, a city known first and foremost as a football town, Sloan gave the Bulls a player as tough as or tougher than any of the NFL Bears. His playing days stretched from Dick Butkus to Walter Payton, and he fit the city’s sports style.

Some of the more polished NBA stars such as Walt Frazier, Barry and Cunningham groused about Sloan’s pesky and bruising tactics. But he never apologized for those elbows, knees, floor burns or charges drawn, saying he needed to play harder to make up for a talent gap.

“It’s supposed to be against the law to play hard in this league,” Sloan said then, a quote that served him well through his coaching years.

Said Collins: “I would tell him before the game, ‘Just so you know, I’m not going to let you get your hands on me tonight and beat me up. I’m going to run 100 miles an hour and keep moving. I know if you can reach and grab and hold me, I can’t play my game.’ He would start laughing.

“I wouldn’t let him beat me up physically. He had those big ol’ meathooks as hands. He was what I called farm-boy strong. I don’t know if Jerry ever lifted a weight in his life, but he was so fricking strong with those hands. And everybody knew it. He was the kind of guy that if you ever got in a fight, you’d have to kill him because he wasn’t going to stop.”

A man’s man. No pretense. Day’s work for a day’s pay. Do things the right way. Compete. Play to win. Be a team.”

Doug Collins, on Jerry Sloan

Sloan was a defensive star for the Bulls’ great pre-Michael Jordan run in the early 1970s. They averaged 52 wins over five seasons, led by Bob Love, Chet Walker, Tom Boerwinkle and coach Dick Motta. In 1971, they traded for feisty Norm Van Lier, giving the Bulls a pair of guards who swarmed and battered opponents like safeties.

Named six times to NBA All-Defense Teams from 1969 to 1975, Sloan’s face and body paid a price -- a composite photo of his injuries might look like former Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers’ old mask. Over time, a bum knee he no longer could tend to by draining fluid required surgery, and Sloan played his final game in January 1976 at age 33.

He exited without regrets, buffered by knowing he never got outworked. “I remember him telling me, ‘I don't ever want to come back to the locker room and say I wish I would have played harder,’” Kerr once told The Chicago Tribune.

Motta, back when Sloan was steering Utah to the first of two consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 1997, said: “He said he never had to feel guilty after a game. He'd go home and sleep like a baby, no matter the outcome. But before a game, he wouldn't go out and shoot. He'd sit in the locker room getting mad at the enemy.”

Not winning, necessarily. But definitely not failing.


No ring, but championship efforts

We hear so much talk these days about pampered NBA players, but by Sloan standards, there’s nothing millennial about it. He dealt with softies -- relative to him -- from the time he arrived.

His first taste of NBA coaching came with the Bulls, first as an assistant to Ed Badger, then as head coach starting in 1979-80. Tough as nails wasn’t an easy sell even 40 years ago. 

That first season came in the wake of Chicago’s notorious lost coin toss, which cost the Bulls Magic Johnson in the 1979 Draft and delivered UCLA’s David Greenwood instead. Dreary as their 30-52 record was, they picked up their scoring the next season, improved to 45-37 and reached the second round of the 1981 playoffs, losing to eventual champion Boston. 

Still, a locker room populated by strong personalities such as Larry Kenon, Orlando Woolridge, Ricky Sobers, Reggie Theus, Artis Gilmore and Greenwood had players at Sloan’s throat -- and vice versa, given he reportedly threw a chair one day at Kenon -- from the start in 1981-82. The coach got axed after 51 games, about 28 months before Jordan landed in the Bulls’ lap.

 
Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone made the Jazz a formidable squad in the 1980s and '90s.

“I never regretted anything I did in Chicago,” Sloan said years later. “There was a time or two I might have gotten a little carried away. ... There’s always going to be someone trying to run over you and you have to go in there and establish yourself. Hopefully you learn something along the way and do a better job.”

Sloan’s second chance came in Salt Lake City, when he was added to Frank Layden’s staff with the Jazz for 1985-86. Stockton was a rookie that season, and Karl Malone would arrive that spring as the No. 14 pick in the 1986 Draft. By the time Layden decided to become GM and hand his job to Sloan in December 1988, Sloan already knew what he had in the team’s cornerstone players.

“In high school, college, pros, I’ve been able to work with everyone that’s not afraid to work,” he often said.

The two Jazz Hall of Famers were as no-nonsense in their craft as Sloan. In Malone’s 18 seasons in Utah, he played in 1,434 of a possible 1,444 games. Stockton missed only four in his first 13 seasons and 22 out of a possible 1,526 appearances. “Load management” was something for Jazz rookies when they lugged the veterans’ bags on the road.

Stockton always felt that, when Sloan aired them out, they deserved it. And Malone shared his coach’s motivation, driven to show he belonged. “Malone’s whole career was based on that,” said Steve Luhm, The Salt Lake Tribune’s beat writer for all but the start of Sloan’s 23-year tenure. “It was, ‘I’m not going to let people say that I suck.’”

Last winter, Malone, second on the NBA’s all-time points list, told the Deseret News: “The younger guys might not know who Jerry Sloan is, but maybe they know who Karl Malone is and that’s what he meant. He made me who I am.”

That’s such a big part of coaching: deferred appreciation. Only when the lessons fall into place like tumblers in a lock do most get their due.

“He was all about bringing out the best in his players and the best in himself,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “He was legendary as a player because people remember how hard-nosed and physical he was, and how painful it was to play against him. He was a constant presence on the floor and, as a coach, his team reflected that same personality and drive.”

When the NBCA presented Sloan with its 2016 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, Carlisle described the former Jazz coach as “one of the all-time ass kickers in this league.” 

 
Jerry Sloan's Jazz teams ultimately lost to the Bulls in the 1997 and '98 Finals.

“The level of respect is so high,” the Mavericks coach told NBA.com. “He had a system he believed in and he was always adapting. So many people refer to Jerry Sloan as ‘old school,’ and he categorically was old school in his belief system. But he was always adjusting, offensively and defensively, to keep up with the modern game and often times be in front of it.” 

So what should we make of Sloan’s teams never winning their final game? The Jazz lost to Bulls in 1997 and 1998, blocked from glory like so many others by Jordan. Utah missed its best chance at a title -- with possibly its best teams -- in 1994 and 1995 when Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon filled the temporary vacuum left by Jordan’s first retirement. In 1995 particularly, a horrendous fourth quarter in the clinching game against the Rockets -- in the first round, in Utah -- eliminated a Jazz team that had gone 60-22 that season.

“Look, he did everything basically there was to do,” Carlisle said. “He would have been a championship coach if Jordan and the Bulls hadn’t been in the way.”

Perhaps Sloan’s best sustained work came in 2003-04, after Stockton had retired and Malone moved to the Lakers for one forgettable season. The Jazz were pegged by oddsmakers as 80-1 underdogs with an over/under of 25.5 victories. Instead, they went 42-40 with top scorers Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring and Gordon Giricek all averaging fewer than 17 points and Carlos Arroyo stepping into Stockton’s shoes to dish 5.0 assists nightly. That record would have been good for the fourth seed in the East.

Three years later, Utah reached the Western Conference finals again, bumping off Houston and Golden State along the way.

“The run with Stockton and Malone is what most people think of first, but he went through one of the quickest and most effective rebuilds that I’ve seen,” Carlisle said. “For a team that had a 15-year run with John and Karl, they turned it over quickly. Then it was Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer and some guys getting to the conference finals in 2007. That was amazing.” 

Williams, however, will forever be associated with the end of Sloan’s coaching career. The highest Jazz draft pick Sloan ever coached -- No. 3 in 2005 -- Williams bristled at the staff’s standards and demands. The tension between the old-school coach and the new-era point guard came to a head on Feb. 9, 2011.

Even after the Stockton-Malone era, Jerry Sloan still kept the Jazz among the West elite.

In a home game that night against Chicago, Williams ignored several play calls from the bench just before halftime. During the intermission, a shouting match erupted between Sloan and Williams, heated enough that some players thought it might turn physical.

After the game, Sloan met with O’Connor and resigned, mere days after signing a contract extension, fending off every attempt to get him to reconsider. He said he had nothing left in his tank -- and yet, in 2012, showed interest in the Charlotte Hornets job that opened. 

Sloan had chafed with players before -- Chris Morris, Greg Ostertag, Kirilenko -- but never to such a degree. A week later, Williams further alienated some Jazz fans when he said of the split: “I'm 26, Coach Sloan is 69. That's a big difference. Different eras, different generations. ... I can't just go and have the same conversation with my grandma that I would have with my friend.”

Williams was traded to the Nets two weeks after Sloan stepped down. In the summer of 2018, Williams returned to Salt Lake City for a team-arranged sit-down with Sloan for some purported closure. It was met with skepticism by many fans and, according to someone close to the coach, by Sloan himself.


The lion in winter

It wasn’t that long ago that Sloan would take daily dog walks, four miles long, near his home in Riverton, south of Salt Lake City. The two diseases he was fighting tightened their grip occasionally, then progressively. He still managed to split time between Utah and southern Illinois, with a collection of tractors (mostly John Deere, like his preferred caps) to go with the antiques and second-hand finds.

His wife Tammy -- whom Sloan married in 2006 after his wife of 41 years, Bobbye, died in 2004 while fighting pancreatic cancer -- was his constant companion and caregiver. Still, he attended monthly lunches with some of his best friends and cohorts from his Jazz days, even welcoming old newspaper reporters to the group. Malone and Stockton had their own audiences with him.

Then the hard times began crowding out the happier ones. The last lunch he made it to was more than a year ago.The mood in smallish-market Salt Lake City, always respectful of Sloan’s and his family’s privacy, grew somber with Monson’s news story in July.

But the words of the father of three and grandfather of seven resonate as clearly as ever, even as his voice faded to a raspy whisper.

I’m not scared,” Sloan told a local TV station back in May 2016. “You've got to take advantage of every day you can, because there might be a rough road ahead of you."

And: “I haven't heard anyone say it's going to be easy. So just take your lumps and go on."

If the NBA had a logo for toughness, you’d see Sloan’s silhouette in it, like that other Jerry. Only he’d be sticking his nose into some ball handler’s chest or poking a finger in a referee’s face. That’s the way it was, every night, Sloan leaving everything he had out on the court. 

And then sleeping like a baby.

 
Former coach Jerry Sloan will always be a beloved icon in Utah.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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