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Remembering Jerry Sloan and His Hall of Fame Grit

The legendary Jazz head coach died Friday at age 78, but his unparalleled work ethic and humility leave a legacy much greater than his 1,223 wins in Utah

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You can’t sum up 78 years of life, or 46 years in the NBA, in just one moment. But as an opening gambit for trying to get your arms around Jerry Sloan—the tough-as-nails swingman turned Hall of Fame head coach who died Friday morning after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia—there are worse places to start than the time he decided he might like a piece of Rasheed Wallace.

It was the 1999 Western Conference semifinals, and Sloan’s excellent but aging Utah Jazz—the team he’d coached since 1988, led to 50-plus wins in eight of his 10 seasons, and piloted to two NBA Finals behind the pick-and-roll brilliance of John Stockton and Karl Malone—were down 2-1 to the rising Portland Trail Blazers. Midway through the second quarter, Wallace, a gifted and brash fourth-year power forward, got tangled up with Jazz big man Thurl Bailey in a fight for rebounding position. As they wrestled, Wallace hit Bailey in the head and flung him toward the Utah bench … off of which sprung Sloan, gray-haired, suited, incensed, half a foot shorter than Sheed, and 33 years his senior.

Sloan later presented it as a rule-abiding attempt by a coach, the only person on the sideline formally allowed to enter the court in the event of a skirmish, to protect his player. Another possibility: Sloan saw an opponent taking liberties with his team and felt compelled to go put a stop to it himself. It called to mind the words of former Jazz coach and executive Frank Layden: “Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner; at his age, you might even lick him. But you’d lose an eye, an arm, your testicles, in the process. Everything would be gone.” (The approach could get the best of him on occasion; Sloan served a seven-game suspension for shoving referee Courtney Kirkland in 2003.)

After that game, which Portland won on their way to eliminating the Jazz in six, Sloan spoke of Wallace’s repeated line-stepping as an indication that he’d “gotten the game out of perspective,” and that he’d rather lose than see his players join him because “I think we have a responsibility to basketball.” (That Sloan would tangle with Wallace feels appropriate, given that he might be the only person in the world who got T’d up more than Sheed.) The court-rushing, though, came from what he said next:

“I’m as competitive, I think, as anybody that’s played this game, and I’ll fight you all night long. But I won’t turn my back. I’ll look you right in the face, and take it right down the pipe. And that’s what I expect my players to do.”

Sloan expected a lot from his players: to get the fundamentals right and execute precisely in his vaunted flex and pick-and-roll-based offense, which Pat Riley once called the “best offensive system I’ve ever coached against”; to defend, at all times, like your hair is on fire; to commit to consistently doing the simple but hard stuff well even as everyone searches for the next revolution; to tuck in your jersey and respect the game and not just “jackpot around” out there. More than anything, though, he expected them to play as hard and as tough as he did.

Sloan learned the game on “dirt courts and bent rims,” playing at a one-room schoolhouse in McLeansboro, Illinois, about 15 miles from the farm he grew up on in Gobbler’s Knob. As the story goes, Sloan would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to do his farm chores, then set off on a miles-long walk to school to arrive in time for 7 a.m. basketball practice; even as he rose to the ranks of NBA royalty, he kept the farm life with him. (Usually on his head.) His father died when he was 4 years old; his mother, Jane, raised 10 children, including her youngest, Jerry, alone. She was evidently not long on sentimentality; a former high school teammate told the Evansville Courier-Press that when Sloan told Jane that his team had lost in a tournament one year, she answered simply, “You must have not worked hard enough.”

So he worked harder. After brief stints as a student at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois that ended, as Jack McCallum once wrote, due to homesickness, Sloan left school and went to work—on the oil fields for a spell, then making refrigerators—before enrolling at the University of Evansville. That one stuck, and he starred, averaging 13.1 rebounds per game at 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, and making a name for himself as a tenacious, rabid defender. The Baltimore Bullets drafted him in the third round of the 1964 NBA draft, but Sloan chose to return to campus. One year and another small-college national championship later, the Bullets drafted him again, this time fourth overall. The next year, the newly founded Chicago Bulls selected Sloan in an expansion draft. He stepped right in as a starter and averaged 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, earning an All-Star nod and leading the upstart club to a playoff berth.

He became “Mr. Bull,” teaming with Norm Van Lier to form the toughest defensive backcourt in the league. Along with Bob Love and Chet Walker, the duo led the Bulls to eight playoff appearances in the club’s first nine seasons, establishing instant credibility for the franchise. He made two All-Star appearances and earned six All-Defensive nods, including four first-team selections, in 11 seasons before a series of knee injuries cut his career short at age 33.

Sloan’s entry into coaching began with a false start. He accepted the head coaching job at his alma mater in March 1977, but withdrew after just a few days citing “personal reasons.” That December, Evansville’s team plane crashed less than 90 seconds after taking off; all 29 people aboard, including Sloan’s replacement, were killed. Sloan told Don Wade of Scripps Howard News Service in 1997 that the tragedy “comes across my mind every morning I go to work,” but he largely kept it to himself. “I don’t talk too much about that anymore,” he told Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams in 2013. “It’s something I kind of stay away from.”

Two years later, Sloan returned to the Bulls, first as a scout and then as an assistant; in 1979, he took the reins as a 37-year-old head coach. He led Chicago to the playoffs in his second season, but he was fired 51 games into his third as the team struggled below .500. It’d be seven years before he’d get another crack at a top job; when Layden stepped away in 1988, he told then-Jazz president Dave Checketts that Sloan, who had been serving as an assistant in Utah for four seasons, was “the right one.”

The second time was the charm. Inheriting a roster headlined by a 25-year-old Malone and a 26-year-old Stockton, Sloan won early, often, and big. He would remain at the head of the Jazz bench for 23 seasons, making the playoffs in 19 of them, behind a steady diet of the same old offense and the same demanding defense.

“I’ve always believed in continuity,” Sloan said in 2008. “Some guys might not like it here today. … But then they start playing together and it’s not so bad, if they start winning. And that’s all I’ve ever looked for. Having guys kind of know what you’re kind of doing gives you a chance.”

The Jazz finished under .500 just once in Sloan’s 23 seasons. Two seasons later, they were back to winning 50-plus and riding the pick-and-roll back to the Western Conference finals, this time orchestrated by Deron Williams. Sloan’s relationship with his second All-Star point guard would sour; Sloan decided to step down in 2011 after a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back midgame fallout with Williams that came in the context of the Jazz looking more like a one-round-and-out playoff squad than a legitimate contender. (Seven and a half years later, with Sloan in diminishing health, Williams and his old coach finally buried the hatchet; thank heaven for small mercies.)

Despite all those wins, Sloan never won an NBA championship, as a player or a coach. His best Bulls teams ran into the Jerry West–Wilt Chamberlain Lakers, the Oscar Robertson–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks, and Rick Barry’s Warriors; his best Jazz teams, in a bitter irony, ran into Michael Jordan’s Bulls. That gnawed at him, as his first wife and high school sweetheart, Bobbye, who died in 2004, once told Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson:

“We were talking about his career,” she said, “and he said, ‘I can never consider my career a success if I retire without winning a championship. I can never consider myself a success because I didn’t win it as a player and now as a coach,’” Bobbye shook her head sadly. “I tell him, ‘You can’t do that. You’ve got to look at all the things you’ve done.’ … I tell him, ‘Look at the number of people who have played and coached in the league who didn’t win a championship.’ But he just says, ‘I can’t do that. If I don’t win it, I’ll consider myself a failure because that’s the goal I set for myself when I started playing.’ He has said this time and time again.”

I asked Jerry about this later, and he explained, “Why else would you play? How else do you judge my record?”

One idea: by using a different Sloan measuring stick. “A lot of guys will show their rings to you who didn’t have anything to do with winning a championship,” he once told McCallum. “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.” Makes sense. Attitude reflects leadership, after all.

Another: by the impact he made in the lives of his players.

“His ways of leading, he made us better men, versus just making us better basketball players,” former Jazz guard Ronnie Price told Tony Jones of The Athletic. “He helped us become better people. He taught us how to be professionals, and how to have a successful and long-lasting career.”

“The tough guy who was always the first to come to your rescue, the first out on the court when anything went wrong, to have your back, the guy you didn’t want to mess with,” Thurl Bailey told Eric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune. “And so it’s difficult because [he was] so instrumental in your development, not just as a player, but as a man … It’s tough. It’s tough. But Jerry would obviously want you to buck up and go do your job, and do the best you can, and have an effect on people’s lives in a positive way. I love that man. I always have, always will.”

One more, ignoring the harshest-critic voice in the back of Sloan’s head: on his estimable merits. Sloan won 1,223 games in Utah—1,127 in the regular season, 96 in the postseason—which is the number that appears on the banner bearing his name that the Jazz hung in the rafters of EnergySolutions Arena in 2014. He won with Stockton, Malone, and Jeff Hornacek, turning Utah into a perennial power in a tough Western Conference. When their time finally ended, and with top scorer Matt Harpring missing 50 games due to injury, Sloan won 42 games behind a young Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Arroyo, and DeShawn Stevenson, which might have been his most impressive coaching job of all.

For that, Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor told J.A. Adande, “he should have been named coach of the century.”

He wasn’t, of course; for that matter, the media never once recognized him as the league’s Coach of the Year. (He did win the Sporting News’s award, voted on by his coaching peers, in 2003-04.) On one hand, that Sloan never won the league’s award seems unfathomable. How is it possible that a coach who not only sits fourth on the all-time regular-season wins list, but is one of just five coaches to last more than 15 seasons and win more than 60 percent of his games—alongside fellow legends Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Red Auerbach, and Pat Riley—never wound up with that honor one time?

On another hand, though, it feels kind of appropriate. Even as he was being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he found himself struggling through his acceptance speech.

“It’s just hard for me to talk about myself,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything.”

Of course he didn’t. As Sloan often said, “My job is to win,” not to wax rhapsodic about all the brilliance and beauty that goes into it. The sun doesn’t get a trophy for rising in the east; salmon don’t get medals for swimming upstream. Get up, do it again tomorrow, and work even harder. Nothing to cry about. No jackpotting around.