Sloan's secret: 'Put the best effort in'
Editor's note: This article has been updated. It was originally published Dec. 9, 2008, on the occasion of Sloan's 20th anniversary coaching the Jazz.
Twenty years? Jerry Sloan worried he wouldn't last even 20 days.
He took over the conductor's baton of the Utah Jazz from the popular Frank Layden on Dec. 9, 1988, and commenced his career with a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Nine games in, he was 3-6, coming off a road trip that ended with a loss to the expansion Miami Heat, who had lost 21 of their first 22 games. Next up for Sloan was a home game against the back-to-back champion Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day.
"And I thought that'd be as far as I'd get," Sloan says.
The Jazz won that game and, of course, Sloan kept his job. Two decades later, it's hard to imagine Sloan, the longest tenured coach in major pro sports, ever being in jeopardy. We're so used to Sloan as a fixture who always gets his way, with the job security of a Supreme Court justice, that we can't comprehend him being anything but that. He's the guy who keeps running the same old offense, defying other teams to stop it even though they know what's coming. He's the man who married his high school sweetheart and stayed with her for 41 years, until cancer took her away.
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We can't link Sloan with the homesick teenager who bailed from two colleges his freshman year. It's hard to imagine him living with a fear that he was inadequate or to imagine him doing anything but stick to every pledge he made. The fact is, that Sloan made this Sloan. In one case, it probably even saved his life.
Sloan's early college days were just that -- days, not years. He spent a little more than five weeks at the University of Illinois. Then he took a train ride to Southern Illinois in Carbondale and spent the night with a friend. He took off the next day, never even bothering to enroll.
"I was a mixed-up person at that time," Sloan says. "I had never been out of the county. My father passed away when I was 4 years old, there were 10 kids, all that stuff."
The death of a parent at a young age? The youngest of 10 siblings? Tony and Dr. Melfi would need three seasons to sort out those issues on "The Sopranos," yet Sloan closes the chapter with "all that stuff." That's it. It's clear there will be no follow-up question, no delving into unresolved matters from his childhood. His simple acknowledgment that it happened is all you will get.
"I felt homesick, probably," Sloan says. "Looking back on that, it was probably the main reason."
So he quit school, went home and worked in the oil fields. Then he moved to Evansville, Ind. -- which is 90 miles closer to his hometown of McLeansboro, Ill., than the University of Illinois in Champaign is -- and made refrigerators for Whirlpool, while getting to know Evansville coach Arad McCutchan.
"He was a pretty caring guy," Sloan says. "I needed it at that time."
And every basketball coach needs at least one player like Sloan. Someone who finds no task too daunting or demeaning, someone who is willing to wear a hazmat suit if necessary. Sloan was a 6-foot-5 guard and a pretty good ball handler. But he also was the tallest player on the Evansville team, so he often found himself defending other teams' centers and forwards. No matter to Sloan. If he was guarding big men, that meant he was doing more rebounding, and, in his mind, "Rebounding is where you get a chance to compete for possession of the basketball."
And in that description you can find the essence of Jerry Sloan, the drive that led to his 11-year NBA playing career and has led to more than 1,100 victories as a coach. He had to be tough to make it somewhere, but it also made him someone who is tough, as inseparable from his persona as he is from the Jazz.
"When you look at the whole picture, it's nothing but a game," Sloan says. "Sometimes you take it too seriously. It's probably caused me a few problems, but that's who I am. It's my job. But that's who you are, too, to a certain extent."
You listen to other people describe Sloan, and it doesn't take long for a theme to emerge.
Phil Jackson, a contemporary of Sloan's since they were in college, called him "a blue-collar worker a guy that took charges and hit the floor and was always a tough, tough defender."
Bob Love, Sloan's teammate with the Chicago Bulls, said, "That guy was tough as nails. He was as mean as a snake."
Longtime announcer Marv Albert said, "He was one of the toughest guys I've ever seen."
It's almost as if Sloan had no choice. There's no description that fits his face other than hard-nosed. His nose slants down at a 70-degree angle, like it belongs on a character in a Dick Tracy comic. And, Sloan would tell you, there was no way for him to make a living guarding the likes of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson without being some kind of stuntman, willing to hit the floor or square off with the first guy who looked at him funny.
"I had to do whatever I could to play," Sloan says. "I couldn't compete with them athletically."
Sloan's career highlights
- • 2 conference championships
- • 16 straight winning seasons (1988-2004), tied for second-longest in NBA history
- • Ranks fourth on NBA's all-time coaching wins list
- • Ranks sixth on NBA's all-time playoff wins list
- • 12 seasons with 50-plus wins
- • 19 playoff appearances
He would take on anybody. Love remembers a game in which Willis Reed kept warning Sloan to stay out of his way, yet Sloan still stepped in front of him to take a charge, hit the deck and popped up to yell at Reed, "I told you I wasn't afraid of you."
During a preseason game rumble at one of those old auditorium-style gyms in Decatur, Ill., Sloan found himself pushed through a door and into the lobby. So he opened the door and fought his way back to the court.
In his mind, competing is all there is. So the greatest crime you can commit in the court of Judge Sloan is not competing. There isn't a coach in all of sports who rips his team to shreds the way Sloan does when he feels his team hasn't competed.
See, unlike John Wooden or Vince Lombardi, Sloan doesn't give you pithy, inspirational quotes that look good on posters. His most memorable lines come after losses. I came across a page of Jerry Sloan quotes online in which he repeatedly bad-mouthed his team.
"They are good and did a lot of good things, but our guys did not respond. That's the most disappointing game I've been involved with."
"It looked like we were totally afraid."
"We didn't have much for them. It looked like we didn't belong."
There was one that held poster-worthy promise.
"Size doesn't make any difference; heart is what makes a difference," Sloan began. But it turned out that was just a prelude to trashing his own team again. "These guys over there want to make the playoffs more than we do."
The Sloan method means anything less than full effort is unacceptable. It means no excuse is satisfactory. How many other coaches could win so many games coaching in Salt Lake City, which isn't exactly the top free-agent destination? And how many talented players aren't even considered by the Jazz because the team knows their attitudes wouldn't fit with Sloan?
Yes, Sloan inherited John Stockton and Karl Malone, who now rank as the NBA's all-time assists leader and second-leading scorer, respectively. But he also had to go against Shaquille O'Neal with Greg Ostertag at center and match up Bryon Russell against Michael Jordan.
And did the bottom drop out the first season (2003-04) without Stockton and Malone? No, the Jazz still won 42 games.
For that, Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor says, "He should have been named coach of the century."
Which brings up the strangest Sloan anomaly of them all. Not only is he the longest-tenured coach, but he also is the least decorated. He has never won the NBA's coach of the year award -- "That's the biggest injustice in sports," Love says. And only now will he be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor that doesn't wait for retirement in the case of coaches -- in large part because he wouldn't allow the Jazz to nominate him until last year.
"Even in our building, he doesn't even have a banner up there of him," says Hot Rod Hundley, the longtime Jazz announcer.
You look at some of the people who have won the coach of the year award ahead of Sloan, and it's enough to make you want to demand apologies from the voters. Don Chaney, Del Harris, Larry Bird, Mike Dunleavy, Doc Rivers, Sam Mitchell? Really? There's no room for Jerry Sloan on that list?
You never hear Sloan complaining about it or campaigning. That might be part of the problem.
"He's the kind of guy who will never say a word about himself," Hundley says. "He's not in the Hall of Fame because he doesn't promote himself."
It's because Sloan isn't in it for the accolades.
"I never felt like there was anything I needed to do other than put the best effort in and see what happened," Sloan says. "It's a lot of fun to see guys progress, to see guys get better. Maybe they're better than they thought they were."
Coaching wasn't something he thought about until, in his sophomore year at Evansville, McCutchan suggested Sloan come back and take his job in a decade. Sloan's NBA career lasted a little bit longer, but after 12 years, in 1976, he retired from the league and did get the chance to coach at Evansville. He took the job, but five days later, for reasons he still won't disclose, he withdrew. It might have saved his life. On Dec. 13, 1977, the airplane carrying the Evansville basketball team crashed, killing all 29 on board.
Sloan's head coaching debut came two years later with the Bulls and it didn't go very well. A 94-121 record, fired halfway through his third year. Even then, he was showing coaching traits a young Bulls player named Reggie Theus would one day incorporate in his own coaching style.
"He would confront you," Theus says. "Whatever confrontation was there, he wasn't backing out of your face. But once you finished, you went your way and I went my way, and it was over."
The Jazz brought Sloan in as a scout in 1983 and made him an assistant coach a year later, and when Layden was ready to step aside in 1988, he told then-Jazz president Dave Checketts, "This guy's the right one."
"He was a fierce competitor; he had a passion for the game," Layden says.
No need to use the past tense. Current Jazz point guard Deron Williams uses the exact same words to describe Sloan.
"There's a reason he's still in this league, there's a reason he's still on top of his game," Williams says. "He has a passion for the game."
He somehow has adapted to today's players at least those who can adapt to him. His patience is an underrated trait, Jazz GM O'Connor says. So is his loyalty.
"He's true to his friends," Love says. "And he'll never turn his back on you."
Sloan also has an understanding of the sport's nuances. In the fourth quarter of a recent game in Sacramento, with the Kings leading by a point, he called over Williams and said, "Tell Memo [Okur] to step back he's rolling all the time" on the screens.
Williams relayed the information to Okur, and the next time down, Okur set a screen for Williams, then dropped back behind the 3-point arc. That cleared a passing lane for Williams to deliver the ball to Paul Millsap for a basket. The next possession, another pick-and-pop, and this time, Williams drove to the hoop for a score. One more possession, one more screen by Okur, and this time, Williams pulled up for a jumper. The Jazz had the lead for good on their way to victory No. 1,101 for Sloan.
Of course, any strategy is more effective when people have to listen to you.
"Part of the way to get success is our players know that Jerry's in charge of who plays and doesn't play," O'Connor says. "It's not about contracts or anything else."
Even the tough guy gets tougher with a bodyguard. In Sloan's first year with the Baltimore Bullets, it was Gus Johnson, who told him in an exhibition game, "Get behind me, Rook, nobody's going to bother you." In Utah, it always has been owner Larry Miller, who passed away in February, and an organizational philosophy that success comes from stability, that franchises such as the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Dodgers were at their best when they changed coaches once a generation. Sloan possesses, as Theus says somewhat enviously, both the hammer and the nail.
There's never been a chance of a team uprising. You've never seen a Sloan team quit on him. Ever since he won that game on Christmas 20 years ago, it's been pretty clear his departure will be on his terms.
The day almost came in 2004, when his wife, Bobbye, died after battling cancer.
"All of a sudden, your job no longer looks important," Sloan says. "To honor her and go on with my life, I did basically what I thought she would want me to."
He kept coaching, something she demanded when the biopsy first came back malignant. These weren't the old days. Quitting no longer was an option. Jerry Sloan got here -- and has outlasted 230 coaching changes around the league -- by turning into a fighter.
So he's still on the sidelines, at age 67, discussing another possible season beyond this one. He has remarried, even though it meant taking on responsibility for his wife's 12-year-old son.
"He's a wonderful kid," Sloan says. "And a very competitive kid."
Is it any wonder Sloan likes him?
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