Sloan keeps marching on

10/12/2003 - Utah Jazz

Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Utah Jazz.

SALT LAKE CITY -- When John Stockton retired and Karl Malone left Utah to join the Lakers this summer, the Jazz as we've known them for the past 18 years died a grisly death.

The magic that had made for 18 straight playoff appearances with Stockton and Malone has disappeared.


One last piece of the Jazz dynasty refuses to be buried. He stands 6-foot-6. He patrols the sidelines like a shark that smells blood in the water. The John Deere hat on his head is a symbol for all that he stands for. When he speaks, his players stand at attention. He's like a prophet from the Old Testament: His wrath is swift, his convictions unwavering.

If the Jazz survive this season ... if they win more than 20 games ... if they exceed expectations, there will be only one explanation. Jerry Sloan is still coaching the Jazz.

Stockton and Malone may have been the heart of this team, but Sloan is the conscience.

Today, he's defiant. Stockton may have called it a career and Malone may have bolted for a chance at a ring, but Sloan still has a job to do.

"Basketball hasn't changed," Sloan said. "All it is is basketball. Some teams are going to be better than others. But if you love basketball, you keep working your butt off."

Sloan knows what others are saying. He's heard the dire predictions and the whispers that the Jazz may be the worst team ever. He doesn't care.

His job this season is to transform a rag-tag roster of rookies and forgotten veterans into a team. Preferably one that wins.

His prescription?

"Hard work will give them the chance to get better," he said. "If players work hard they usually improve ... Will that add up to a lot of wins or a lot of losses? People say that it will add up to a lot of losses but I don't think you try to go out and get better with the idea that you're going to lose. I've always believed that you try to win. Anything less than that you're a loser."

That may cure some of what ails the Jazz. But it's a start.

"We have a good team," Matt Harpring said. "We have guys who can play. I don't think we're going to be the worst team in the NBA. I read somewhere that we we're only going to win eight games. I promise you we'll win more than eight games. We have guys with a lot of heart who will play hard every night. That will put us in a position to win."

Still Harpring and his teammates are realistic. Without Stockton and Malone, their jobs get much harder.

"Defenses will be keying in," Harpring said. "Playing with Karl last year, he was the center of our offense and drew the defense away from me. Plus when you play with great players, they make it easier on everyone else."

Quietly, Sloan and general manager Kevin O'Connor admit that the hardest part will be finding a star to fill Stockton's and Malone's shoes.

O'Connor is willing to be patient. He has an enormous amout of salary cap room and doesn't want to squander it. He made big offers for four players this summer -- Elton Brand, Andre Miller, Corey Maggette and Jason Terry. Brand and Miller flirted with the Jazz before ultimately signing offer sheets with the Heat and Nuggets, respectively. Maggette and Terry signed on, only to have their offer sheets matched by the Clippers and Hawks.

After their star-stocking plans fell through, O'Connor felt that the best course of action was to keep the team lean and give his young players a chance to prove themselves. Next year he's hoping he'll have a better handle on who does and doesn't have a future in Utah.

You can only get so far with hard work in this league. At some point, you need a star to rise up and take the team by the reins.

Two weeks into training camp, the Jazz still aren't convinced that they've found that guy. Neither are their players.

"These guys have to learn to play before they can be stars," Sloan said. "Sometimes if you're a star before you really play, you get yourself into a bind."

"We've got to play our game," Harpring said. "When you try to do too much, you get in trouble. I know there will be pressure for guys to take the next step, but you've got to be ready."

"I want to be a team guy," said third-year forward Andrei Kirilenko. "Someday I want to be a star, but right now the best thing I can do is just work with each other."

"I don't necessarily think they're looking for me to be a leader," Keon Clark said. "They're just looking for me to help."

Harpring comes in with the most accomplished resume. He had a breakout year last season in Sloan's system. But without Malone drawing double teams on the block, he won't be seeing all of those open jumpers this year.

Kirilenko has the most star potential. But he's young, unassuming and still hasn't developed a consistent jump shot to go with the rest of his repertoire.

Clark has the athleticism and size to be a star in the league. But right now, he's still a journeyman that talks more about potential than any actual contribution he's made in his five-plus years in the league.

DeShawn Stevenson is drawing rave reviews from Sloan because of his hard work in camp. But everyone is trying to curb their enthusiasm. Stevenson has performed well in camp before, only to fall apart once the real games are played.

The rest of the team is a hodge podge of rookies (the Jazz have four on the roster this year) and non-descript veterans.

"I don't see any stars out here," Sloan said. "I see five guys who, if they work hard and play together, can succeed. We just want to find five guys who can play together. I don't think our team is good enough to give the ball to one guy and say, 'You go be the star.'"

In fact, the players and Sloan are already growing weary of the comparisons. They all claim that they've moved on, so why can't the media?

"There are a lot of teams in this league that don't have Hall of Famers or stars, but they still produce," Clark said. "We'll never be able to fill Stockton's and Malone's shoes. It's all about moving on. They're gone now. Everyone quits their jobs sometime. We have to keep doing ours."

That's all Sloan is asking.

"We've still got to play," he said. "That's the only way I know. We're here, we've got a job to do -- so go out, bust your butt and go home."

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.