Commentary

Sloan's 20th anniversary punctuated by win

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's record-setting tenure was marked by a win against a team with a new coach, Tim Buckley writes.

Updated: December 10, 2008, 10:31 AM ET
By Tim Buckley | Special to ESPN.com

Jerry SloanDavid Sherman/Getty ImagesJerry Sloan arrived at the Target Center ready for a milestone evening.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Before his Minnesota Timberwolves lost 99-96 to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, Kevin McHale plopped into a folding chair to field questions.

McHale -- the longtime Timberwolves front-office boss, who was preparing to work the sideline for the first time since the team fired Randy Wittman on Monday -- initially fielded a few mundane but obligatory lineup questions.

Then he was asked about the incongruent reality of it all.

Because there he was, toiling on the Wolves' bench for the second time in five seasons, this latest switch marking the 223rd NBA coaching change in 20 years.

And just down the hall, there was Utah coach Jerry Sloan -- the only coach the team has known since he replaced Frank Layden on Dec. 9, 1988 -- celebrating his 20th anniversary in charge of the same team.

McHale didn't have much of an answer, really, other than to praise Sloan. And then he was asked whether he could see himself coaching in 20 years.

"No, sir," the former Boston Celtics great said with a hearty laugh.

The job, it seems, isn't one that appeals to McHale even now that he has it.

Again.

"Home games are great," said McHale, who went 19-12 -- with Kevin Garnett on the roster, it should be noted -- when he replaced the fired Flip Saunders for the end of the 2004-05 season.

And there are the necessities of the job, such as travel.

"Like tonight," McHale said, even before boarding a plane for the first time as a coach this season. "I've got no interest in getting into Denver at 2:30 in the morning and having a 50-minute bus ride from the airport that's closer to Montana than it is Denver.

"That whole thing is just a drag. But, at this point, these are my guys. You know, I got 'em here, and they were suffering, and we're gonna try to give them a little resuscitation here."

The Jazz, meanwhile, have been Sloan's guys for two decades now.

Just how has he managed to stay with the same team longer than any other coach or manager in any of America's four major professional sports leagues?

Credit for that, he reiterated Tuesday, goes largely to longtime Jazz owner Larry H. Miller.

"Larry's had a lot of trust in Coach and has allowed him to coach this team for 20 years," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said. "You know, without Larry, Coach wouldn't be here."

"Larry's the one that stood behind us when things were not going very well, and obviously that was a huge thing," Sloan said. "Because the easiest thing to do is change a coach."

It's happened 12 times for both the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks since Sloan was promoted from assistant in Utah. Eleven times for the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers. And eight times in Minnesota, making it four in the NBA -- along with the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder -- this season alone.

"It's tough to keep a job nowadays, in today's game," Williams said. "If you don't win, they tend to get people out of there quick."

"You look around and see what happens all the time, and realize it hasn't happened to me in 20 years," said Sloan, who earlier this season notched his 1,000th victory with the Jazz. "I'm pretty fortunate."

But why?

How has he latched onto such luck, especially in such a volatile win-now business?

Perhaps it's because the climate is simply different in Utah.

"He has a style that's very different than most coaches are allowed to have now," Jazz shooting guard Kyle Korver said.

"I just think today, with how much money the players are making, you know, a lot of times the players have more say than the coach does. But because he's been here so long, he gets so much more respect," Korver added. "You know, what he says goes. And if you don't do what he says, you're not gonna play. And you just can't argue with that. You can't go to the [management] in Utah and say, 'Hey, blah, blah,' and get in some fight. It just doesn't happen here, and that's rare. Not just in basketball, but all sports, really."

The reality of it all is hardly lost on Sloan, who before Tuesday's victory over Minnesota listened to a short announcement of his milestone achievement on the public-address system at Target Center.

A few moments later, Sloan also heard many of the few thousand who actually showed up to watch the game shower the announcement of McHale as Minnesota's new coach -- again -- with a less than cordial round of boos.

"Players make a tremendous amount of money compared to years ago. And owners want to see results," Sloan said. "So, patience is tough to come by.

"Everybody has their own ideas when they own a team. They have their own ideas, and they have the ability to do what they want to do. I don't have a problem with what other teams do. I just feel like I've been blessed to be able to be in one place for a long time."

Tim Buckley covers the Utah Jazz for the Deseret News.