February 10, 2011
Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has been with the Jazz for nearly 30 years, with this being his 23rd as head coach. And though he had a somewhat-public dust-up with longtime Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor after the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, that can't possibly mean that the longest-tenured coach in North American major pro sports would be resigning anytime soon, could it?
Though rumors have been batting around since Sloan promised an announcement following Wednesday night's game, nobody could fathom that particular ending, not that truth. But the truth is that Sloan and longtime assistant coach Phil Johnson are stepping down their positions effective immediately.
You heard that right. For the first time since Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, someone else besides Jerry Sloan will be the head coach of the Utah Jazz. Go ahead and pick your jaw up off the floor.
It shouldn't be a surprise, even if it is shocking. Not only has Sloan coached an astounding 1,903 games with the Jazz, but the soon-to-be 69-year-old has presided over 196 playoff games as Jazz coach, the equivalent of nearly 2 1/2 regular seasons. The Jazz came close to winning a title twice, both times losing at the hands of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in 1997 and 1998, and have been playoff stalwarts in every year but 2004, 2005 and 2006 during Sloan's run. And the Jazz were just about locks to make the postseason this spring for the 20th time in Sloan's 23 years as head man.
He'd clearly put in his time. And after presiding over a wildly inconsistent Jazz team (Utah, for all its talent and veteran players, is the worst first-quarter team in the NBA in terms of point differential) this season, butting heads throughout the decade with Jazz rotation players both significant (Andrei Kirilenko(notes), Carlos Boozer(notes)) and otherwise (DeShawn Stevenson(notes), John Starks), one can understand why Sloan felt it time to step down. Along with his longtime deputy, former Chicago, Sacramento and Kansas City Kings head coach (yes, it's been that long) Phil Johnson.
But that doesn't mean the apparent retirement of someone who seems just as engaged as ever (though that can go both ways) 23 years into his run doesn't leave the NBA gobsmacked.
Sloan had his detractors through the years, and the tractor-enthusiast seemed intractable when it came to team expectations, play-calling, rotations, and minutes allotment. But though he was blessed with much talent in his time in Salt Lake City, Sloan never stopped winning. In fact, his greatest achievement as Jazz coach may have been squeezing 42 wins out of an overachieving cast of non-stars back in 2003-04, the year following Karl Malone and John Stockton's final year with the Jazz.
In the end, Sloan's legacy won't be defined as the man who coached Stockton and Malone nearly to the top of that hill. He came in with both players as an assistant coach, but he soldiered on following their leaving, still calling for the same flex cuts, UCLA cuts, and screen-and-roll plays with a different and developing cast of characters. And Sloan was the ultimate NBA character, never once buttoning the top button on his dress shirts, never once appearing to be too far removed from the rural Illinois upbringing that made him the dogged competitor that he was. And is, up to late on Wednesday evening, coaching against the same Chicago squad he made the All-Star team with back in the 1970s, and the same franchise that gave him his start in coaching.
If it was the last call for Sloan, it was telling. A fight to the end, a row after the contest, with the two teams that meant the most to him playing a guard-driven duel down to the final buzzer. Though we're surprised to see Sloan retire mid-season, if there ever was a way to go out (save for following a trip to the championship podium), this was it.
And if that was his final game as an NBA head coach, we can only hope it won't be the last time we see him around the NBA ranks. Calluses and all, the NBA needs more players, personalities and coaches like Jerry Sloan.