SALT LAKE CITY – After Rod Thorn fired him with the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Sloan packed his belongings and moved back to the farming town of McLeansboro, Ill. He brought with him a losing record and a shaken spirit. Deep down, he feared he had blown his chance to coach in the NBA.
Back home, Sloan found salvation in witnessing his son Brian’s high school championship basketball seasons. He had missed a lot in pro ball. And until his boy left for college, Sloan resolved he would miss no more.
“Those two years were terrific for me to be out, because I got the chance to watch my son play,” Sloan said Thursday morning. He hated to get fired as a basketball coach. He had never failed in his life. Yet, a quarter of a century later, Sloan understands that it was the best thing that ever happened to him. He wouldn’t trade that time watching his son play ball for the chance to have stayed and coached Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “That time allowed me to figure out what I wanted to do, and watching [that team] reinforced what I thought I was about in coaching.”
Sloan left behind the dysfunction of those pre-Jordan Bulls for a chance to work on Frank Layden’s staff with the Utah Jazz in 1984. When Layden, the general manager and coach, promoted Sloan in 1988, the boss had his back: The coach is going to be here. The players are expendable.
“I couldn’t have been any happier than to hear those words,” Sloan said.
For all the greatness of John Stockton and Karl Malone blurring into Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, for the genius in the simplicity of Sloan’s relentless pursuit of fundamental, tough-minded basketball, there’s an unmistakable reason he’s still on the job 20 years this week: Management insulated him. These days, GMs and coaches are often in death grips. They fight for the favor of the owner, the blessing of superstars and super agents. Sloan has always believed it’s a player’s league, but he knew this: It has to be the coach’s locker room.
“Players know in a second when the coach is in trouble,” Sloan said. “Lose three or four games, and everybody says, ‘Well, the coach isn’t doing this, or doing that.’ And right away the player runs to his agent. Their agent tells them, ‘Well, I wouldn’t let myself get injured in that situation. I wouldn’t do anything to get me hurt until the next coach comes in.’
“Agents know when a guy is going to get fired. They know it better than coaches. But that doesn’t work too well here. You have to call me and see if I’m ready to go. And they don’t call me.”
The game, the profession, has changed dramatically. Sloan never does. He still eats his game-night meals in the press room with the sportswriters and scouts. For lunch on the road he usually wanders out of the Ritz Carltons to find a mall food court with his assistant coaches. Sloan is still most apt to choose Subway. He doesn’t have an agent, and he still doesn’t have an Armani in his closet.
Hours before the Jazz – without Boozer – beat the Portland Trail Blazers at EnergySolutions Arena, Sloan left the morning shootaround wearing a sparkling new John Deere baseball cap. There will never, ever be another NBA coach who was raised the youngest of 10 children on a farm with horse-pulled plows. From Layden to owner Larry Miller, and now Miller’s son, Greg, the Jazz have never let the changing culture of pro basketball change their franchise.
“We owe it to our coach to put him in a position where he has that authority with the players and not feel like he’s got to look over his shoulder and tread lightly and not upset the players,” said Greg Miller, the franchise’s new CEO. “In this organization, the players always know that if Jerry says it, it’s going to happen.
“For any of us on the business side of basketball to ever meddle with things, it would destroy the formula we have here.”
Sloan has a fantastic general manager, Kevin O’Connor. Ask his peers for a list of the top five executives in the sport, and O’Connor’s name is always on it. He has no ego. Under Sloan, the Jazz have had just one losing season, and they’ve drafted in the top 10 just that once. They picked Williams and, suddenly, they were on the way back to Western Conference contention. Salt Lake City isn’t the city for every NBA player, and Sloan sure isn’t the coach for everyone.
Sloan isn’t a social worker. He isn’t a psychologist. He insists that he’s never motivated a player in his life. That isn’t his job, he says. The Jazz have always given him driven young players, and they’ve developed under him. He teaches and he drills, and then Sloan does it all over again.
“I never felt any ownership as a player in Chicago,” Sloan said. “I just felt like I was a guy making a living. And as far as all these years here, I’ve never felt any ownership. [The Jazz] don’t owe me anything. They’ve given me a job and I’ve got to try and do the best I can.”
The Jazz have a shot in the Western Conference again. They’ll be right there. Sloan has been without Williams (13 games) and Boozer (12 games), and he’s still just one game out in the Northwest Division. This is a deep and talented team, but out West the Los Angeles Lakers are still in the way. Twenty years on the job, and 223 coaches have come and gone in the NBA, and Sloan keeps chasing that championship season. Twenty years on the job, and he never wanted to be GM, never wanted to be emperor. He just wanted his bosses to have his back and let him have his locker room. He’d always do the rest.
“I’ve always worried about losing my job,” he said. “I don’t think that anyone is infallible in this business. There are guys that have a lot more power in basketball. They have the ability to be able to stay. I’ve never felt that I needed that. Never wanted that.
“Maybe they fire you tomorrow. Then what do you do? You walk out the door and say ‘I did the best I could.’ ”