It feels like it happened about six lifetimes ago now, but it sure seemed seismic at the time: Wait a second, Jerry Sloan’s retiring? What the hell happened?
What was first presented as a behind-closed-doors disagreement between the Utah Jazz’s venerable head coach and longtime general manager Kevin O’Connor after a Feb. 9, 2011, loss to the Chicago Bulls was quickly set into relief as an ongoing battle between Sloan and All-Star point guard Deron Williams, a fight over Utah’s on-court direction and play-calling that had been simmering throughout the season and that boiled over in a halftime square-off that reportedly featured both Williams and Sloan suggesting to owner Greg Miller that they’d reached the end of their respective ropes.
Hours later, Sloan officially decided to walk away. Weeks later, the Jazz bid farewell to Williams, trading away a 26-year-old All-Star who’d averaged better than 19 points and 10 assists per game over the previous three seasons rather than trying to fix what was broken and risk losing him for nothing in unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2012. Just like that, two linchpins of Jazz basketball were gone, leaving the franchise to find a new center and chart a new path forward.
The Jazz moved on, rebuilding first around Gordon Hayward — just a 20-year-old rookie when everything went sideways between his point guard and his head coach — and now around the inside-out combination of defensive game-changer Rudy Gobert and the electric Donovan Mitchell under head coach Quin Snyder. The franchise now appears to be on steady ground for the first time since everything shifted under its feet 7 1/2 years ago.
Sloan moved on, eventually returning to the Jazz as an adviser and scouting consultant in 2013, with Williams long gone. The team would raise a banner in his honor in 2014; two years later, in 2016, the legendary coach was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.
Williams moved on, eventually getting a maximum-salaried commitment from the Nets, but things fell apart for him once he left Salt Lake City. Injuries, inconsistent play and a rumored unwillingness to shoulder the burden of being the leader in Brooklyn led to a disappointing downturn that saw him bounce to Dallas and then to Cleveland before bowing out of the league at age 32.
But even though the parties involved moved on, the icy relationship between the former player and coach never thawed … until, it seems, this summer.
Aaron Falk of the Jazz’s website on Monday shared the story of how Williams — who’s been seen in Utah more frequently over the last few months, despite having become persona non grata in the area for most of the years since his exit — finally found “the right time to make amends” with Sloan back in June:
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years,” he said. “Just kind of stubbornness and nerves and all that played a part in why I never reached out.”
That changed earlier this summer. Seven years after his falling out with Jerry Sloan prompted the Hall of Fame coach’s resignation—and Williams’ eventual trade out of Utah—the point guard found himself face to face with his old coach.
Sitting at a table in Sloan’s home office, the two men had their first extended conversation since what Williams refers to as “the infamous day.” Williams is 34 now, older and more contrite. Sloan is now 76. His health is deteriorating and, as he battles Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, he can lose his train of thought.
“But I’ll tell you what,” Williams said, “he does remember a lot. That’s for sure. The good, the bad, the ugly.”
In his conversation with Falk, Williams confirms the broad strokes of what others had previously reported was at the heart of his disagreement with Sloan: that he’d grumbled with teammates about Utah’s approach on both ends of the court; that he’d bucked back at a play Sloan had called from the sideline, “flipping it” to get his teammate the ball on the opposite side of the floor because, he says, that’s where he preferred to go to work; that Sloan responded furiously, asking Williams if he wanted to coach the team; and that, after the contentious halftime, rather than breaking the team’s huddle with the customary “1, 2, 3, Jazz!,” Sloan offered up a “1, 2, 3, good luck.”
It was a difficult situation, and one in which, as Kelly Dwyer wrote for us back in 2012, there was plenty of blame to go around:
Former Jazz All-Star Deron Williams was wrong to make life rough for Sloan by breaking the plays that his coach called; but Sloan also needed to learn to trust his franchise player and not call a play every time down court. Including off of offensive rebounds.
Sloan was wrong to come off so heavy-handed, or to quit in a fit midseason, but he would have been selling out his principles otherwise had he stuck around.
The Jazz personnel chiefs were wrong to side with Williams so quickly, but coaches (even Hall of Fame coaches) can be subbed in and out, and All-Star point guards (as both the Jazz and possibly New Jersey Nets are about to find out, with Deron) aren’t easily replaceable.
Some aspects of Williams’ version of events differ from what came before. As Mychal Lowman of SLC Dunk notes, this iteration has Williams saying he knew that Sloan had “the power” and “the juice,” rather than claiming the opposite, as had previously been reported. That’s kind of a big inversion, one that retroactively cleans up Williams’ reputation in the matter, and one that would seem to go along with the general idea that the Jazz are opening the door to Williams’ return to the fold as one of the franchise’s great players. (Due to his health issues, Sloan’s not quoted in the piece.)
Williams — now 34 and a full season removed from playing a small late-season role for the Cleveland Cavaliers, his third post-Jazz employer — insists that the ending of his relationship with Sloan “has always hung over my head and affected me,” and that he wishes he “would have handled it differently.” But he’d never acted on those feelings until Jazz president Steve Starks reached out to see if he could broker a meeting and a detente, fearing that Sloan could pass away before they ever tried to repair the relationship.
So, on June 19, the owner, the president, the point guard and the coach met at Sloan’s home office … where Williams apologized. Sloan, from the sound of it, responded like you would expect Jerry Sloan to respond:
“[Williams] was very penitent and, in my observation, very sincere in what he said to Jerry,” Miller said.
Sloan, however, was not receptive to the apology.
At least not at first.
“Jerry’s a tough guy,” Miller said. “He’s got a lot of pride.” […]
“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”
After that truth-telling, though, the men shook hands and Williams left feeling like a weight had been lifted: “I got a chance to apologize for how things went down. He got to voice his opinion about all the times I was a little s–t to him and was a pain in his ass, and for him to get things off his chest. I think it was good. There was nothing bad about it. It was only positive.”
It’s a shame that Williams and Sloan couldn’t have come to that kind of understanding and peace 7 1/2 years ago, before everything changed for both men and for the franchise that employed them. That it happened at all, though, is a hell of a lot better than the alternative, and than leaving important things unsaid before of stubbornness and pride. Whatever comes next for Deron Williams, Jerry Sloan and the Jazz, at least they put this particular bit of bad business to bed.
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