Sloan’s departure hurts basketball
On the evening of Feb. 10, when I heard the news that Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan had resigned his position, I sat down abruptly and stared off into space for quite some time.
Someone, with no medical or psychological credentials whatsoever, once told me that when you do this for more than 10 seconds, it’s considered a seizure. If this is true, I must have close to 50 seizures a day. And all this time I thought I was just prone to daydreaming.
Sloan was my favorite coach. He had guided the Jazz for the last 23 years, and was a straightforward disciplinarian who insisted that his teams play hard at all times, and play together. This approach has become something of an anomaly in professional athletics, where the glorification of the individual and big-money contracts now litter the entire sporting landscape.
Sloan recorded only one losing season in his tenure with Utah, and retired third on the list of all time NBA coaching victories with 1,221. Yet, his clashes with often-injured stars Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko and a heated locker room argument with point guard Deron Williams served as a final straw in dealing with the modern-day athlete.
Born in Gobbler’s Knob, Ill., Sloan was one of 10 children raised on a farm by a single mother. His day routinely began at 4:30 a.m. doing chores, followed by a two-mile walk to school for 7 a.m. basketball practice. His tough, rural upbringing gives clues as to why Sloan eventually grew tired of the pampered NBA players.
He became an all-state high school basketball player in Illinois, and went on to an All-American career at Evansville (Ind.) University. While in college, Sloan worked part time making refrigerators at Whirlpool to help pay for the schooling that his family couldn’t afford.
The NBA’s Chicago Bulls awaited, and Sloan the player was much like Sloan the coach – fiery and tenacious, especially at the defensive end of the court. Though forced into an early retirement due to bad knees, his No. 4 jersey was the first ever retired by the Chicago franchise.
Ironically, in 1997 and 1998, the two years that Sloan led Utah to the NBA finals, it was the Chicago Bulls that denied him the title on both occasions. The Bulls would also be the last team he coached against before resigning.
In April 2009, Sloan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame along with the man who served as his point guard for many years in Utah, John Stockton. A throwback to the old days if there ever was one, Stockton was asked by a media type following his acceptance speech why he always seemed to be looking over at Sloan before calling a play as he brought the ball up court.
“Why wouldn’t I? He was the coach,” replied Stockton.
A novel thought, but unfortunately, an out-of-date one in this day and age.
With farming forever in his blood, Sloan still wears John Deere hats and restores old tractors as a hobby. The tranquility of the farm is a well-deserved respite for the 68-year-old coach who fought the battles of life and fought them well. The teams he coached reflected his toughness and the game of basketball was made better by his presence, as were the men who were fortunate enough to play for him.
To say the game had passed Jerry Sloan by would be, in my estimation, incorrect. It would serve the point better to say that the game has passed by, not the coach, but many of today’s players.
Mike Vidakovich writes freelance for the Post Independent.
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