Another number, another banner, another set of rafters for Jerry Sloan, who considers that an appropriate destination for an old bat — or coot or whatever — such as himself.
“Yeah, that’s where I belong,” he said on the phone the other day, with a quick, self-deprecating laugh. “It’s not something I campaigned for. I told them I didn’t want to do it. They insinuated I needed to do it. So they’ve been good to me. I’ll probably, I guess, change my mind.”
The “it” is the banner that the Utah Jazz will be hoisting high above the floor at Energy Solutions Arena Friday night honoring their legendary head coach. It features the number “1223,” representing the team’s total of regular-season (1,127) and postseason (96) victories with Sloan as coach from 1988-2011.
It’s the second number linked to Sloan to reach such heights — his jersey (4) from his playing days with Chicago was the first one retired by the Bulls.
Uncomfortable or not with all the attention, Sloan will be joined by his wife Tammy, family, friends, former Jazz cohorts including Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone and an arena packed with appreciative fans. And it will cap “Jerry Sloan Day” in Utah, as proclaimed by Gov. Gary Herbert, who probably embarrassed Sloan recalling his No. 3 rank all-time in victories, the Jazz’s 16 consecutive winning seasons and seven division titles under Sloan as well as 19 playoff trips and two Finals berths.
Yeah, the no-nonsense, taciturn Sloan figures to be a little uncomfortable by the end of the night. And though there may be gifts, heck, it’s not likely he’ll be getting a new carburetor for his tractor.
“I just tried to do my job every day, and that’s all you can do,” Sloan told NBA.com. “They can judge you however they want. It boils down to the players. That’s where the interest should be. This is a player’s league, and I was just happy to be a part of it.”
Part of it? More like a face of it, certainly as far as the Jazz’s Mt. Rushmore goes. Here’s what current Utah coach Tyrone Corbin, who played for and later served as an assistant to Sloan (before taking over after Sloan’s abrupt resignation in February 2011) told the Deseret News‘ Jody Genessy:
“When I played here — before I came (and) after I left — when you thought about the Jazz, if you didn’t think about Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone, then it wasn’t the Jazz,” [Corbin] said.
“Even today when you go around the country and people hear the Utah Jazz, the three names that you hear are Jerry Sloan, Karl Malone and John Stockton. That’s just the impact that they’ve had on this franchise.”
The Jazz forever are better off for it, but if basketball history had a proper editor, this never would be happening. Both of Sloan’s banners, and a bunch more, all would be in Chicago, a place he also remains beloved. In a football town partial to big shoulders and defense, Sloan played 10 seasons as the Mike Ditka-Dick Butkus of the Bulls. If smash-mouth basketball had a Twitter account, Sloan’s mug shot would be its avatar.
“I knew right off the bat that players I coached wouldn’t play the way I had to try to play to be able to stay in the league,” said the native of McLeansboro, Ill., and product of the University of Evansville. “I wasn’t a guy who could go out and get 20 points a game. I felt I had to do the little things that were important to win. As time went on, I got more confident in some of the other aspects of my game and was able to contribute it, to help the team some games.”
Don’t let him fool you, though; when Sloan retired, his playing career cut short by age 34 by knee injuries, he ranked third all-time in rebounds by a guard, behind only Hal Greer and Oscar Robertson. He averaged 14.0 points in his 11 seasons, was a two-time All-Star and six-time All-Defensive player.
Hired as coach in April 1979, Sloan was dumped in February 1982. He missed Michael Jordan’s arrival by 27 months, so it’s not hard to imagine Sloan on Chicago’s sideline for all the winning that would come, including those 1997 and ’98 Finals against the Jazz.
Such daydreamy revisionism holds appeal only because the one ambition Sloan missed out on, by the standards he set for himself, he might have realized in Chicago. As his first wife Bobbye, who died of cancer in 2004, told Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson years ago:
“We were talking about his career,” she said, “and [Jerry] said, ‘I can never consider my career a success if I retire without winning a championship. I can never consider myself a success because I didn’t win it as a player and now as a coach,’ ” Bobbye shook her head sadly. “I tell him, ‘You can’t do that. You’ve got to look at all the things you’ve done.’
“I tell him, ‘Look at the number of people who have played and coached in the league who didn’t win a championship.’ But he just says, ‘I can’t do that. If I don’t win it, I’ll consider myself a failure because that’s the goal I set for myself when I started playing.’ He has said this time and time again.”
The failure stuff seems silly now. As a player, Sloan’s Bulls, coached by Dick Motta, couldn’t compete at the center spot. Jordan’s Bulls were simply better in ’97 and ’98 than Sloan’s Jazz.
Meanwhile, what Sloan did in Salt Lake City was remarkable. He signed on as scout in 1983-84, worked as an assistant to Frank Layden for four years and in December 1988 took over as the franchise’s sixth coach when Layden resigned.
Over the next 23 seasons, Sloan coached the Jazz in 1,809 consecutive games and won 1,127 in the regular season, both records for anyone with one franchise. He — along with only Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich — reached 50 victories in 10 different seasons, and he steered Utah to 16 consecutive winning seasons.
He got recognition from his peers in 2004 when NBA coaches voted him the Sporting News‘ Coach of the Year (the Jazz went 42-40 in their first season without Stockton and Malone). But in an Alfred-Hitchcock-never-won-an-Oscar-sized oversight, Sloan never was honored as the NBA’s Coach of the Year, though he went into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
His name has come up for jobs several times in recent seasons, talking with Milwaukee last spring and with Charlotte, Portland and Orlando before that. Not only does Sloan have the resume, there is a feeling of unfinished business about him, given the suddenness of his departure and the sense that butting heads with point guard Deron Williams hardly is the proper way for him to exit.
“I doubt it,” Sloan said about returning, before revving a bit to the idea. “The light gets dimmer all the time. We’ll just have to see what happens and go from there.
“I couldn’t say yes or no, one way or the other right now. … I figure in coaching, you don’t go [back in at] the top where I’ve been. You’ve got to go in at the bottom and start from there. You can’t ever say never, yes or no at this point. My health’s still good, other than my arm for a little bit.”
Sloan, still a vigorous 71, slipped on some ice this winter coming out of a restaurant in Salt Lake City. He landed on and fractured his right elbow, requiring surgery, and still is undergoing therapy. “It’s just a little aggravating,” he said. “Pain is only pain for a while, I guess.”
The Jazz named Sloan as a senior adviser after last season and he has grown more comfortable in the role, assured by Corbin not to hold back for fear of treading on the younger coach’s turf. That’s scratching the itch, at least a little.
“I want to see if I can contribute something to the Jazz if they need it,” he said Wednesday. “If I’m able to help there, then fine. If not … time will take care of all that.”
A vacancy is required for Sloan to return to the sideline, so that’s the good news: no coach has been fired yet this season.
“They fired ‘em all before the season,” Sloan said, making his distaste for those maneuvers clear. “I was lucky enough to be a head coach here for 23 years and this [level of coaching turnover] was a drastic change. It didn’t look good for basketball, from my standpoint.”
Like retiring NBA commissioner David Stern has said in numerous interviews this week, like so many former players and coaches when pressed to talk about the things they miss most from NBA life, Sloan answered quickly.
“The great people I worked with,” he said. “[Longtime assistant and friend] Phil Johnson and I were together for so long. Assistant coaches like Ty Corbin. It’s hard to remove yourself from those guys because they’re so important to what we tried to do every day. That was a fun part of basketball.
“I think Ty is a terrific young coach. He worked hard with the guys in practice, doing a lot of stuff that people don’t see. He relates very well to players. I think he’s done a great job, considering the situation they were in to start with.” The Jazz have gone 11-10 since their 4-19 start.
“They play hard and that’s the starting point,” Sloan said. “Then you have to have players – you can’t win in this game with coaching.”
A big, bold banner soon will be arguing to the contrary.