When you walk out of the Chicago Bulls' locker room and take a right, the first thing you encounter is a life-size mural of Jerry Sloan. He's south of the locker room, on the side with Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Artis Gilmore and other old school Bulls. Nearby is the backscreen before which Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau conducts his pregame press conferences. If Thibodeau would slide about six feet to his right, he'd be chatting with the portrait of a young Sloan hovering over his shoulder.
The last person that would be impressed by such a display is, of course, Sloan. When the Jazz made their visit to the United Center last year, Sloan was asked what he thought about the artwork and his response was vintage Jerry Sloan.
"I didn't see it," Sloan said. "I didn't know it was there. I don't think it affects me too much. I'm going to eat hamburgers anyway."
As you surely know by now, Sloan resigned on Thursday. He was over half-way through his 23rd season as coach of the Jazz. Just seven other NBA coaches have spent that many seasons running a team period, much less with one team. On the list of coaching victories with a single franchise, Sloan has a 332-win margin over the man in second place, Red Auerbach. Sloan won 1,127 regular-season games with the Jazz. Auerbach won 795 with the Celtics. Gregg Popovich, who has won 780 games for San Antonio, should pass Auerbach by season's end.
What happened? Little light was shed during Sloan's farewell press conference yesterday in Salt Lake City. Reports circulated around various media that Sloan had a blow-up with Utah's star point guard, Deron Williams, who supposedly had gotten fed up with the predictability of Sloan's offensive system. (Which had worked despite such limitations for more than two decades, with all sorts of different personnel running it.) Sloan, as you'd expect, shrugged off such suggestions.
"I've had confrontations with guys since I've been in the league, but those things are minor when it comes to wanting to go forward," Sloan said. He used the "go forward" euphemism several times, possibly because his deeply-engrained work ethic wouldn't allow him to use the word "retire." Make no mistake about it though, this is it for Sloan, who turns 69 next month.
"I'm not looking for another job," Sloan said. "My wife have has got a job for me when I get home."
No, it seemed as if Sloan had simply had enough. He has said frequently over the last few years, when asked how long he planned to coach, that he didn't know--he might wake up tomorrow and not want to coach anymore. On Thursday, tomorrow finally came. All those seated at the dais during the press conference, were emphatic that it was Sloan's decision to step down.
"Up until about 10 minutes ago, we were still trying to talk Jerry and (assistant coach) Phil (Johnson) out of leaving," said Utah general manager Kevin O'Conner.
Jazz owner Greg Miller, who took over the team when his father, longtime owner Larry Miller, died in 2009, was also emphatic.
"Nobody pushed Jerry or Phil out," Miller said. "No player pushed him out. Kevin didn't push him out. No aspiring coach pushed him out, and I certainly didn't push him out."
No, it seems that it was simply time. The best Sloan could offer as an explanation was this: "I just thought about it a few days ago and decided this was the time to do it ... and not make a big deal about it. I try not to make a big deal out of most things anyway.
"My energy level is not as good as it used to be."
Sloan finished his career third on the all-time coaching win list with 1,221 victories, behind Don Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332). He probably would have been less than 100 wins behind Nelson by the end of this season, which would have meant he was about two more seasons away from becoming the career leader. For some coaches, that would have been enough reason to hang on. Not Sloan.
Sloan's remarkable longevity with the Jazz will probably be the thing for which he is most remembered. The oft-cited statistic is that there had been 245 coaching changes in the NBA since Sloan took over for Frank Layden in 1988. More than once, I heard it suggested that Sloan's streak is unlikely to ever be replicated. While I hate those kind of declarations because, after all, no one really knows that the future will be like and never is a very long time, 23 years of service with one team is an amazing feat.
Sloan lasted as long as he did because he won, first and foremost. Utah finished .500 or better in all but one of his 23 full or partial seasons. They made the playoffs 19 times and despite recent struggles, will probably get there again this year. He never won a championship, but only five coaches have won more postseason games.
It wasn't just on-court success, though, that allowed Sloan to coach for so long. He benefited from one of the most remarkable owner-coach relationships in all of sports. During that trip to Chicago last March, Sloan was asked several questions about what was at the root of his long tenure. That led to a bit of a rant, or at least a very low-key version of one.
"There a lot better coaches that have got fired than I am, I know that," Sloan said. "I don't know if people have the staying power to be able to stay as long as I've been able to keep my job in Utah. Our ownership has been supportive. When (the media) gets a little rough on coaches, a lot of owners cave in. Our owners never caved in."
He was also asked if that kind of commitment would be better for the sport if more owners operated that way.
"I think it'd send a message to the players," Sloan said. "(If they think) we might change, agents know it, players know and they think we'll wait and play for the next guy that comes in. Sometimes players know that and so why would they worry about it? They'll wait for the next guy.
"I tell our players I'm going to be here and you may not. I've been really fortunate because our owner gave me an opportunity to say that when he first started out. 'Coaches are going to be here and players are expendable.'
"That's very difficult (to find) because you have a lot of great players that as soon as something goes wrong, it's the coaches fault. I accept that but you have to have support. If you don't have support, you don't have a fighting chance."
On Thursday, Greg Miller reiterated the same philosophy as that of his father.
"It's extremely important for the players to know that we support the coach," said Miller. "Anything less than full support of the coach is a breeding ground for mayhem."
Sloan will also be remembered for two things he never achieved--a championship and a Coach of the Year award. It's always been one of my favorite tidbits in sports that Sloan had never won the coaching award, but Johnson, his longtime top assistant, had. Johnson won in 1974-75, when he was the coach of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.
The relationship between Sloan and Johnson underscores the kind of loyalty that Sloan inspired, but also offered in return. That loyalty was evident in the fact that Johnson forewent several chances to strike out on his own over the years, but it was never more evident than Thursday. When Johnson found out Sloan was leaving, his immediate reaction was to leave as well. He noted that he is actually six months older than Sloan and if he stayed around, it could hinder the next staff, which will be headed up by Tyron Corbin, with Scott Layden becoming the top assistant. However, Johnson knew for sometime that Sloan's end would mark his own.
"I came with him and I'll leave with him," Johnson said. "I made that decision a long time ago."
No one is ever going to get Sloan to publicly say how he really feels about something, but if he did, he'd probably tell you that such loyalty means more to him any sort of postseason award. Plus, in a way, Sloan ended up getting more recognition than perhaps he would have had he actually won. You couldn't watch a Jazz game without the other team's announcers saying, "Can you believe this guy has never been Coach of the Year?"
Besides, for Sloan, it's always been about consistency, not one-year surges. After all, six of the last seven COY winners are no longer guiding the team with which they won the award. Only Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, who won the award last season, is still around. Too often, the award goes to the team that comes from nowhere, that exceeds expectations that might have been faulty to begin with. Sloan simply won year after year. It was expected, taken for granted, and when it happened, it was if nobody noticed. Eventually, the evidence piled up in Sloan's favor and he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
As for the championships, that's a tough one. The Jazz won the Western Conference twice in Sloan's tenure, both times losing competitive series to the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. The history of '90s basketball is not only defined by those Bulls teams, but also by the scores of players and coaches that ran up against them and were beaten back. Sloan's 1996-97 team is one of the best non-championship squads in NBA history. Unfortunately, that came in a season in which the Bulls won 69 games. The NBA is a league that has always been prone to dynasties and it's simply a product of bad timing that Sloan's best teams ran up against one of those empires. There are plenty of years you can look back on and see how the Jazz might have won a title, but there aren't really any seasons where you can say they should have won it all. There's a reason why just 28 coaches account for the league's 64 championships.
It's appropriate that the Bulls were Sloan's last opponent. Sloan is known as the "Original Bull" because his ties to the team go all the way back to the 1966 expansion draft that stocked Chicago's first roster. He was a lynchpin on the Bulls' rugged teams of the 1970s, including one squad that came within a game of earning a spot in the 1975 NBA Finals. He first coached with the Bulls, first as an assistant under Dick Motta, then as the head coach beginning in 1979, when he was 37 years old. (He also played under Johnson, who was one of Motta's assistants.)
It also felt appropriate because Sloan lost those two Finals to Chicago, and here were the Bulls now sending him into retirement. In a phone interview on NBA TV, the legendary Jerry West said he watched the game and felt that the Jazz lost because Derrick Rose kicked Deron Williams' butt all over the floor. It's a reminder of the 90s, when Sloan had great players in Karl Malone and John Stockton, but he didn't have the right great players, Jordan or Scottie Pippen. It was also appropriate because the Bulls got key contributions from three players--Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer--whose collective departures from Utah are a big reason the team has slipped this season. Without those departures, perhaps Sloan might be more amenable to sticking around a while longer.
Maybe it was time for Sloan to go. Maybe the my-way-or-the-highway approach no longer has a place in the NBA, though I doubt that's completely true. Either way, Sloan was truly one of a kind. A Chicago reporter told me an anecdote recently that kind of encapsulated what Sloan was all about, which was to do things the right way or not at all.
During one of the Bulls-Jazz Finals matchups, the Jazz were holding a closed practice or shootaround. Suddenly, Sloan came storming off the court and down the hallway between the court and the Jazz locker room, which led him past the media work room in the basement of the United Center. He was muttering something like, "These guys don't even know how to dress right." Apparently, some of the players had come onto the court without tucking in their jerseys. Finals or no Finals, that just wasn't the way Sloan conducted his business.
I have no way of knowing whether that anecdote is apocryphal, but I like to think that it is not. I like to think that Sloan is really that much of a my-way-or-the-highway personality, because his way resulted in some of the most consistently solid and fun to watch basketball ever seen in the NBA. Now, it's time for the highway for Jerry Sloan, and we wish him a good journey.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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