Vale Jerry Sloan
On the tail of the Last Dance series, the Original Bull has also departed this mortal coil.
Jerry Sloan died yesterday at the age of 78 after years of battling Parkinsons Disease and Lewy Body Dementia.
Whilst he was most well known as the coach of the Utah Jazz – a position he held for 23 seasons – he was an outstanding player in his own right. After a rookie season with the Baltimore Bullets, Sloan was Chicago’s 1st pick in the expansion draft (thus the Original Bull nickname). He went on to a stellar career in Chicago, playing in a pair of All-Star games and picking up 6 All Defense awards, despite suffering knee complaints throughout his playing days.
He consistently scored in the mid to high teens as a Bull, but it was in defense where he made his name. A hard nosed and intense player, Sloan’s ‘never say die’ attitude in the court bled through to his teammates. Fellow acclaimed coach and former Celtic Don Nelson tells of the first time that he played against Sloan – he got punched in the mouth! Sloan led his upstart expansion team to the playoffs in 8 of his 10 seasons as a player.
Steals were not recorded until Sloan’s age 31 season, in which he averaged 2.4 steals per game. Anecdotally, he probably averaged above 3 per game through his prime. Despite not getting credit for steals through most of his career, Sloan remains the only NBA player in history to average over 7 rebounds and 2 steals for his career. If the Defensive Player of the Year award was around in Sloan’s time, it’s conceivable that he would have won the award multiple times.
Sloan’s time as a coach almost never came to be. His first coaching role was with Evansville – his Alma mater – in 1976, but he backed out of the role only days after accepting it. Later that season, the entire Evansville playing and coaching staff lost their lives in a plane crash.
Sloan rejoined the Bulls as an assistant in 1977, taking over the reins as head coach for the 1978/79 season. In his 3 seasons at the helm, he took the team to their only playoff appearance in a span of 7 years – the one bright spot in a stretch of futility that was finally broken by the arrival of Michael Jordan, who would go on to shatter Coach Sloan’s dreams down the track.
As the coach of the Jazz, Sloan became a legend. In his time in Salt Lake, he coached 133 players, including the Who’s Who of the franchise: Karl Malone, John Stockton, Andrei Kirilenko, Deron Williams, Thurl Bailey, Darrell Griffith, Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer, Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek and Gordon Hayward all came under Sloan’s tutelage at some point in their career.
It’s a testament to his longevity that the Hornets, Grizzlies, Magic, Timberwolves and Raptors didn’t exist when he began coaching. Across the league there were 245 head coaching hires between his first and last game with the Jazz. In his 23 seasons at the helm, the Jazz finished under .500 just once – that’s incredible. It’s a travesty that Sloan doesn’t have a Coach of the Year award to his name.
A defensive stalwart as a player, Sloan imparted that mentality to his teams, but he was also a brilliant offensive coach. Tactically, Sloan could be inflexible, but his gameplans were masterpieces. His heavy side pick and roll based offense was a precursor to practically every offense we see in today’s NBA. That basic two man action famously had 11 different options that could come from it. John Stockton running a modern version of Sloan’s offense would be unstoppable in today’s game. Whilst the Jazz never made it to peak of the mountaintop, Sloan’s legacy can be seen in literally every game we witness today…..or at least will witness whenever basketball returns.
Sloan’s Jazz famously made it to back to back NBA finals in the 1997 and 98 seasons, falling on both occasions to his former team in Chicago. The Jazz are generally regarded as the team that pushed the Jordan era Bulls closer to the brink than anyone. The 1997, The Bulls outscored the Jazz by a mere 4 points across the entire 6 games. In 1998 – excluding the game 3 evisceration – that margin was 5 points over 5 games.
That aforementioned game 3 in 1998 – a 42 point shellacking – was a great example of one of Sloan’s great traits: deadpan humour in the face of adversity. “This was actually the score? Is this the final?” he asked of the assorted press folk. Even in the worst moments, the man was matter of fact.
Sloan was born in rural Illinois just outside of the delightfully named Gobblers Knob in 1942. Sloan grew up working on his family farm, waking at 4.30am every day to do chores, before walking around two miles for 7am basketball training. His father passed when he was just 4 years old, so it was up to he and his brothers – he was the youngest of 10 children – to keep the farm afloat. Sloan’s love of the country life stayed with him throughout his days, sometimes in the form of his collection of vintage tractors – at one stage he had 35 of them, all hand restored by Sloan himself – or his ever present John Deere cap.
Sloan brought that old fashioned farmhand mentality to the court, both as a rabid player and an intense coach. His loyalty to his players was unparalleled. From refusing to hang Deron Williams out to dry in 2011, to literally fighting for his players (he got in the grills of Dennis Rodman, Rasheed Wallace, Kenyon Martin and Jerry Stackhouse), to altercations with referees, Sloan never let his players face the battle alone. For that, he was loved, by both current and former Jazz men.
Basketball lost one of it’s great ones today. A great player, a greater coach, and even greater again as a man.
Vale Gerald Eugene Sloan