Utah Jazz: Retirement suits Jerry Sloan fine sort of
Riverton • Former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews over the years many while wearing just what he was wearing on this mid-September day.
A long-sleeve T-shirt.
A green John Deere baseball cap.
From appearances, you'd think nothing has changed for Sloan.
He seemed mentally refreshed and emotionally prepared for the start of another basketball season.
This year, however, things are much different.
After 51/2 decades in the sport, there is no professional basketball season on Sloan's radar screen, whether the NBA labor war is settled or not.
No 100 games. No unhappy players. No questions for referees. No coast-to-coast travel for someone who hates to fly not that he'd ever admit it.
Sloan resigned as coach of the Jazz in February, citing fatigue after 23 seasons in the pressure-cooker. Seven months later, he has a new routine.
Standing on the back porch of the palatial home he shares with his wife, Tammy, and his high-school-age stepson, Rhett, Sloan seems content with his decision to retire.
A Kentucky-like horse farm, complete with lush pastures and white fences, borders the south side of the property. In back, one of the holes of River Bend Golf Course runs down a steep hill, with a panoramic view of an undeveloped stretch of the Jordan River valley beyond the green. It's the perfect place for a guy who lives for his daily stroll.
"I always try to walk for an hour at a pretty good pace," Sloan said. "Since I had my knee replaced a few years ago, I can't run any more. But I'd feel lost without my walk. It's not much, but it makes me feel good."
Asked if he has missed basketball, Sloan said, "I really haven't. To be honest, I thought it would probably be a little more overwhelming that it has been."
Not an 'overnight process'
Those who know Sloan believe he has adjusted reasonably well to retirement.
Danny Brown is a longtime friend from southern Illinois who, since the death of Sloan's brother three years ago, has become caretaker of his 2,200-acre farm near McLeansboro.
"He's coping well," Brown said. "I'm sure he misses it some. He's played ball or coached ball ever since high school. That's all he's done. It's got to be hard to walk away. But he's always upbeat and ready to go."
Former Jazz center Mark Eaton, who was forced into sudden retirement by a back injury in 1993, recently had dinner with Sloan.
"There's surely a part of him that misses the game," Eaton said. "But there's probably a part of him that's getting used to being retired, too."
From experience, Eaton knows September and October, when training camp starts and a new season beckons, is the most difficult for ex-players and coaches.
"I've been out of it 17 years," he said. "But when the leaves on the trees start changing, I still get those pangs. You start thinking about basketball again. ... It just takes time. It's not an overnight process."
Down on the farm
Acknowledging that life these days is "different," Tammy Sloan sees her husband-in-retirement as a double-edged event.
"When he's at the farm, he's just fine," she said. "He's entertained all day. He gets up at 5 or 6 in the morning and messes around, taking care of stuff."
"When he's here in Utah, he's bored out of his mind," she said. "He walks and he works out, but he's still looking for enough things to keep him busy."
This summer, Sloan spent nine weeks in Illinois.
Mostly, he worked at organizing and selling items it took a lifetime to accumulate, including a large collection of John Deere tractors, vintage furniture, old cash registers and collectible pottery. Sloan and his first wife, Bobbye, planned to sell antiques when he retired. But she died of cancer in 2004.
"I had to change direction with her passing," Sloan said. "I'm just interested now in moving the stuff and getting on with my life."
Brown helped Sloan do most of the work involved in reducing the inventory at the farm.
"We've been busy all summer, getting rid of stuff," Brown said. "We sweated a lot, but we had a lot of fun, too."
Sloan added: "I knew those buildings had a lot of stuff in them, but I didn't know how much stuff. It was overwhelming, really."
Glancing at the floor of his office, which is furnished as stylishly as any belonging to a Fortune 500 executive, Sloan paused for a moment before continuing. "It brought back a lot of memories," he said. "Mostly, I remembered her fussing at me about spending too much money on some of that stuff."
Another NBA job?
Sloan, who turns 70 in March, doesn't know what his future holds. As has been the case since he stepped away from the Jazz, he shies away from questions about a possible return to NBA coaching.
"I don't think you can ever say, 'No,' " he said. "But I'm not agonizing over it, that's for sure. I think I'll always be able to find something to do."
Tammy Sloan isn't so sure.
"I just don't see him staying retired," she said. "I just can't see that happening."
And she's not the only one. Brown thinks Sloan could get the NBA itch again once all his affairs are in order.
"If the right deal came along, maybe. He might do it again," said Brown. "But right now he just wants to get everything gone [from the farm] and make life easier for himself and everybody else."
In fact, several NBA teams called Sloan this summer to gauge his interest in a return to coaching.
Teams with job openings all now filled included Golden State, Minnesota, Indiana, Detroit, Toronto, Houston and the L.A. Lakers.
Sloan would not confirm discussions with any team, saying, "It's still nice to get up in the morning and know I don't have to do anything."
On the other hand, Sloan cherishes memories of the people side of the sport that has been at the center of his life.
"The camaraderie we had with the players and coaches all those years was special and now, all of a sudden, it stops," he said. "There's a void there, no question about that. But do I miss it that much? I'd say, 'Not really.' But we'll see." And then there's Phil...
Like his long-time friend Jerry Sloan, former Utah Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson is adjusting to retirement after abruptly resigning in February.
"I'm doing very well just fine," said Johnson, who spends most of his time at Bear Lake but also maintains a home in Salt Lake City. A collegiate and professional coach for 48 years, Johnson claims to miss not the job, just the people.
"The biggest thing is the association with the other coaches," he said. "It's part of your life that's not there any more. ... You work hard and there's lots of stress. But we had fun, too. We had a lot of good times. I miss that most."
According to Johnson, his resignation was timely for a couple of personal reasons. First, his brother was in failing health last winter at an assisted living facility in Idaho. Because he was no longer tied to the Jazz, Johnson was able to visit him three times before he died: "I wouldn't have been able to do that if I had been coaching."
In March, Johnson was also able to attend a reunion of former players at his alma mater, Weber State. The Wildcats always invite ex-players back for their final home game of a season, but this was the first time Johnson could attend.
"I saw teammates I hadn't seen in 30 years probably more than 30 years," he said.
Asked if he's been struck by the urge to coach again, Johnson laughed.
"Not so far," he said. "You never want to say never, but right now I don't see it."
NBA's winningest coaches
Coach, wins, teams
1. Don Nelson, 1,335
Bucks, Warriors, Knicks, Mavs
2. Lenny Wilkens, 1,332
Sonics, Blazers, Cavs, Hawks, Raptors, Knicks
3. Jerry Sloan, 1,221
4. Pat Riley, 1,210
Lakers, Knicks, Heat
5. Phil Jackson, 1,155