Of all the factors that would drive Jerry Sloan back into coaching, the chance to post 115 more victories and overtake Don Nelson as the NBA’s all-time winningest coach almost certainly is not on that list.
The 215 losses Sloan needs to top Dick Motta’s total have much more to do with it.
That’s not to say Sloan would enjoy losing those games in Charlotte, Orlando or anywhere else. Yet a healthy self-image that included a willingness to absorb defeats enabled Motta, Sloan’s mentor, and other coaches including Ron McBride and Frank Layden to take on major challenges late in their careers.
If you’re wondering why Sloan would even talk to the Charlotte Bobcats, coming off a 7-59 season, consider the responses of McBride and Layden, when I once asked them about risking their legacies by biting off big projects.
Once he stopped laughing, McBride said of becoming Weber State’s football coach at age 65, “What the hell would I risk? I’m beyond that ego standpoint.”
When he took over the WNBA’s Utah Starzz in the middle of a season, Layden said, “What are they going to do, take down the flag with my name?”
Layden’s honorary No. 1 Jazz jersey continues to hang from the EnergySolutions Arena rafters, and they’re not going to kick Sloan out of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, no matter what happens from this point.
So I’d be surprised if Sloan is not coaching in October, 20 months after unceremoniously leaving the Jazz. He wants to rewrite the ending. This is not about vindication against Deron Williams or anybody else involved with the Jazz then or now — just giving himself a shot at a more satisfying finish.
There’s no guarantee of that, certainly. Going to Weber State after being fired by Utah worked for McBride during seven mostly fulfilling seasons. In contrast, Motta went 17-52 to finish the 1996-97 season in Denver and Layden stood 4-11 with the Starzz before quitting four games into the next season.
The point is, they had to try. Same story with Sloan.
He’s coming back, because he passed over all the previous markers for retirement. He did not quit when he was close to the top (consecutive NBA Finals appearances) or close to the bottom (a 26-56 record in 2004-05). He did not quit when his wife died, or when he was remarried. He did not quit when he became a Hall of Famer.
He quit when he’d had enough of D-Will, but that decision was emotion-driven, not calculated.
So now he’s looking to get back into the game. He’ll be careful, having once turned down an offer to coach the expansion Miami Heat in favor of waiting for another opportunity — which happened to be the Jazz’s job, when Layden resigned. Just the same, the vacancies in Charlotte and Orlando are both intriguing.
In the case of Charlotte, I’d suggest waiting until the May 30 draft lottery, when the odds suggest the Bobcats will position themselves to land Anthony Davis. Otherwise, Sloan could become like Rick Pitino, who thought Tim Duncan was coming to Boston when he took the Celtics job.
If the ping-pong balls bounce right, Charlotte’s vacancy immediately is upgraded. Imagine the irony of Sloan’s working for owner Michael Jordan, 14 years after Jordan’s Bulls beat the Jazz for a second time in the NBA Finals.
In Orlando, Sloan would have Dwight Howard, or potentially other good players via a trade.
So if he took one of those jobs, Sloan would have a chance to make an impact. That’s all he wants, even if it means having his lifetime winning percentage dip below .600. The Hall of Fame curators won’t care either.
NBA coaching victory leaders
Coach Wins-Losses Pct.
Don Nelson 1,335-1,063 .557
Lenny Wilkens 1,332-1,155 .536
Jerry Sloan 1,221-803 .603