Utah Jazz: Former coach Jerry Sloan is in the spotlight (whether he likes it or not)
Always uneasy on the stage, former Jazz coach finally lets franchise honor him.
Published: January 31, 2014 11:34AM
Updated: January 30, 2014 11:19PM
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This Dec. 3, 2010, file photo shows Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, in Salt Lake City. Sloan stepped down as head coach of the Jazz on Thursday. (AP Photo/Colin E Braley, File)

Former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan seeks attention as often as someone on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list.

When the spotlight manages to find him, Sloan is more uncomfortable than a billy goat in the pig pen, as they might say in his hometown of McLeansboro, Ill.

“I think that comes from the backgrounds — the rural backgrounds — that we both have,” says Phil Johnson, Sloan’s friend and long-time assistant.

“You don’t run around in the country and pound your chest and say how great you are. That’s the bottom line. It’s a rural-country thing and he’s always been that way.”

Remember his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2009?

Sloan walked slowly to the podium, exchanged words with presenter Charles Barkley, pulled a copy of his speech from a jacket pocket, put on a pair of glasses and glanced up.

“This is pretty tough for me,” he said. “It’s something I don’t like to do. But, uh, I guess I’ll get started.”

The audience laughed, not knowing exactly how much the man in front of them dreaded telling the world about himself, his life and his career.

He was petrified.

“I didn’t think I’d make it through that one,” Sloan recalled this week. “... It’s just hard to talk about myself. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. I’ve always been team-oriented and, to talk about myself, is a difficult thing to do.”

It’s about to happen again.

On Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena, the Utah Jazz will raise a banner for Sloan, who coached the franchise for 23 years, and resigned nearly three years ago.

“It’s one of those things I’d like to have behind me,” he said. “But it is a very nice honor. … The Jazz have always been very fair to me over the years. It was hard to say no.”

Sloan played 11 years in the NBA, starting in 1965-66 and including 10 seasons in Chicago, where he was the heart and soul of the post-expansion Bulls.

Johnson and Sloan have known have known each other since 1968. Then the coach at Weber State, Johnson would go to Chicago every summer and help the Bulls’ Dick Motta, his predecessor with the Wildcats, run rookie camp.

Inevitably, Sloan would show up.

“He’d come by to watch,” Johnson said, “But pretty soon he’d be out there, too, playing with the rookies. He couldn’t just watch.”

Johnson became Motta’s assistant in 1972, when his relationship with Sloan was cemented.

“One thing he’s never thought about,” Johnson said, “is personal accolades. … It’s not that he doesn’t have confidence. He knows what he can do in certain situations. He just doesn’t talk a lot about it and would rather defer to other people who help him.”

Minnesota coach Rick Adelman has known Sloan nearly as long as Johnson.

“The thing about Jerry was … you hated him when you played [against] him and you loved him when he was on your side,” he said.

Adelman was traded to Chicago during the 1973-74 season.

“I wasn’t much of a player or anything,” he recalled. “… But Jerry [still] took me out to get furniture before my wife got there.”

Adelman’s favorite memory during his year in Chicago came during the ’74 playoffs. Sloan suffered a broken foot in the first quarter of Game 6 in a series against Detroit. But he kept playing.

“Just kept getting shot up,” Adelman said. “He knew he wasn’t going to play in Game 7, but they said, ‘You can’t hurt it anymore.’ So he played that whole sixth game.”

According to Adelman, the crowd’s response to Sloan climbing the steps from locker room at old Chicago Stadium before Game 7 was critical to the Bulls’ series-clinching victory over the Pistons.

“The place went nuts and our whole team went to another level,” Adelman said. “I really believe it was all because of the reaction to him.”

Sloan came to Utah in 1984, when he became Frank Layden’s top assistant. He replaced Johnson, who had been hired by Kansas City. Sloan took over from Layden as head coach the Jazz on Dec. 9, 1988.

He ended up winning more games with one franchise than anyone in NBA history.

“When you think of the Jazz, you think of Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone,” says Utah coach Tyrone Corbin. “Even today, when you go around the country, the names you hear are Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone. That’s the impact they had on this franchise. They are still the identity of the franchise.”

Sloan resigned as the Jazz’s coach on Feb. 10, 2011.

In the wake of his abrupt departure, a handful of teams including Portland, Charlotte and Milwaukee talked to him about a return to the bench. But he wasn’t ready at that point, and now — two months before turning 72 — doesn’t expect to coach again.

“You never say never, but I’m not sure many teams out there will be looking for an older guy like me to coach them,” Sloan said. “… The lights are getting dimmer all the time.”

Last June, however, Sloan rejoined the Jazz as an advisor. He participated in the team’s predraft process. He continues to scout and evaluate players.

“The greatness of Jerry is he comes and sits in the gym and it raises our overall level,” said general manager Dennis Lindsey. “Our players know he’s there and, when they interact with him, it’s just a neat thing to see.”

In addition, Sloan has become what Lindsey describes as “a senior consultant to Ty and all our [assistant] coaches.”

Said Corbin: “Jerry and I talk often. I love hearing his input … about what’s going on. He’s an honest guy and I appreciate that. He won’t sugar-coat things when they shouldn’t be sugar-coated.”

Sloan, in turn, “has a lot of respect” for Corbin.

“It’s a tough situation,” Sloan said. “He’s got young players and he’s got players not under contract [next year]. But he has them playing hard. People think that’s easy and it’s not.”

Sloan knows.

He coached the Jazz to 1,127 regular-season victories and guided Utah to the Western Conference finals or beyond five times in the seven-year stretch between 1992-98.

Sloan was never the NBA coach of the year — not that he’s bothered by the injustice.

“I just think there’s a lot more to basketball than individual awards,” he said. “… You watch one-on-one tournaments and they’re pretty boring. The game is a lot more exciting when you have five guys out there.”

Reporter Aaron Falk contributed to this story.

Jerry Sloan timeline

March 28, 1942 • Born in McLeansboro, Ill.

May 6, 1965 • Taken with the sixth pick in the first round of the NBA Draft by Baltimore

May 1, 1966 • Selected by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA expansion draft

Nov. 25, 1967 • Records the first of two career triple-doubles with 22 points, 16 rebounds and 13 assists at Philadelphia

March 5, 1969 • Scores a career-high 43 points at Milwaukee

Nov. 30, 1969 • Grabs a career-high 21 rebounds vs. the L.A. Lakers

May, 1976 • After playing only 22 games during the season because of injuries, he retires

Feb. 17, 1977 • Bulls retire his jersey (No. 4)

March 1977 • Hired as coach at Evansville but resigns five days later for personal reasons

Dec. 13, 1977 • Plane carrying Evansville team crashes; there are no survivors

Nov. 16, 1984 • Named assistant coach of the Utah Jazz

Dec. 9, 1988 • Replaces Frank Layden as the Jazz’s head coach

Jan. 24, 1994 • Jazz beat Seattle to make him the winningest coach in franchise history (278 wins).

Dec. 6, 2006 • Becomes fifth NBA head coach to win 1,000 games after a 101-79 victory over Dallas

Nov. 7, 2008 • Becomes first NBA coach to win 1,000 games with the same franchise when the Jazz beat Oklahoma City

Sept. 11, 2009 • Enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Feb. 7, 2011 • Gets regular-season win No. 1,127 as head coach of the Jazz (107-104 at Sacramento)

Feb. 9, 2011 • Jazz lose to Chicago, 91-86, at EnergySolutions Arena

Feb. 10, 2011 • Resigns as head coach of the Jazz

June 19, 2013 • Rejoins the Jazz as a senior basketball advisor