To honor Jerry Sloan, as his banner is raised to the rafters on Friday night at the arena where he did so much of his work, here are the top 10 anecdotes and quotes either told about or spoken by him and others through 23 years that capture the nature of a man — half dirt farmer, half Hall of Famer — who won 1,223 games for the Utah Jazz.
1. On his humble upbringing in McLeansboro, Ill., the late Bobbye Sloan said of her husband: “He’s the youngest of 10 kids in a family that had a definite pecking order. By the time it came his turn, it was like, shut up. Even if he did good, he didn’t know it. So, he’s not on a pedestal, he’s never been full of himself.” Bobbye added: “He’s been criticized his whole life.”
2. On his bearing, shaped by those early years on the farm, Don Kreher, owner of a McLeansboro establishment called Don’s Liquor Hut, said of Sloan: “He’ll come in, get a couple of bags of peanuts and a beer, and we’ll sit awhile and talk. Everybody around here knows Jerry.” Bonus: Mark Scott, who was the athletics director at McLeansboro High School, which is adjacent to Jerry Sloan Avenue, said: “He’s one of us. If he were here right now, he’d be the worst-dressed person here — in bib overalls and an old hat. He was dirt-poor growing up and even though he’s been successful, put us on the map, he never has changed.”
3. Sloan used to drive a van around Salt Lake City, and often wore a cap. He once was mistaken for a limo driver by a woman on a street corner who flagged him down, looking for transportation to the airport. When she asked him for a lift, Sloan said, “Well, I wasn’t going that way, but if you really need a ride …”
4. Frank Layden in 1996 uttered my favorite description — I’ve repeated it many times — of Sloan, when he said: “Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner, at his age, you might even lick him, but you’d lose an eye, an arm, your testicles in the process, everything would be gone. He’s a throwback, a blue-collar guy, a dirt farmer. I know you’re going to think I’m kidding when I say this, but I saw Jerry Sloan fight at the Alamo, I saw him at Harpers Ferry, I saw him at Pearl Harbor. He’s loyal. He’s a hard worker. He’s a man.”
5. Asked many seasons ago if any of his players had ever gotten up in his face, Sloan said: “No, not up in my face. If they did, somebody would be going south. I’ve got too much craziness in me.”
6. When John Stockton was toasted at the same venue where Sloan will be honored, the coach was the man who introduced the newly retired player to the crowd. Sloan was never much for public speaking, which traced back to a bad grade-school experience, but he was fine on that occasion. As he turned the microphone over to Stockton, the look in his eyes spoke a thousand eloquent words, words of deep respect and profound emotion, revealing in that brief moment as much about Sloan as all the games he coached combined. Bobbye said Sloan had a sweet side: “At home, he’s soft-hearted and tender, the opposite of what people expect. When our daughter, Kathy, and her fiancé told us at Christmas that they were getting married, Jerry got emotional. He cried.”
7. Sloan, talking about his team and its general makeup after Stockton retired and Karl Malone moved on: “The streets are filled with talent. Talent will get a coach fired. You have to play with guys who enjoy each other and who will play together. Guys who play defense, who have discipline, and who work hard. My job is to keep them in a mode where they have to recognize and depend on each other. I don’t have any All-Stars here. This isn’t John’s or Karl’s team. It’s not my team. I was never a me-first player. I’m not a me-first coach. It’s everybody’s team. That’s not a bull---- thing. I’m glad to come back here and try to coach this group. I’m grateful for the chance. If we play together, we can get some things done. Good basketball is good basketball.”
8. Larry Miller told a story about Sloan having a bit of a dust-up with Greg Ostertag during halftime of a game many years ago. Sloan could be profanely direct with players, and on that occasion Ostertag blew a gasket. He threw a bag of ice at Sloan’s head. The coach nonchalantly shifted his head to the side as the bag exploded against the wall behind him. And Sloan, Larry said, “just kept on talking like nothing had happened.”
9. Sloan never won an NBA Coach of the Year award. It’s remarkable considering his consistent success over an extended period, all as Sam Mitchell and Del Harris and Rick Carlisle and Mike Dunleavy and Don Chaney and Avery Johnson and a bunch of others took Red Auerbach’s trophy, always leaving Sloan as a bridesmaid. He said he couldn’t have cared less. Three other coaches who live in Utah won the award: Phil Johnson, with the Kings, Layden, with the Jazz, and Tom Nissalke, with Houston. Not Sloan. His reaction: “I’m not concerned about that. I want to win games and win a championship. That should be a team award, anyway. I’ve always looked at it like that.”
The only missed individual honor that miffed Sloan came when he was passed over as the Olympic team coach in 2000 because of some league politics. He had followed established protocol as Lenny Wilkens’ assistant in 1996, and looked forward to coaching Team USA. He said thereafter: “My concern is, what did I do wrong? I’m a competitive person. I don’t mind criticism. Did I do something wrong? I’d like to know. I thought I did it right.”
10. After a one-point win by the Jazz over the Rockets late in the 1999 season, Sloan said: “Tonight is what I live for — guys struggling, coming back, competing. Those are the things that are most important. That’s the best thing about being a coach. Seeing how guys react in a tough situation. Watching them fight back.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.