When Gregg Popovich took over as coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1996, there was a name that kept coming up when he talked to his players.
"He said if we were going to be a championship team ever," says ESPN analyst Avery Johnson, then a point guard in San Antonio, "we were going to have to be as tough minded as the Utah Jazz. We were going to have have to execute our offense the way they execute their offense. And he talked about how he was going to have to be as good a coach as Jerry Sloan.
"Jerry Sloan was a guy that Coach Popovich really, really respected. He didn't talk about Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson or any of those other awesome coaches much. But he talked a lot about Utah's way of playing."
Sloan is a legend. One of a kind.
That's why Johnson has some sympathy for the guy who replaced him.
"It's just really big shoes to fill," says Johnson, who himself followed in the shadow of a Hall of Fame coach, taking over Don Nelson in Dallas in 2005. "What you try to do is you don't try to separate yourself from what that coach believed in. You just try to add to it. I've seen Ty [Corbin] try to maintain those beliefs."
Friday night, Corbin will be court side when the Jazz raise a banner at EnergySolutions Arena, honoring Sloan on national TV.
"It's a difficult thing," Corbin said of following Sloan as Utah's head coach. "Coach being around and being here was great in the transition because he wanted to make sure I didn't feel any undue pressure. … I love having him around. I appreciate his friendship and his leadership through the process, but any time you replace a legend like him there are going to be some comparisons, some talk about how he would have done it."
Sloan had told those around him in the years before that he "might come in one day and it would be enough for him," Corbin recalled. Nevertheless, Sloan's resignation in February 2011, still shocked most.
(As a refresher, Jazz CEO Greg Miller gave an account last summer of the events leading up to it. You can read that here.)
Sloan's players were certainly surprised.
"It was really shocking," said Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward. "It was so fast. He had been a staple with the organization for so long, you never think it would end like that. I think I can remember we played and then it was either that night or that morning we got a text and it was like, 'Coach has resigned. We're having a press conference. We'll see you the next day.' That was it. It was so fast, so abrupt. It was especially weird because I was a rookie and I didn't know things like that could happen."
"I thought he was going to be here after I left," said Jazz forward Jeremy Evans, also a rookie at the time.
At a press conference that Thursday morning, Sloan said his "energy level has dropped" and along with longtime assistant Phil Johnson handed over the reins.
Corbin was named as the Jazz's head coach.
Sloan reportedly wiped the tears from his eyes, leaned over to Corbin and jokingly said, "Now, they can holler at you."
The Jazz expressed confidence in Corbin by making sure it was clear there was no "interim" tag attached to his new job. But Corbin went 8-20 over the remainder of that season and soon heard grumblings from fans.
"It was definitely difficult for him," Hayward said. "Especially in this community where everybody loved Coach Sloan and was used to him being here for 20-plus years. It really wasn't made easier for him when they traded D-Will and next year was a lockout. With everything that's taken place, I think he's done a great job."
Corbin and the Jazz reached the playoffs in that lockout year but were quickly knocked out by the Spurs. The next year, despite a record above .500, the Jazz failed to make the postseason.
And this season, well, it's been anything but easy.
The Jazz are 16-29 and Corbin is without a contract after this season.
So what do you think the future holds for Corbin and the Jazz?
"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."
On Friday, the Jazz will raise a banner that reads 1,223 — the number of regular season and playoff wins Sloan racked up as the Jazz's top coach.
Indeed, it's a tough act to follow, said Johnson, though he went on to coach the Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance and four straight 50-win years.
Corbin, meanwhile, has accumulated a record of 103-118 since taking over. But while he'd have a long way to go to ever reach his boss, he actually hit the 100-win mark in fewer games than Sloan did.
The rub there, Sloan's record got him fired by the Chicago Bulls.
Well, he was dismissed, too, after a pair of first-round playoff exits.
— Aaron Falk
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