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Kragthorpe: Sloan was one of us, from start to finish

Published February 11, 2011 12:44 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Jerry Sloan grew up in southern Illinois, attended college in Indiana and played pro basketball mostly in Chicago, where a larger-than-life-sized poster of him stands just outside the Bulls' locker room.

Yet he'll forever be associated with Utah, having coached the Jazz for parts of 23 seasons, and we'll claim him.

This guy was one of us.

Sorry for using the past tense. It's just that Sloan's farewell news conference Thursday felt a lot like a funeral, a goodbye to a good man who became as much of the fabric of life in this state as anyone could.

"You want to congratulate him just because of all he's accomplished, but it's like when you best friend goes away," former Jazz player Thurl Bailey said after the event at the team's practice facility. "You're not going to see him around. That's what this community is feeling."

Sloan will be missed. For all the times I've wondered if the Jazz could benefit from hearing a different voice, when that moment actually comes, it is frightening to picture this team without this coach.

Beyond that, there was a bond between Sloan and longtime Jazz fans that they treasured. Only last spring, in researching the stories of fans who were so attached to the Jazz that their families were compelled to mention that devotion in their obituaries, did I realize how deeply Sloan had worked his way into this state's heart.

When Sloan took over for Frank Layden in 1988, Verlinda Bentson "fell in love," said her daughter, Rise Argyle, of Holladay.

Bentson, who died at age 90, came from rural South Dakota, giving her a Midwestern bond with Sloan. Yet even without that background, Utahns have felt a connection to Sloan. He's just like us — or how we picture ourselves, anyway: humble, hard-working, down-to-earth, unpretentious.

"His style resonates very well with all of us from Utah," said Jazz President Randy Rigby. "He was so sincere and so genuine. That's what people loved about him. They could relate to Jerry Sloan."

So it was that we've exulted and commiserated with him, lived and died with him, during these 23 seasons. We watched him replace Layden, build a championship contender and fall short in consecutive NBA Finals, struggle through a disastrous season and quickly rebuild a team. We shared the illness and emotional loss of his wife, followed by his remarrying a Utahn, always looking for the landmark event that would serve as a retirement indicator.

And then it came out of nowhere late Wednesday night, amid eerie coincidences. The Jazz lost to Chicago, the team that retired his No. 4, that fired him in the middle of his third season as coach in the early 1980s, that tormented him in the NBA Finals, that features three former Jazz players. So the coach who always said, "I never thought I'd last a week," in his self-effacing manner, finally walked away after 1,153 weeks in charge.

He did not appear in television commercials or on billboards, yet we all felt as though we knew him, and he valued what we valued. Sloan coached in an organization that has always tried to draft, sign and trade for good people, who would make us proud on and off the court. He would enforce our standards, almost as an implied contract.

"I think the fans liked what we tried to represent," Sloan said Thursday, speaking more about his players than himself.

Oh, they liked him too. After Norma Johnston, of Monticello, died last winter, her daughter told me about discovering a journal with an old newspaper story about Sloan, with this quote underlined: "Some people think they're better than others. I was always taught that I'm no better, but I'm just as good."

That's a Utah outlook, if I've ever heard one.

One more story, and this one's personal: In the news conference, Sloan referenced a conversation we had moments before his first game as the Jazz's head coach. Having covered the team as a beat writer and grown to admire Sloan as an assistant coach, I told him I knew our relationship would change, but I wished him well.

All he asked was that I treat him fairly.

The request was reasonable, simply reflecting a Utah approach to dealing with people, right? Jerry Sloan was one of us, from start to finish.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com