The once-fierce lion’s eyes are tired now.
The battles — a thousand of them, and more — have been fought and won, and there is a final fight Gerald Eugene Sloan will not win. Against an opponent that never loses.
Father Time, with all its minions — in this specific case, Parkinson’s and a severe brand of dementia — pummeling humans and the human condition, the condition that is weakened, year by year, month by month, day by day, minute by minute, striking even the toughest among us.
Remain that way, it forever will.
When I recently asked someone outside the family, someone who would know the details about Sloan, asked how he was doing at age 77, even though I already had been told by others, he said three words.
“He is dying.”
Those words, human condition or no, hit with the force of a swinging tire iron.
Jerry Sloan doesn’t die.
Jerry Sloan doesn’t need care or assistance or a helping hand.
He’s … Jerry Freakin’ Sloan.
He’s a grown man’s grown man. A grown woman’s grown man, too.
Sloan’s double-barreled afflictions hit him a fistful of years ago, and he battled on. Their effects now are worsening. Every day is different for him, some better than others, most not so good. It’s basically a slide into oblivion. He’s frail. He’s physically and mentally limited. Around the clock care is required for him. Although, in the more recent past the old coach has been able to attend Jazz games, he will go no more.
He still likes to visit with friends in his private space and trade stories, when he’s up for it. Sloan walks when he can. His wife, Tammy, has been a saint and a stalwart in doing whatever she can to help her man, the man, spending time and sharing love with him as much as possible. His mind, though, is slipping away.
Sloan is an indomitable fighter, always has been, a decorated individual who lifted himself up out of the farmlands of southern Illinois, from countrified poverty, really, working on oil rigs as a kid, pulling rods, then walking miles down dusty roads to school, and then back. He used to talk about those dirt thoroughfares, about hitching a ride from Gobbler’s Knob into town, on the back of a passing truck, if he was lucky on any given day.
And I wasn’t sure I fully believed him — Ma and Pa always told stories like that to their kids as a means of making them appreciate how fortunate they are in more modern times, right? — until I drove down those roads myself. Drove from McLeansboro with an old-timer there out to the house where Sloan was born and raised. There wasn’t much left to see, except for plowed fields and clusters of trees, loaded with ticks, that had grown up around all that remained — a mere foundation of Jerry’s old home.
It was right where he had said it was.
And from that place, the youngest of 10 children under the wing of a mother who did the child-rearing and the chores after Sloan’s father died when Jerry was 4 years old, he fashioned a Hall of Fame career in the game he loved.
He played prep ball at the old McLeansboro High School, the one that later sat on a road named after him. He played at the University of Evansville. He played for the Chicago Bulls, a club that years on honored him by retiring his number. He was one of the rawest, toughest hombres on one of the rawest, toughest teams in the NBA. He specialized in stopping whoever he guarded from scoring, making them feel fortunate if they and their teeth were still joined by the end of the night. Although, afterward, he was most humble about it.
I once asked Sloan about his matchups against Jerry West. His response was classic Jerryspeak: “Kicked my ass every time.”
That, of course, was not true.
Neither was the notion that Sloan was solely a basketball barbarian.
In 1970-71, he scored better than 18 points a game. In other seasons, the guard averaged 16.8, 16.2 and 15.6. He was a career 72 percent free throw shooter. Although he was just 6-foot-5, Sloan one season hauled an average of 9.1 boards. His career rebounding average was 7.4.
Off the court, Sloan was a self-described imperfect man, a fellow who had his vices, but who also had his virtues. A lot of them. He learned as he matured. More on that in a minute.
After his playing career, he dove into coaching, at the age of 35. He cheated death in 1976, when he took the head coaching job at his alma mater — Evansville — but quit after just five days. Later that season, the players and coaching staff were killed in a plane crash.
Sloan made some mistakes — he was too harsh and needed to communicate with players better — when he took the reins in Chicago a few years later in his initial authentic head coaching stint, and then applied those lessons when Frank Layden first hired him as a Jazz assistant and then, rather surprisingly, handed the wheel over to Sloan in 1988.
“I knew Jerry could get out of those guys things that I couldn’t,” Layden said. Those guys included a couple of fellows named Malone and Stockton.
Over a span that lasted until 2011, Sloan won 1,127 games with the Jazz and lost 682. His career coaching totals: 1,221 and 803.
His name became synonymous with the Utah Jazz.
He required from his players an emphasis on team instead of on any kind of egocentrism, because he required the same from himself: “I was never a me-first coach,” he said in the middle of his tenure.
You already knew that.
What you might not have known is that Sloan, for all his competitive ferocity, despite his reputation as being, as he would have said it back in the day, a %#&@*%-ing %@#!*%&#-er — nobody has ever mastered colorful, profane, expletive-ridden expression quite the way Sloan did — he, in person, was, or at least could be at times, a big softie.
When he was told, for instance, that his daughter was engaged to be married, he broke down and bawled. Everyone was aware that he collected old tractors, at one point possessing 70 of them, and had a particular fondness for antiquated John Deeres. But he also collected antique furniture and dolls. Picture that, Sloan’s big, leathery hands pawing over and through Art Nouveau tables, Neo-Greek chairs, Renaissance Revival dressers, porcelain and Hopi Kachina and paddle and rag and China dolls.
All while he was dropping F-bombs on referees, darn-near screwing himself between the boards on the floors of arenas from coast to coast, beating the daylights out of the Portland Trailblazers, the Houston Rockets, the L.A. Lakers and the New York Knicks, leading with his oft-broken nose straight into whatever challenges the NBA could conjure. None of it could compare in degree of difficulty with hiking those dirt roads, working the ground and wiping excess grease off of farm equipment.
Sloan, at his most compelling in public, rose up in the minutes directly after a Jazz loss. After easy wins, he was frequently critical, identifying the mistakes that needed correcting in spite of not costing a loss on that exact occasion. In the sting of defeat, though, whatever it was inside his mind and soul that drove the man to what he ended up becoming announced itself fully, for all to hear. That’s when he directed his players to follow him, if they could.
“That’s when these players find out the most about themselves,” he said. “They discover who they are, what they are.”
After a rugged victory over the Rockets, some 20 years ago, 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.”
Sloan is one of those leaders who might need a little polishing here and there, might bark something less-than proper and profound in a given moment, but who didn’t have to say a whole lot to fire his charges to a heightened competitive state. In another era, he might have made a helluva pirate captain or a rocksteady troop commander on a field of combat.
Twenty-five years ago, Layden uttered over lunch my all-time favorite quote about Sloan, one I have repeated and written many times, but will go on repeating anytime the coach’s name comes up, especially to those who need to remember, as well as to the unfamiliar and uninitiated.
“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.”
He’s a once-fierce lion whose eyes have grown sleepy.
Send a prayer up, or think a good thought, or pay a sweet silent tribute, however you roll, for Jerry Sloan, as Father Time and all its minions exact their inescapable toll.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.