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Legacy of legendary Utah Jazz coach lives on in Illinois hometown

Jerry Sloan and his wife were both from McLeansboro, where they helped fund projects like playgrounds and sports courts.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jerry Sloan and his wife and children lived in McLeansboro, Ill., in the years when Jerry was between coaching the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. He died in May 2020.

McLeansboro, Ill. • When you pull into this town, one of the first things you can see is Hamilton County Junior/Senior High School.

It sits on Jerry Sloan Drive. And if you follow the drive around to the back of the school, you find the gymnasium named for the late Utah Jazz coach, KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City reported.

“I probably first met Coach Sloan in the fourth grade at his basketball camp here in town,” said Doug Miller, the boy’s basketball coach for Sloan’s old team, the Hamilton County High School Foxes.

“He’s known as the Fabulous Fox,” Miller said. “He’s the Fabulous Fox for sure.”

McLeansboro isn’t just where Jerry and his late wife, Bobbye Sloan, were from. The couple and their three children lived here in the years when Jerry was between coaching the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz, and the family came back here every off season. “Hamilton County’s always been a special place for me,” Jerry Sloan said on a local sports show as the gymnasium was being dedicated for him in 2012, “and I just felt like it was the right place to be here most of the time.”

Dick Deitz has been mayor of McLeansboro since 1993. Before that, he went to high school with Jerry and Bobbye Sloan.

“They enjoyed McLeansboro,” Deitz said. “When they’d come down here to visit, maybe get a bite to eat some place, and just sit and talk a while.”

The couple were also benefactors. Their names can be found on a McLeansboro playground, and basketball and tennis courts.

They also gave money for improvements at a local lake where they walked. The gifts have gone a long way in a 3,000-person town where the median incomes are below the Illinois and U.S. averages.

Back at the high school, Jerry Sloan’s trophy case sites next to that of his son, Brian, who in 1984 was Mr. Basketball in Illinois and pushed the Foxes to a state championship.

Above Jerry Sloan Court hangs the namesake’s photo and a photo of the team his daughter Holly played on. The squad won third place in the state tournament in 1987.

Miller said for years Hamilton County has run many of the same plays as the Utah Jazz.

“It’s kind of cool, honestly,” said Wyatt Hamson, who plays for the current iteration of Foxes boys basketball. “I have a bunch of friends from other places, and you talk about Jerry Sloan, they all know him as the Jazz coach, but I know him as the dude from McLeansboro that played basketball.”

“Jerry had made a tradition of hard-nosed basketball on this town,” said Kaelee Karcher, who plays for the girl’s team, “and that’s how I try and play. He was a very humble and kind player as well and that’s how I try to play as well.”

It will be a year ago this month that Jerry Sloan died. His house on the edge of McLeansboro is for sale. Yet people here think the Sloan name will live on more than buildings or trophies.

“Our basketball team has a Jerry Sloan Award,” Miller said, “and that goes to the kid who [has] the most guts and hustles.

“That’s a big award for McLeansboro Foxes basketball. You get the Jerry Sloan award, you’ve done something.”

“His legacy will forever live here in this community,” Deitz said, “as not only as a memorial but something we can look to as an inspiration.”

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