Legendary coach Jerry Sloan is enjoying the Jazz’s playoff run, but the slow fade of dementia is taking a toll

(Tribune file photo) Nicknamed "The Original Bull," Jerry Sloan, pictured here in 1975, was in Chicago during the franchise's first 10 years. His grit and toughness made him one of the league's best defensive players and is one of only 18 players in history to be named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team four times. He averaged 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists during his 11 season. Sloan is now one of the league's most respected coaches, having led the Utah Jazz to two NBA title games.

Before each game, Shawn Brown and his staff go over the list of VIPs and scan the crowd for people to highlight on the 24-foot-tall video board that hangs over the court at Vivint Smart Home Arena. It doesn’t matter who shows up, though. After four years of directing the Utah Jazz’s in-game video operations from the scorer’s table, Brown knows the man in Row 11 will get the loudest cheer.

“The reaction for him is bigger than any celebrity,” Brown says. “Everybody loves him.”

The crowd of 18,000-plus will erupt, maybe even stand in ovation. Tammy Sloan will tap her husband lightly. This, predictably, is his least favorite moment of the best part of his day.

“I always try to avoid that as much as possible,” Jerry Sloan says. “That’s not who I am, and that’s not what I’m about. I just love the great game of basketball. I’ve been involved with it my whole life. I enjoy that. I still enjoy the game.”

Friday morning started with a visit to, at least by Tammy Sloan’s estimation, the only man in Utah who hasn’t been following the Jazz’s first-round playoff series: her husband’s doctor. It has been just more than two years since Jerry Sloan revealed to the world that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia, diseases that have begun to strip the mind and motor skills of one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.

There are good days. More and more, there are bad ones because that’s how diseases so cruel work.

On this day, however, the 76-year-old Sloan feels well enough to have a stranger in his immaculate home on the southwest side of the Salt Lake Valley, to sit and answer a reporter’s questions.

“He’s going to pick your brain,” his wife says.

“It won’t take him long,” the coach deadpans.

Jerry Sloan is still a towering figure, standing 6 feet, 5 inches tall, dressed in a blue Jazz sweatshirt with the team’s blue and purple mountain logo from 2004-10, blue pants and white Adidas sneakers. He is no longer as imposing as he once was when he was the fiery leader of the Jazz. He moves a little more slowly and his eyes have softened. He takes a seat in the corner of his office and places his massive hand on his knee. It immediately starts to shake.

“I feel OK,” he says, and he speaks matter-of-factly about his condition. “I’ve got a disease. It’s really kind of strange because my mind changes and then I can’t remember. That throws me off a little bit.”

The symptoms of his Lewy body dementia have been “kicking in more lately,” his wife says, so sometimes he loses his train of thought. Then the coach laughs to himself.

“My brain’s been misfiring my whole life,” he says.

Today, he has no problem talking, especially about basketball. Sloan says he respects what Jazz coach Quin Snyder has accomplished.

“He’s done a great job with the team,” Sloan says. “But you can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a jackass. You’ve got to have some thoroughbreds, and they’ve got some now.” The Hall of Fame coach calls the team’s star rookie, Donovan Mitchell, “refreshing.”

“I just hope they get a chance to win a championship,” Sloan says about the franchise. “They need it, and they deserve it as much as anybody that’s been involved in sports.”

Sloan sits under a glass case filled with memories, photographs and newspaper clippings of his 1,223 victories as the coach of the Utah Jazz. His team — the team he coached for 27 seasons and the team he roots for every game now — was coming off a bitter loss, having given up a 25-point lead two nights earlier to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sloan harks back to the time in 1997 when he rallied the Jazz from a 36-point deficit to beat the Denver Nuggets.

Sometimes you get lucky, he says, and sometimes you don’t. More important is what happens next. That’s what the old coach wants to see when the ball is thrown up later that night.

“It’s interesting to see how guys bounce back,” Sloan says. “This time of year, it’s really exciting because you find out what you’re made of.”

There are still more than two hours until tipoff for Game 6 of the Jazz-Thunder playoff series when the Sloans, Tammy in a gold blouse and Jerry in a gold T-shirt to match the other 18,000 fans who that night will go on to cheer on the Jazz to a series-clinching win over Oklahoma City, walk through the back entrance of the basketball arena.

He right away is met by a number of Oklahoma City Thunder staffers who want to shake his hand and talk. He makes it another five feet before he is stopped again by two fans, Craig Benson and his 11-year-old son, Trent, who take a selfie with him.

“Thanks a million, coach,” Benson says. “I love seeing ya.”

Sloan is an icon, a reminder of the franchise’s glory days when they made back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in the late ’90s, back when Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone pick-and-rolled opponents to death seemingly every night. On days when he is feeling well, Sloan will oblige every request for a photograph that he can. On other days, his health makes it an overwhelming endeavor. But even on the days when he struggles, he wants to be here, close to the action.

Sloan’s doctors recommend he remain active — physically and socially — to combat the effects of his dementia, so his wife keeps his calendar full. They go out most nights, often enjoying dinner with former Jazz coach Frank Layden and his wife, Barbara, or with former Jazz center Mark Eaton. Sloan and other longtime Jazz staffers meet for lunch on the first Tuesday of each month. And as often as they can, Jerry and Tammy Sloan will be at the arena.

“The games really are the highlight of his life right now,” Tammy Sloan says.

Jerry Sloan starts to get anxious as tipoff approaches. Before each game, he and Tammy spend an hour or so in the Jazz’s 100 Club, where top-end sponsors eat and mingle.

“We’re eating while the game’s getting ready to start. That’s our biggest problem,” Jerry says. “She’s got to visit a little bit longer.”

“We are never late!” his wife shoots back and laughs.

The old coach is committed to his routine. He wants to be in his seat — Section 8, Row 11, a respectful distance back from the bench he once patrolled — at least 15 minutes before the game begins. He wants to be ready for the national anthem. When the song begins, he wonders and worries what he should do with his shaking hand. Should he keep it over his heart? Or hide it down by his side? Sometimes when the shaking is too bad, his wife leans against him to steady his arm against his chest.

Game nights for Sloan can be a social affair, especially during the playoffs when former Jazz stars seem to pop up in Salt Lake City more often. Tom Chambers attended Game 6 on Friday night. Eaton, who lives in Utah, is a regular at the arena.

“It’s hard to watch [Sloan’s illness progress] because he was so tough and vibrant when he was coaching,” Eaton says. “But at the same time, we still have some great conversations. All you have to do is get him talking about players or plays from the past to get him going. That’s still there.”

Sloan sat last week with John Stockton, the Hall of Fame point guard, who remains one of Sloan’s closest friends. Stockton calls each week to check in on his coach’s health.

“He made more money than everybody else,” Sloan says. “We try to stay as close to him as possible.”

Stockton has been around more lately, watching his son, David, who signed with the Jazz in March. Sloan and his point guard are kindred spirits in so many ways, hard workers who eschewed the spotlight.

“Who could be lucky enough to coach a guy like John Stockton?” he wonders aloud.

When Stockton brought a box score with him to their seats, Sloan dismissively tossed it under his chair, saying he was never interested in stats. Sloan was more interested in spending some time with Stockton’s grandchild, David’s young son James.

“I learned a lot from Jerry about how to act,” says David Stockton, who grew up patiently waiting outside the Jazz locker room after games so he could grab a basketball and shoot on the court. “For me to be able to see him there watching is pretty cool.”

Ever since he first started coming back to games — still Coach, but no longer the coach — he has done the same thing from his seat. For a time, Tammy Sloan would be confused as she listened to her husband muttering. “I’d think he’d be talking to me,” she says. “But he’s talking to them.” To the players. He still is coaching.

“Get down the floor!” he says. “Pass the f---ing ball!”

And the Sloans will stay until the end. No matter what. No matter if he feels bad that day. No matter if the Jazz are getting blown out by 30 points. You stay until the end.

“Our coaches stayed in Orlando when everybody else had gone home from scouting,” Sloan says, “and we found a player by the name of Paul Millsap.”

The office in Sloan’s house, just off the front entrance, is a well-curated museum. On the wall next to his desk hangs a giant collage of Hall of Fame players. Memorabilia lines shelves that line the wall across from the desk. A photo of Sloan, Stockton and Karl Malone in black tuxedos. A copy of Barry Stainback’s “Basketball Stars of 1968.” A large black-and-white photo of Sloan crouching with three teammates during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls.

Sloan cannot remember the year or even the decade the photo was taken. “I can’t remember yesterday,” he says after a moment. But he remembers each man’s name. The man on the left, Sloan says and points, is Norm Van Lier. He tells a story about a time they got into a fistfight with each other before they became teammates, one of the toughest backcourts in the NBA, and close friends. He remembers his last visit with Van Lier before he died in 2009.

Now it is late in the afternoon, and Sloan is getting tired. He needs some rest before the game that night. He walks into his kitchen and his wife hands him a copy of the day’s sports section. He hopes the headline the next day will say something about a Jazz win. He starts to turn the page.

“But I’m prepared for anything,” he says. “Good or bad.”