As an NBA player, wherever he would go, Jerry Sloan would leave a piece of him behind.
The skin off his elbow in Cincinnati, blood from a cut in Baltimore, the remainder of a fingernail in Philadelphia. Night in and night out, he would barter his body for the chance to put his Chicago Bulls in the win column.
His enthusiastic disregard for physical consequences encapsulated the bruising style of the Bulls teams in the 1960s and ’70s. Sloan later brought that tough-nosed brand of play to the Utah Jazz, where most know him best as the most successful coach in franchise history. The foundation of his legacy, however, will always be as one of the toughest men to play in the NBA.
“Some people might call him dirty. I think he took it to the edge,” former Detroit Pistons center Bob Lanier said in an episode of “Vintage NBA” with Robin Roberts. “He would do whatever it took to win. By any means necessary.”
Sloan revealed in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He died Friday at age 78 of complications from those diseases.
Sloan brought his physical style of play, and a chip on his shoulder, with him when he arrived in Chicago in 1966. The 6-foot-5 guard was selected by the newly hatched Bulls in the expansion draft a year after the Baltimore Bullets picked him No. 4 overall in the NBA Draft. Despite spending most of the 1965-66 season on the bench because, as he acknowledged in his 2009 NBA Hall of Fame induction speech, he wasn’t ready to play at the NBA level, Sloan took exception to not being protected by the Bullets.
“The motivation started when we were let go by the team that had you,” Sloan said in a 2015 interview for NBA.com. “That motivated us to play and make a name for yourself in basketball.”
What Sloan didn’t know was that the Bullets wanted to hold onto him. Before the draft, though, then-Chicago scout Jerry Colangelo informed Baltimore general manager Buddy Jeannette that the Bulls planned to take both the Bullets’ centers. The only way they wouldn’t, Colangelo said, was if the Bullets offered up Sloan.
Colangelo, a University of Illinois alumnus, had hosted Sloan when he was being recruited to play for the Illini, and he knew Sloan was the kind of player upon which the Bulls could build.
"He kind of fit the description of what we wanted,” Colangelo said. “He was a tough, defensive competitor and a winner. And he found ways to beat you. And so, when you’re looking to build, you know, a new franchise and you’re looking for different pieces, here was a young guy with a big future ahead of himself. So we believed if, given the opportunity — in other words, minutes, playing time — he could really develop into something very special. And that’s exactly what we did and what he did. Yeah. I mean, he was so tough.”
The Bulls weren’t expected to win more than 10 games their first year. They won their first three straight, produced a 33-48 record and reached the playoffs.
Sloan played no small role in that unexpected success. He received the first of his two career NBA All-Star selections that season, just two years removed from playing NCAA Division II basketball at the University of Evansville (Ind.). He was third in scoring for Chicago, averaging 17.1 points per game. As a guard, he also led the Bulls in rebounding with an average of 9.1 per game.
Sloan always liked to say his hard work and hustle made up for lack of talent. Sloan had some natural ability — he did, after all, score 43 points in a 1969 game against the Bucks — but his work ethic was legendary. Phil Johnson, an assistant coach for the Bulls under Dick Motta from 1968 to ’76 and later an assistant to Sloan with the Jazz from 1988 to 2011, would run Bulls rookie camps in the summers. He said Sloan would stop by just to check out the action but inevitably would hop into the drills.
Johnson also remembers Sloan as the consummate teammate.
“He was just always patting guys on the back, ‘Come on, let’s go,’” Johnson said. “He was never critical from a tactical standpoint. He just wasn’t. He wanted them to play hard like he did, but he didn’t come out verbally and say things like that. He did it more by example.”
Few were willing to put their bodies on the line like Sloan did, though.
Throughout his 10-year career in Chicago, Sloan suffered a wide range of injuries. He ripped a groin muscle away from the bone while diving for a loose ball during the 1969-70 season. He tore a muscle in his left foot that kept him off the roster for the 1974 playoffs. He had his knee drained 22 times, according to an article by Sam Smith, before knee pain eventually ended his playing career in 1976. All that was in addition to innumerable sprains, jams, bruises and cuts.
Mike Brown didn’t know anything about Sloan’s moxie when he arrived in Chicago to play power forward in 1986. When he expressed bewilderment about why Sloan’s was the only jersey hanging from the rafters — his No. 4 was retired by the team in 1978 — Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ GM at the time, invited Brown to the film room to see for himself.
“So I’m watching a play and somebody was too close to [Sloan] and just swiped up and hit him with an elbow in his nose,” Brown recalled. “So Sloan looks like his nose is broke. He’s bleeding. And the only thing he did was he wiped the blood off his nose and onto his jersey, and he got back down in his defensive stance. So I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this dude is tough as nails!’"
Brown said he relayed that story to Sloan in Utah years later.
“I said, ‘Man, you was a tough SOB,’” Brown recalled. "And he said, ‘Damn right, Brown.’”
Sloan’s confrontational style changed the game. Teams even strategized around it, according to former Jazz coach Frank Layden. Layden coached against Sloan in 1976 as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks.
“You know, there was very few players in the league that I was afraid of. You know what I mean? Kareem and Magic and Bird and Dr. J, and what have you. But when you played against the Bulls and you played against Jerry Sloan, you knew you were not only in for a tough game, but you’re in for a fight,” Layden said. “I mean, he would set the tone. And I think he raised your level by doing that. And we used to prepare for that. We didn’t do much double-teaming, we didn’t have a lot of tricks, we tried to play people straight up. But with Sloan it was, ‘Don’t let this guy intimidate us! He’s gonna get us angry!’"
Sloan and fellow backcourt mate “Stormin’” Norman Van Lier took some satisfaction in telling other players the pain they were going to put them through. Their opponents knew they weren’t bluffing, either.
Just two players didn’t get tongue-lashings as well as body blows from Sloan: Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.
“He never said too much to those two guys. Everybody else he was very verbal with and he was very tough,” Johnson said. “I mean, he wouldn't mind jumping in front of Wilt Chamberlain running down the floor and taking a charge. He was just very, very tough.”
His gritty style of play, combined with his frank demeanor with the media, earned Sloan the city’s adoration. In his 10 years in Chicago, Sloan helped drive the team to its first 50-win season, its first division title and eight playoff appearances. He was named to six NBA all-defensive teams.
And while Michael Jordan became the face of the franchise when he won six championships with Chicago between 1984 and ’98, Sloan will always carry the title of “The Original Bull.” Some have even surmised he may have been the model for the face of the bull in the team’s logo.
Sloan gave his body and his heart to the game of basketball. In return, it left him in pieces. But it also gave him peace.
— Tribune reporter Eric Walden contributed to this article.