Jerry Sloan can coach the angels now.
And when he does, up on high celestial courts, they won’t be wearing tuxedos, nor will they be jack-potting around. They will not be playing backward. No. They might wear halos, but they will under no circumstances wear headbands. Their uniform shirts will be properly tucked in, and Sloan will insist they run hard, take smart shots, play defense, step into the competitive challenge.
He’ll swear at them in the same colorful manner he perfected down here on these terrestrial floors, where he won 1,221 games, most of them with the Jazz. Down where he established himself as one of the greatest basketball coaches in NBA history.
His death Friday at age 78 may be for him mere advancement to the existential postseason, but for the rest of us, it’s one more chance to celebrate Gerald Eugene Sloan’s life.
And what a life it was.
One worth remembering.
From the place of his birth, a family farmhouse in McLeansboro, Ill. — there’s nothing left there now but a rotted foundation alongside a dirt road — to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., with stops in Chicago and an elongated one in Salt Lake City, where he made his home and found his calling.
[More Gordon Monson: Pay a sweet silent tribute to Jerry Sloan, as the once-fierce lion’s eyes grow sleepy]
If there’s one moment in time that pretty much covers it all, everything Sloan was, it came during the community party in the arena where he coached, when John Stockton was toasted in retirement. The place was packed that day. Other notables had stepped to the lectern and paid their tributes, all of them honoring at length the Jazz point guard. Now, it was Sloan’s turn.
He was to introduce Stockton to the crowd, which he did after saying a few words. Although it was part of his job to speak into microphones in a gazillion postgame interviews, and he never ducked those obligations, public speaking was never his favorite thing. That stemmed from a bad experience he had in front of a class in grade school.
On this occasion, his feelings for Stockton tumbled around inside his head and heart, and the words spilled out of his mouth. When he turned the microphone over to John, the look on Sloan’s face spoke a million eloquent words, words of appreciation, respect and deep emotion, as the plumbing backed up and spilled over.
Turned out, the tough man with those dark-black eyes was a big softie.
The lion was a lamb.
You wouldn’t have known it from the way he played, the way he coached, the way he competed. Sloan’s outward demeanor was like dried leather. It appeared as though he would have just as soon punched you in the forehead as offered up any kind of polite chatter.
But that was legend, not reality.
He had great admiration for those with a fighting spirit, for those who gave basketball all they could give, the way he did. He loved Stockton, not just for the way he played the game, like a pro’s pro, but for the person doing the playing.
The same man who would have busted Jerry West in the chops with a forearm shiver in the attempt to defend him, bawled like a baby upon hearing that his daughter was getting married. He had that kind of breadth and depth and humility about his place in the world.
Speaking of humility, when Sloan was once asked about his playing days, about how his matchups against West went, the raging, “Original Bull” hung his head and said: “Kicked my ass every time.”
Not true, but more indication of Sloan’s modest view of himself.
On another occasion, the opportunity presented itself in a deserted hallway to ask Sloan about his coaching philosophy and his team at the time. It was in the year after Stockton and Karl Malone had moved on. His answer was not surprising but refreshing, nonetheless.
“The streets are filled with talent,” he said. “Talent will get a coach fired. You have to play with guys who enjoy each other and who will play together. Guys who play defense, who have discipline and who work hard. My job is to keep them in a mode where they have to recognize and depend on each other. I don’t have any All-Stars here. This isn’t John’s or Karl’s team. It’s not my team. It’s everybody’s team. That’s not a bullsh-- thing. I’m glad to come back and try to coach this group. I’m grateful for the chance. If we play together, we can get some things done. Good basketball is good basketball.”
Good coaching is good coaching.
Sometimes it called for steeled determination and sometimes for fire and brimstone. Sometimes it called for a profane blur and sometimes for heartfelt understanding.
It always called for complete effort.
Larry Miller used to love telling the story about Sloan’s calm during a kerfuffle in the Jazz locker room during halftime of a game when the coach scolded Greg Ostertag in front of the team for some mindless indiscretion, and Ostertag responded by throwing a bag of ice at Sloan’s head. Sloan saw the bag coming, leaned his head slightly to the side as the ice bag blew by, exploding against the wall behind him. Larry said Sloan “just kept on talking like nothing had happened.”
Made you wonder what would have followed had Ostertag’s throw not been as inaccurate as his jump shot.
Sloan was once asked if any of his players had ever gotten right up in his grille, and he responded: “No, not up in my face. If they had, somebody would be going south. I’ve got too much craziness in me.”
But that craziness was balanced by acumen and compassion.
He hatched all of that on the farmlands in southern Illinois, where the young Sloan walked dusty roads to and from school, where he traveled to work, fixing tractors, greasing gears, pulling rods on oil rigs. And finding time to hone the game he loved on earthen courts with rusted backboards and bent rims.
I once visited Sloan’s hometown, rolling down Route 242, talking with the people of McLeansboro about their native son, stopping at Huck’s Food and Fuel, at the This and That Variety Store, at Don’s Liquor Hut, hearing the stories that were told. It was like tripping into an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” meeting Snook and Dizzy and Beezer and Scooter, none of whom had a full set of teeth between them.
“Jerry’s one of us,” one of them said. “If he were here right now, he’d be the worst-dressed person around — in bib overalls and an old hat. He was dirt poor growing up and even though he’s been successful, put us on the map, he never changed.”
That’s a good thing. A great thing.
Sloan lived a full life. He did what he did in basketball. He screamed. He swore. He laughed. He cried. He fought. He won. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He had a wonderful family. He had people around him who loved him.
He was what Frank Layden said he was all those years ago, giving me the best description ever given of Jerry Sloan, a quote I’ve unapologetically recounted a thousand times, one I’ll pass along whenever the man’s name comes up. I’ve got the thing committed to memory now:
“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.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.