Jerry Sloan was seemingly a man of contradictions. On the one hand, a legendary NBA coach known for his intense, no-nonsense demeanor and a fierce competitive streak, to say nothing of his frequent foul-mouthed, volcanic rage toward referees; on the other, though, a simple, humble farmer with an affinity for antique stores, yard sales and vintage tractors, decked out in overalls and a grimy John Deere ball cap, and secretly possessed of a sweet and tender side.
And yet, those who knew him best say there was never really any contradiction at all, that with Sloan, you always knew what you were going to get.
Jerry Sloan, who guided the Utah Jazz for 23 seasons and became the fourth-winningest coach in NBA history in the process, died Friday.
He was 78.
Sloan’s fiery, aggressive on-court persona saw him go from little McLeansboro (Ill.) High School all the way to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In between, he was a two-time All-Star as an NBA player, and guided the Jazz to consecutive NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, and 15 consecutive playoff appearances between 1989 and 2003 as a coach.
And along the way, he touched the lives of innumerable people — teammates, players he coached, colleagues, opponents — and left a permanent mark.
“The tough guy who was always the first to come to your rescue, the first out on the court when anything went wrong, to have your back, the guy you didn't want to mess with. And so it's difficult because [he was] so instrumental in your development, not just as a player, but as a man,” said longtime Jazz forward Thurl Bailey. “It was the little things sometimes: 'Tuck your shirt in, son, respect the game. Be on time. Be a leader. Don't take any crap on the court from anybody. Protect your teammates.' It's tough. It's tough. But Jerry would obviously want you to buck up and go do your job, and do the best you can, and have an effect on people's lives in a positive way. I love that man. I always have, always will.”
On April 6, 2016, Sloan revealed to The Salt Lake Tribune he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and a form of dementia.
“I’m not looking for publicity,” he said. “But I feel I have to talk straight to people so they know what’s going on.”
Sloan’s wife, Tammy, said, “You try to be optimistic. … But it is what it is. This is not going to reverse itself and go away."
Shortly after Sloan disclosed his illness, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle called Sloan “a living legend.”
[Read more: Gordon Monson: Jerry Sloan was a lion and a lamb]
Other former colleagues echoed those sentiments.
“He was one of those iconic coaches who was a wonderful example of consistency, mental and physical toughness, demanding but fair, suffered no fools, took no prisoners,” San Antonio Spurs coach and executive Gregg Popovich said. “And we did our best to try to emulate all that, because it was pretty impressive and pretty successful. He was a wonderful coach, and an even better human being.”
“There aren’t many people in the profession that I respect more than Jerry Sloan,” added former Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. “To have that kind of sustained success in a league as competitive as the NBA is incredible.”
The late league commissioner David Stern once called Sloan “one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA.”
And indeed, only three NBA coaches have amassed more regular-season wins than his 1,221 — Don Nelson (1,335), Lenny Wilkens (1,332) and Popovich (1,272). Sloan was also just one of two coaches ever to win at least 1,000 games with the same team.
On Jan. 31, 2014, the Jazz raised a banner with the number 1,223 — signifying the total number of regular-season and playoff victories Sloan earned with the Jazz — to the arena rafters.
After coaching the Chicago Bulls for 2½ seasons, Sloan came to Utah as an assistant in 1984, when then-head coach Frank Layden hired him. Sloan would replace Layden on Dec. 9, 1988, and go on to coach the team until 2011.
“I had a great deal of respect for him. He had great retention. He had a lot of what I thought [UCLA coach] Johnny Wooden had," Layden told The Tribune. "Johnny Wooden, people don’t realize this: He never scouted opponents; he said, ‘They got to worry about us. I don’t have to worry about them.’ And Jerry felt the same way. Jerry said, no matter who we played, ‘This is how we play. We play tough defense, we go over the top, we beat guys to the spot, we got our hands up, we’re moving our feet.’ He was like Vince Lombardi on defense. And he thought that that was the constant. And he added that to our team. I said this when I retired and Jerry was taking over: ‘Jerry will take this team to another level. I’ve taken them as far as I can go. I don’t think I can do anything else. But Jerry’s gonna take it to the next level.’ And, of course, that’s what he did.”
Over the next 23 years, Sloan guided the Jazz to a record of 1,127-682. With Hall of Fame players Karl Malone and John Stockton leading the way, Utah reached the Western Conference finals five times between 1992 and 1998. In ’97 and ’98, the Jazz finally advanced to the NBA Finals, though they lost in six games both times to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Sloan suddenly resigned from the team and quit coaching on Feb. 10, 2011, after a 91-86 loss to the Bulls. During the game, he had the last in a long series of run-ins with All-Star point guard Deron Williams. Sloan would eventually return to the Jazz as a senior adviser in 2013.
“Jerry Sloan will always be synonymous with the Utah Jazz. He will forever be a part of the Utah Jazz organization and we join his family, friends and fans in mourning his loss,” the Jazz said in a statement. “We are so thankful for what he accomplished here in Utah and the decades of dedication, loyalty and tenacity he brought to our franchise.”
Current Jazz coach Quin Snyder added: “I was honored by the opportunity to follow in Coach Sloan’s giant footsteps, and subsequently humbled by the task of trying to uphold the standards and the success that are synonymous with his legacy. The clear identity that he established for Jazz Basketball — unselfishness, toughness and the essential importance of Team — has always left a palpable responsibility to strive for.”
Current Orlando Magic assistant Tyrone Corbin has a unique perspective on Sloan, having played for him, coached alongside him, and ultimately having succeeded him as head coach after Sloan’s resignation.
“He’s a man that I have tremendous respect for as a human being. One of the most loyal, humble, hardworking, straight-up guys that you can ever meet. And he’s always been that way,” Corbin told The Tribune. “… For him to ask me, and actually give me an opportunity to be on his coaching staff and to learn and be around him more and to learn more about him as a person, that was just a tremendous honor. And what a guy. Just what a guy.”
Sloan was never voted the NBA’s Coach of the Year despite his success — a fact that seemed to bother others more than him.
“I just think there’s a lot more to basketball than individual awards,” he said.
[Tell The Tribune: What’s your favorite memory of former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan?]
Sloan was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. Others in his class included Stockton and Jordan.
Jerry Colangelo, the managing director for Team USA and the chairman of the board for the Hall of Fame, recalled long ago entertaining Sloan on a recruiting visit to the University of Illinois, where Sloan would temporarily enroll before leaving a few months later, citing homesickness.
To see Sloan go from there to the Hall thrills Colangelo to this day, he told The Tribune.
“I love the guy for who he was," he said. “And respected him so much as a terrific competitor in a game that we both loved, and I’m very happy for the great career he had in basketball and his journey from McLeansboro to the Hall of Fame — you can’t get a higher tribute than that.”
Sloan, never being one for the spotlight, conceded that giving his HOF acceptance speech was “pretty tough for me. It’s just hard for me to talk about myself. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything."
Anyone who was around him, naturally, would disagree with such an assessment.
Sloan played 11 seasons in the NBA, starting in 1965-66 after the then-Baltimore Bullets drafted him out of the University of Evansville. After his rookie season, Sloan was selected in an expansion draft by Chicago. For the next decade, he joined Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle as the heart and soul of the Bulls.
Though he averaged only 14 points per game during his playing career, he was a two-time All-Star and a six-time All-Defensive Team honoree. More importantly, he was renowned for his incredible physical toughness.
“Jerry Sloan was ‘The Original Bull’ whose tenacious defense and nightly hustle on the court represented the franchise and epitomized the city of Chicago,” Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said in a statement. “Jerry was the face of the Bulls organization from its inception through the mid-1970s, and very appropriately, his uniform No. 4 was the first jersey retired by the team. A great player and a Hall of Fame NBA coach, most importantly, Jerry was a great person. Our sympathies go out to the Sloan family and all his many fans.”
Ex-teammate and future NBA coach Rick Adelman’s favorite memory during his season in Chicago came during the ’74 playoffs. Sloan suffered a broken foot in the first quarter of Game 6 in a series against Detroit. But he continued to play.
“Just kept getting shot up,” Adelman said. “He knew he wasn’t going to play in Game 7, but they said, ‘You can’t hurt it anymore.’ So he played that whole sixth game.”
According to Adelman, the crowd’s response to Sloan climbing the steps from the locker room at old Chicago Stadium before Game 7 was critical to the Bulls’ series-clinching victory over the Pistons.
“The place went nuts and our whole team went to another level,” Adelman said. “I really believe it was all because of the reaction to him.”
That tough-guy mentality would later seep into his coaching career.
“He coached the same way. He was a tough, defensive-minded coach,” said former Jazz big man Mike Brown. “The thing that I admired about Jerry was he was gonna tell you exactly how it is. Some coaches, they want to sugarcoat it, they want to kind of have another set of rules for the superstar. He was straightforward. ‘You play hard defense, you’ll play for me.’ I remember one time he even said, ‘I don’t care if you can’t throw the ball in the ocean sitting in a boat. But if you play defensively the way I want you to play, you’re gonna get some minutes.’ I really loved the fact that he was always straightforward. You never had to second-guess.”
After retiring as a player, Sloan initially accepted the coaching job at his alma mater, Evansville, but soon after changed his mind “for personal reasons.” On Dec. 13, 1977, a charter plane carrying the Evansville team and its new coach, Bobby Watson, crashed while taking off for a game at Middle Tennessee. There were no survivors.
Sloan mentioned Watson and the Evansville plane crash during his Hall of Fame induction speech.
“That incident,” he said. “… made me realize that there are a lot more things more important than basketball, even though I love this game. I will always be grateful for what it has given me.”
In his Hall of Fame speech moments later, Stockton said, “Coach Sloan is what the NBA should be about. Committed to your teammates, your coaches, your organization and the game of basketball. He’s never asked for credit. In fact, he avoids it. [But] his record speaks for itself.”
Sloan is survived by his wife, Tammy, and four children — son Brian Sloan, daughters Kathy Sloan Wood and Holly Sloan Parish, and stepson Rhett.
Sloan was married to his high school sweetheart, Bobbye Sloan, for 41 years. She died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.
Former Jazz player Blue Edwards, who often was at odds with Sloan during his first run with the team, recalled running into Bobbye Sloan at an event after he was later traded back to Utah, and she shared a bit of her husband’s not-often-seen softer side.
“We were at a dinner party at a fan’s house — and this is the first time I’ve ever spoken to her — and as I was walking to the house, she grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the corner. She said, ‘Blue, I want to tell you something.’ She says, ‘I’ve never seen Jerry more happy any time in his life than the day that you were traded back to Utah.’ So my eyes got kind of wide, and I had a big smile on my face. I’m like, 'Really?’” Edwards recalled. “She says, ‘Yes, he came in the house, and you know how Jerry is — he’s tough, he’s grumpy, he’s grouchy or whatever — he came in, a big smile on his face, he grabbed my hand and said, Hey, guess what, Blue’s come back.’ And she said he was happy the rest of the day. … That made me appreciate him even more because I saw both sides of him. I saw the tough side, and then the tender side. And I always appreciate him for what he did for me in my basketball career.
“I know how passionate he was about basketball and about people,” Edwards added. “… I believe that he lived his life exactly the way he wanted to. And I don’t think he left any stone unturned or anything undone. So we shouldn’t feel sorry for him. Jerry Sloan has had a great life. He leaves behind a great legacy.”
Steve Luhm and Julie Jag contributed to this article.
JERRY SLOAN’S COACHING CAREER
Regular season totals
Season Record Pct. Postseason
1979-80 30-52 .366 Missed the playoffs
1980-81 45-37 .549 Lost in conference semifinals
1981-82 19-31 .373 Fired during the season
Season Record Pct. Postseason
1988-89 40-25 .615 Lost in first round
1989-90 55-27 .671 Lost in first round
1990-91 54-28 .659 Lost in conference semifinals
1991-92 55-27 .671 Lost in conference finals
1992-93 47-35 .573 Lost in first round
1993-94 53-29 .646 Lost in conference finals
1994-95 60-22 .732 Lost in first round
1995-96 55-27 .671 Lost in conference finals
1996-97 64-18 .780 Lost in NBA Finals
1997-98 62-20 .756 Lost in NBA Finals
1998-99 37-13 .740 Lost in conference semifinals
1999-00 55-27 .671 Lost in conference semifinals
2000-01 53-29 .646 Lost in first round
2001-02 44-38 .537 Lost in first round
2002-03 47-35 .573 Lost in first round
2003-04 42-40 .512 Missed the playoffs
2004-05 26-56 .317 Missed the playoffs
2005-06 41-41 .500 Missed the playoffs
2006-07 51-31 .621 Lost in conference finals
2007-08 54-28 .659 Lost in conference semifinals
2008-09 48-34 .585 Lost in first round
2009-10 53-29 .646 Lost in conference semifinals
2010-11 31-23 .574 Resigned
23 seasons 1,221-803 .603