Editor’s note: Kurt Kragthorpe covered the Utah Jazz and Jerry Sloan as a beat writer with the Deseret News and a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Now retired, Kragthorpe shares some of his favorite recollections of the longtime Jazz coach.
A life-changing job promotion would not alter Jerry Sloan’s habits.
After becoming the Jazz’s head coach in December 1988, Sloan maintained his pregame routine that included dinner in the press room. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Jerry dined among the scribes.
This explains how we intersected in the Salt Palace hallway that night, during my fourth season as a Jazz beat writer — an assignment that initially overwhelmed me at age 24. Sloan had always encouraged me in those early years. I told him I knew our relationship would change, now that he was the head coach.
He asked only that I judge him fairly.
After suddenly stepping down from coaching in 2011, Sloan told that story during his farewell news conference. I nodded, recognizing how his words had resonated with me.
Sloan and broadcaster “Hot Rod” Hundley were two of the most supportive people to me in those early years on the beat, and now they’re gone. Looking back at those days of writers flying with the players and coaches on commercial planes and riding on the team bus, it all seems rather quaint, almost unprofessional. That’s not to say the coverage was any softer, just that the interaction was much more personal.
In moving from the Deseret News to The Salt Lake Tribune, with varied job descriptions, I missed out on the Jazz’s epic adventures of the 1990s. How weird is this? The first of Sloan’s playoff series victories that I actually witnessed in person didn’t come until 2007, after I had become a Tribune columnist.
Yet that gap made the team’s run to the Western Conference finals more meaningful to me than if I had covered the NBA Finals years. Game 7 of the ‘07 first-round series in Houston remains indelible, especially how Sloan said afterward that he’d never been prouder of a team.
In 2010, Sloan did some of his best work, beating Denver in a first-round series without Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. Then came a series defeat against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers for the third year in a row, though. So here we are in 2020, a year when, improbably, Bryant and Sloan both have died.
In Sloan’s case, we had some warning. His 2016 disclosure of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological issues made it inevitable that his life would be shortened.
One of the most memorable stories I’ve ever done was about Jazz fans whose devotion to the team was cited in their obituaries. Inevitably, the family members I interviewed mentioned how admiration of Sloan was a driving force of their connection to the Jazz. That bond will last forever, for many Utahns.
At this point, a confession: By the time Sloan left the Jazz in 2011, I was ready for another voice in all of those interviews. One thing about Sloan, he would never just play along with a scripted story angle. He was never derisive or demeaning, but any question was merely his invitation to talk about whatever he wanted.
Working with Jazz coaches Tyrone Corbin and Quin Snyder was refreshing in that sense, although I came to miss hearing Sloan’s voice.
His message from 1988 never left me. In the last phase of my full-time newspaper career, I covered University of Utah athletics. When athletic director Mark Harlan tweeted a review of my work last December, one word jumped off the page: fair.
Jerry Sloan had influenced me, to the end.