The spirit of Jerry Sloan lives on within the Utah Jazz.
That much is apparent to anyone who read Quin Snyder’s response to Sloan’s passing on Friday and, more importantly, anyone who watches the Jazz play.
“Before coming to Utah, I certainly was aware of Coach Sloan and what he meant to the NBA and to the coaching world,” Snyder said. “But, upon living in Utah, I became acutely aware of just how much he truly meant to the state.
“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 in carrying forward.”
Think about that for a minute.
Nearly a decade after Sloan retired, his presence is still being felt, his fundamental principles still being followed. Too often, new coaches try to replace old ones with a whole new approach, as though in their own insecurity they must wipe out the lingering effect of the predecessor, even if, especially if, the coach who went before was and is a legend.
They foolishly swing the hammer of the day in the attempt to create their own signature culture, a new and improved culture, to boost the winning and leave their fresh mark on a team, on a program, on a franchise.
Sloan used to say, “I’m not a me-first coach.”
Neither is Snyder, who is perceptive enough to honor what has come before and to build on it.
Even as Jerry sat in the stands, not for his own aggrandizement, rather because he loved watching basketball, loved watching the Jazz play, Snyder never let the presence of an icon distract or intimidate or threaten him. Not even on the occasions when a former player such as John Stockton sat alongside.
Anybody who knows Snyder is fully aware that there is authentic meaning and intention behind his words, not just pushing out words for words’ sake.
It’s not that his view of the game is the same. It’s not. The modern game has changed drastically from the time of Sloan’s layup-first heyday. The two most preferred shots now are layups/dunks, which Jerry loved, and the 3-point bomb, which Sloan didn’t.
It wasn’t so much that he hated the deep shot, he just hated guys taking it, missing it, causing a long rebound and triggering early offense the other way, putting his defense at a disadvantage. He said he never minded the 3-point attempt — as long as it went in.
Under his guidance, the Jazz didn’t take many of them, but they often did have an offense that was efficient and effective.
The Jazz shot 2,200 3-pointers in the 2019-20 season, interrupted as it was early in March. Last season, they fired up 2,789. Snyder has crafted an attack designed to create those open looks.
The most 3-pointers a Sloan-coached team launched in which he coached the entire season was the year before he retired (2009-10), when the Jazz attempted 1,207 — and typically his teams shot a whole lot fewer than that. In the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals seasons, the Jazz hoisted 902 and 670 deep balls. But the team ranked second and first in offensive ratings those years.
It makes you wonder what Sloan would say now, not about Snyder’s coaching ideas, but about the NBA game as a whole.
Knowing him, he would have at first dropped a few colorful combinations of expletives, and then thought about it further, looked at the talent on the roster, examined what was going on around him in the league, and fallen back on what he previously said about using the long ball: “I’m all for it — if they go in.”
There most definitely are differences in Snyder’s specifics against Sloan’s in what is now a changed game. But the foundational stuff is almost identical: play hard, play team basketball, play together, play with character, play unselfishly, play defense, play to win.
It’s all still there.
Snyder did not know Sloan well, but he respected what he knew and he learned about Jerry from those who were close to him — people like longtime Jazz assistant Phil Johnson, a savvy and intelligent basketball man with all kinds of knowledge to share, a roundball professor who any coach would be wise to hear and learn from. Significant things, such as the importance of communication and loyalty. If there were two coaches more tethered and unified in their efforts than Sloan and Johnson, nobody’s aware who they would be.
“It was amazing to see how many people were able to share about the depth of [Sloan’s] character, how much he cared about people and how loyal he was,” Snyder told me. “It was clear he was an unwavering but creative force behind the culture and identity of the program.”
Remarkable it is, the lasting effect an individual can have on the whole.
Jerry Sloan’s culture lives on and leans forward, then, extended by those who are following in his “giant footsteps,” “humbled” as they are.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.