Jerry Sloan was on the NBA scene for more than 50 years as a player, scout, coach and advisor, demonstrating how toughness, hustle and grit can be as important when competing at basketball’s highest level as your vertical leap or a sweet jump shot.
With the Hall of Fame coach – best known as the Utah Jazz’s bench constant for 23 years – passing away on May 22, 2020 after fighting Parkinson’s disease and dementia for several years, here are 10 things to know about Sloan:
* * *
Staying power: Baseball, football and hockey had had ‘em, but the NBA among the four major North American sports leagues never had a coach spend 20 consecutive seasons with the same team – until Jerry Sloan got there in 2007-08. Sloan took the Utah Jazz baton from boss Frank Layden in December 1988 and held on until February 2011. In the process, he became the first coach to win 1,000 games with one team (San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has since matched Sloan’s longevity and victory milestones.)
Walked two miles to school, really: Growing up farm country in McLeansboro, Ill., Sloan was the youngest of 10 children whose father died when he was 4. A typical morning for him while attending McLeansboro High: Wake at 4:30 a.m. to get his farm chores done, then walk or hitch-hike to school for morning basketball practice. Before that, in grade school, Sloan did his learning in a one-room schoolhouse with a graduating class of two.
Drafted twice by the same team: Sloan had false starts at the University of Illinois and at Southern Illinois University, withdrawing from each school before he found a home at what then was known as Evansville College (University of Evansville since 1967). Sloan led the Purple Aces in scoring, rebounding and floor burns in winning back-to-back NCAA Division II championships, earning tournament MVP and second team all-America status both years. Because of his transfer year, he was eligible for the 1964 NBA Draft and was chosen 19th overall by the Baltimore Bullets. After Sloan opted to return to college for his senior year, the Bullets drafted him again in 1965, No. 7 overall.
The first Mr. Bull: Sloan had an unremarkable rookie season in Baltimore, prompting the Bullets to make him available in the NBA’s first expansion draft in 1966 to stock the new franchise in Chicago. What few knew was that Sloan had returned to Evansville to work in his old coach Arad McCutchan’s basketball camp and work himself into a different player altogether that summer. He went from 5.7 ppg and 3.9 rpg as a newbie to averaging 17.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, earning All-Star status while helping the Bulls reach the playoffs in their inaugural season. Sloan ended his playing days in 1975 after a final knee injury, with two All-Star appearances and six selections to all-defensive teams. He became the first Bulls player to have his jersey (No. 4) retired and, though 6-foot-5, remains the only player in league history with career averages of at least 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals.
Sidestepping tragedy: McCutchan had sized up Sloan for years as his eventual replacement at Evansville, so when the moment came in 1976, the Purple Aces’ most renowned alumnus was offered the coaching gig – and he accepted. In a matter of days, though, Sloan changed his mind, deciding to become a Bulls assistant coach to Ed Badger. Evansville turned to Oral Roberts coach Bobby Watson.
On Dec. 13, 1977, the Aces’ flight took off, bound for Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro. Ninety seconds later, in rain and fog, the DC-3 aircraft crashed to the ground. All 29 aboard were killed, including Watson, who had survived almost three years in Vietnam and earned five Purple Hearts.
Sloan, who confirmed years later he thought almost daily about the tragedy, agreed in 1984 to coach a CBA franchise in Evansville, the Thunder. He withdrew soon thereafter to join Frank Layden’s staff in Utah.
Another man’s treasure: Sloan didn’t collect any championship rings as an NBA player or coach but he did pick up plenty of baubles and doodads along the way as a passionate collector of antiques and salvageable items discarded by others. That was in addition to the vast array of farm tractors, mostly John Deere, he accumulated through the years. “I don't know why, but I've just always enjoyed collecting things," Sloan once said of his penchant for garage sales and thrift stores. “Pottery, dolls, toys, marbles, tractors – I collect them all.”
Can’t spell ‘Sloan’ without a T: As a player, Sloan could get out his aggression and hyper-competitiveness in multiple ways. As a coach on the sidelines, in a suit and street shoes, his options were more limited. But he always had the referees. It once was estimated that Sloan was assessed 446 technical fouls in more than four decades as a player or coach. He also made headlines for two physical confrontations with NBA game officials, pushing former ref Bob Delaney in an April 1993 game and shoving Courtney Kirkland in January 2003. The first incident triggered a one-game suspension, while the second cost Sloan seven games.
Two years after his final NBA game, Sloan in 2013 said in a radio interview: “One thing that I wish I’d done a better job of in my coaching was … getting along with the officials. I never was too good at that… I think I hurt our team a couple of times when I got a little too carried away with wanting to win so badly.”
No COY for you: The nine coaches in NBA history with at least 1,000 victories have been honored as Coach of the Year a total of 13 times – but Sloan never won that award. While Don Nelson, Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley each has three of those trophies, only Sloan and Rick Adelman in the 1,000-win club never were selected in annual balloting. The next six coaches, ranked by total victories from 800-999, won a combined seven COY awards.
Yet Sloan’s teams won 60 games three times and 50 (or the equivalent in a lockout year) 14 times. He led the Bulls (once) and the Jazz (19 times) to 20 playoff appearances, including two Finals and six Western Conference finals. Not long after the Jazz lost for the second time to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1998 Finals, longtime Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said: “He definitely doesn't get his due. Jerry's been a great leader for that team and he does it the right way: He doesn't make himself the focal point."
Stockton, Malone and Sloan: John Stockton was the No. 16 pick overall in the 1984 Draft. A year later, Karl Malone went at No. 13. And that was that – it would be 18 years before the Jazz drafted higher than No. 14 again. Utah’s two stars and its legendary coach never messed with the lottery in their time together, winning 781 games. In 2005 with a No. 3 pick acquired from Portland, the Jazz selected guard Deron Williams, ironically the player who would trigger Sloan’s abrupt retirement in February 2011.
Sloan was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with Stockton in 2009 (coincidentally as part of the same class as nemesis Jordan). Malone joined them in Springfield, Mass., a year later. There is a movement underway in Salt Lake City to have a statue of Sloan positioned outside Vivint Arena to accompany those celebrating the point guard and the power forward.
Sidekick, partner, friend: When you think of great sidekicks in popular culture – Spock, Chewbacca, Dr. Watson, the Boy Wonder – the NBA deserves a seat at the table. What Scottie Pippen was to Jordan, what Kobe Bryant was to Shaquille O’Neal, assistant coach Phil Johnson was to Sloan, dating back to the latter’s playing days with the Bulls. When Sloan got hired in 1979 to coach in Chicago, he brought back Johnson, who had been fired by the Kings after a five-year run (and where, ironically, Johnson won the coaching award that eluded Sloan). Later, when Sloan got promoted into Frank Layden’s job with the Jazz, he called up Johnson again.
And when Sloan called it quits unexpectedly in 2011, Johnson – six months older and mentioned often as his friend’s likely successor – decided to leave with him.
How did their partnership last so long? Johnson once explained: “We had very similar backgrounds and that really brought us together. We think a lot alike. We've been very honest with each other over time. He knows exactly where I stand and I know exactly where he stands."
Sloan had a simpler explanation, based on opposites attracting: “Phil and I had a great relationship. Phil is a very smart guy. I’m the dummy.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.