Don Nelson, the most winning coach in NBA history, had just completed a walk on the beach in his beloved Hawai’i on Friday when a reporter informed him that his coaching contemporary Jerry Sloan had died of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia at the age of 78.
“Oh, he was a dear friend,” Nelson told ESPN. “Although he fought me the first time we ever met.”
Nelson was a player with the Boston Celtics when the team traveled to a game against Sloan’s Chicago Bulls at Chicago Stadium on November 8, 1966. Nelson bombed back on defense, trying to catch a strip of Sloan when Sloan suddenly stopped, causing two players to collide violently.
“He set me up,”
Nelson said he and Sloan each took a few wild swings at each other that didn’t get connected. They were quickly separated by officials and teammates.
“Back then they didn’t throw you out of the game,” Nellie said, “so we kept playing. And Jerry was doing well. That’s how he was. He was a really tough guy, but he would say and move on. ”
Although Sloan logged 11 tough seasons as an NBA player from 1965 to 1976, he was best known for his 26-year stint as an NBA coach, with 23 of those seasons with Utah Jazz.
In Salt Lake City, he introduced a no-nonsense, physical basketball brand that allowed the Jazz to advance to the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998. Both times his team – led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, whose personalities mirrored them from their taciturn coach – were prevented by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Although Sloan never won a championship – and unbelievably never was named NBA coach of the year – George Karl said he was one of the most gifted coaches he has ever seen.
“I had ranked Jerry as one of the top three or four, all the time I have ever faced,” said Karl, who sits two places behind Sloan at No. 6 on the list of all-time coaching victories. really hard to play against. They were very tough, very team oriented.
“Jerry wouldn’t tolerate a lot of NBA bulls — it goes on. He was demanding but respectful. Every Utah Jazz player I’ve ever talked to had nothing but good things to say about him.”
Sloan was raised in Gobblers Knob, Illinois, the youngest of 10 children. When Sloan was only 4, his father died. He rose to the sun to finish his work on the family farm and then walk more than two miles to school. Those who knew him said he attributed the work ethic that served him well throughout his NBA career to his tough crab upbringing.
“Jerry was heartily a farmer,” Phil Jackson said in a text message. “We all enjoyed his fire and his sportsmanship … both ends of the training spectrum.”
Sloan led a disciplined franchise and would not tolerate apologies or dissent. He expected his players to exhibit the same gravel that was his trademark. In 2006, when asked if he needed to be patient with his youngest player, 19-year-old CJ Miles, Sloan reiterated: “I don’t care if he’s 19 or 30. If he wants to be on the floor in NBA, he has to be able to step up and get after it. We can’t put diapers one night and a jock strap the next night. That’s just the way it is. “
Sloan also displayed fierce loyalty to his players. Then reaches Kenyon Martin planned Malone in the open floor, it wasn’t Malone who threatened to fight him – it was Sloan.
Consider the words of former Jazz president and coach Frank Layden, who once passed this gem on to author Michael Lewis: “Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out as a winner, at his age “You might even lick him. But you would lose an eye, an arm, your testicles in the process.”
Sloan’s anger was not reserved solely for opponents. If he felt that one of his players was being whistled via a phantom call, he had no qualms about challenging the referee who made the decision, with some choice words to illustrate his point. In 2003, he was even suspended seven games for shooting Judge Courtney Kirkland in the chest.
Former NBA official Joey Crawford said he warned younger judges that if they decided to beat Sloan with a technician, they should immediately turn around and walk away to ruin the situation.
“But here’s the wonderful thing about Jerry,” Crawford said. “He would get angry, but you could come back to him and say a lot of things to him and he would never ever rate you out. You could even curse him, but he would never call the league office the next morning to complain, just like some other coaches would.
“I had a lot of respect for the man. We all did that.”
Lenny Wilkens said he was exposed to a much softer side of Sloan when Wilkens chose him to be part of his staff for the 1996 Summer Olympics. At that time, he and Sloan were not very close, but Wilkens wanted him on because of his respect for the way Sloan approached the game and the attention he commanded from players.
“I liked his competitive spirit,” said Wilkens, No. 2 on the list of coaching winners at all times. “His team was always so prepared and he wouldn’t let you do what you wanted to do. We both thought that defense could affect a game.
“And like me, he wasn’t about to let you go to the basket. That’s not how we were raised.”
During their travels, Wilkens learned to appreciate Sloan’s skewed sense of humor and passion for the game. His face softened as he talked about his family. His devotion to his players was also evident.
“He had a huge impact on our team,” Wilkens said. “He is one of the people who had instant credibility on the field. ”
Four years later, Sloan was passed as Wilkens’ successor to the 2000 Olympics, a weakness that still bothers Wilkens.
“I was very disappointed with him,” he said, “and I let the people in the Olympic Committee know about it. That wasn’t right. We did a great job [in ’96] and Jerry was a big part of it. ”
Karl said while Sloan earned attention for his defensive schemes, he was just as excited about Sloan’s offensive set.
“Our first couple of years when I was in Seattle, we doubled Malone and we doubled Stockton, and they figured out how to destroy us,” said Karl, who went head-to-head with Sloan-coached teams 82 times, fourth most behind Rick Adelman, Nelson and Jackson. “He kept it simple, but what he pulled up was rock solid, and his players followed his lead.
“I loved the battles with Jerry. They were physical, though [the Jazz] played as a team and understood that one had to stay together in competition.
“Jerry demanded it. He demanded that his players be good teammates.”
Sloan retired in 2011, the third time in coaching victories and now sits fourth. The man who then passed him in third place, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich released a statement Friday, proclaiming Sloan as “real and genuine.”
“And that’s rare,” Popovich said. “He was a mentor to me long-term until I got to know him. A man who did not suffer fools, he had a sense of humor, often disguised and had a heart as big as the prairie. “
Coach Pop’s statement about Jerry Sloan’s passing. pic.twitter.com/ihmVNfh8bI
– San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) May 22, 2020
Nelson said behind Sloan’s turmoil was a gentle, fun-loving and even ramped-up man. In their later years, he said, the opposing coaches were not about to sneak out for a beer or two when their team was in the same city.
“I think Jerry may have been the most competitive guy I’ve ever coached against,” Nelson said. “But when the game was over, it was over. I remember talking to him when he was ready to retire. He looked forward to returning to his farm. He loved driving the fields on his tractor. ”
Although Sloan never raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he appreciated his basketball journey, Wilkens said.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy who cried about what he did and didn’t do,” Wilkens said. “He loved the game. It was enough.
“And there’s no doubt that the game loved him back.”