Jerry Sloan: Coach of the Postseason?
An old-school q+a with the inimitable Jazz man.
By Ben Osborne
I thought about giving Jerry Sloan a little love in this space after he again didn’t win Coach of the Year honors, but at the time the Jazz looked like probable first-round losers, which would have undercut my point a bit. But today, in the wake of Utah’s series win over the Rockets and Game One win over the Warriors—featuring, as Mutoni points out briefly, Sloan’s impressive willingness to let Deron Williams do his thing and to let the whole team run with G State, and seriously undercutting this brouhaha—I have revisited the concept.
Not only is it always worth mentioning that the NBA’s longest-tenured and fourth-winningest coach ever has never won the NBA’s coaching award in an era that has seen hacks like Don Chaney and Mike Dunleavy win it, but this is also a pre-emptive strike against Jazz fans (based on emails and letters to the editor as well as the comments section, the second-most defensive collection of supporters in the SLAM world after Raptor nuts) who may be crafting letters as I type about how much we hate on their beloved team. What’s more, as you’ll see below in an interview I conducted with my Chicago-raised father’s “favorite player” during the lockout of ’98 for a coaches against cancer organization, Sloan is a good interview with a perspective that is extremely unique in the modern NBA; he’s been around longer than almost anyone else affiliated with the League today and has the insights to prove it. Without further ado, Jazz/Sloan fans, enjoy…
SLAM: How did you get involved with this “Coaches Corner Smoking” organization?
SLOAN: It was really because of my daughter. I had gotten the information, but I didn’t pay much attention, because I hadn’t done anything like it before—no commercials, and nothing like this. But the company my daughter worked for was involved in it, so she started telling me about it. She said, “Dad, I think you should do this, since you’re at least a coach who has smoked, and quit.”
SLAM: Has doing this been rewarding?
SLOAN: I think it’s worthwhile, and it seems like something that can help people. That’s why I got involved in it.
SLAM: How long ago did you quit smoking?
SLAM: You didn’t smoke while you played, did you?
SLOAN: Yes I did.
SLAM: Wow. You don’t have any players who smoke now, right?
SLOAN: Right. One thing you don’t realize, being a younger guy, is that things were different then. Back in my first year, 1965, there were seven or eight guys on our team that would have a cigarette in the locker room before the game, after the game and at halftime, plus the coach. That was just a way of life.
SLAM: You feel better since you stopped?
SLOAN: Well that’s an obvious statement. I feel great, but it’s very difficult to quit.
SLAM: Do you and your wife go back a long time?
SLOAN: Well, we knew who each other was as far back as 8th grade.
SLAM: You went to Evansville, right?
SLOAN: I first went to University of Illinois, then I quit school and went back home. After I bounced around for a little while, I ended up at Evansville.
SLAM: How was Evansville?
SLOAN: My senior year, we didn’t lose a game; we won the championship. We beat Southern Illinois, which had Clyde Frazier. We had a good team. It was Division II then.
SLAM: Normally at this time of year, you’d be two weeeks into training camp. Is it weird for you to be so removed from it right now?
SLOAN: Well, this is one of the things we tell our players at the very beginning of the season. There are going to be some things that will happen that you have no control over. How are you going to handle it? Are you going to be upset with every little thing that goes wrong? Are you going to be upset because the game’s delayed a little bit because there’s ice on the floor? Well, if you’re going to be upset that easily, then I’m going to have no control whatsoever over this team. That’s how I feel about this. I have no control over what happens now, so we’re just going about our business. That’s all we can do right now.
SLAM: Do you even think about who you want to win this battle between the players and owners? You were a player for a long time, but now you’re part of management, in a way. Are there certain things you want to see happen, or you just want it to end?
SLOAN: Like I said, once you start doing that, you’re going to get frustrated. I think the best thing to do is have as much fun as possible with this time off. Juts like you tell your players, “when you’ve got an off day, enjoy it.” We can’t spend our time going crazy thinking about how this is going to end. And that’s basically the approach that I’m taking. My wife and I have had a wonderful time, doing things we haven’t done on a normal off-season.
SLAM: That’s a great attitude you have, but does it also occur to you that, as coach of an established, veteran team, it might be easier to miss training camp?
SLOAN: Let me turn this around on you. What difference does it make?
SLAM: Well, if you were Larry Brown with a young Sixer team and you don’t even know who’s going to be on your team, it might be tougher.
SLOAN: We’re all starting at square one. Everybody’ll start the same day and we’ll all have the same number of practices. Whatever you make of that is all you can do. It could affect the younger or older teams, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. Once you start speculating, that’s when you get frustrated.
SLAM: Last June, the expectations for the Jazz in the Finals were a little higher than the year before. Was the reaction different losing the second time?
SLOAN: Not really. I don’t think the guys have changed since I’ve been in Utah, or at least during the Stockton-Malone-Hornacek years. Since those guys have the leaders of our team, I don’t think things have changed. I think for the most part they played as hard as they could. And that’s all you can do. Once you’ve played as hard as you can, what more can you do? What are you gonna’ tell someone that tried as hard as they could: That’s not enough? It’s not fair to want more than that. We try to be fair with our players, and hope they like that program. That’s the only way I know how to act.
SLAM: In a normal offseason—with no lockout—do you talk to your players?
SLOAN: Sure. Well, I mean I usually don’t call them, but I’m happy to talk to them if they call me. The one thing that’s been different is that we normally have a rookie camp. I always want our new guys to get comfortable with Utah, learn how to get to and from practice, know where to get something to eat. Once they get acclimated that way, they just need to adapt to what they have to do.
SLAM: Most SLAM readers are young, so they know you as Coach Jerry Sloan. But you were also a great player for the Bulls, whose fans often called you “The Original Bull.” How would you describe your years in Chicago?
SLOAN: They were terrific. I went to Chicago when the franchise first started. It cost $1.2 million for the whole franchise. I played with a great group of guy that always played hard. We never won a championship, and we may not have been as talented as some other teams were, but they had to beat us. Sometimes talent can do that, but we never beat ourselves. We enjoyed playing, and we enjoyed each other as a group. Let me say this: It was very disappointing that we didn’t win a championship, but that’s the nature of sports.
SLAM: In a situation that’s somewhat unusual on almost every contemportary team other the Jazz, you guys had the same core group of players for many years.
SLOAN: Yeah. Me, Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker, Tom Boerwinkle. We had a close-knit group of guys, and that’s how we felt we could win, because in situation basketball—which is what we played—we always knew what we had to do. We try to coach that way in Utah now. Fortunately, we’ve had guys who accept that.
SLAM: It seems you had like three different eras in Chicago. You struggled for a couple years.
SLOAN: Yeah, we struggled, but we did make the playoffs as an expansion team in its first year. I don’t know if anybody else has done that.
SLAM: Then you had some down years.
SLOAN: Well that’s what kills an expansion team. Had we lost, we might’ve gotten a Jabbar. But they kept building up, keeping the guys that wanted to be there and then adding people. We got a little bit stronger with the familiarity that we had.
SLAM: Then you had a jump of 20 wins.
SLOAN: Well, getting Chet Walker certainly helped, because he was a great player for our basketball team. But even when we were winning 50-some games, we couldn’t draw flies. You’d maybe see one reporter in the locker room after the game. But the game’s changed for the better, for the most part.
SLAM: So why didn’t you guys ever break through and make the Finals? A lot of people say it’s because you never had a center.
SLOAN: Well that’s the easy way to look at it. Those were the cards we were dealt. That’s the way life is—we are who we are. I’m not growing any taller.
SLAM: You forte was defense. Did you have a special talent, extra desire, or was that just the way you felt you could most help the Bulls win?
SLOAN: That was how I felt I could make a positive contribution to the team. I also rebounded fairly well for a guard. I led our team in rebounding as a guard, and I don’t know how many times that’s happened. I could score some, but I was nothing like Jerry West—I had to guard the guys like that.
SLAM: Is there a player today who reminds you of how you played?
SLOAN: John Stockton is much more talented than I ever was, but I think our attitudes are the same. He has real basketball skills, which I didn’t really have. What’s strange is, I was a real slow guy. Tom Boerwinkle, who was seven feet tall, would beat me in a sprint from one end of the court to the other.
SLAM: You played for Dick Motta for a long time. Was he an influence on how you coach?
SLOAN: Dick tried to make the game so that all five guys were involved. Guys had different strengths and weaknesses, and he tried to use their strengths. That’s what we’ve tried to do in Utah. People always say, “You’re so predictable.” But it’s worked. Well, we were predictable in Utah. So I’ve always done that in Utah. I always think it’s important to have the ball in the hands of the guy who’s the 50 percent shooter rather than the guy who shoots 40 percent. That’s common sense.
Postscript: Sloan’s longtime wife, Bobbye, died of cancer in 2004, and in 2005 the Sloan’s friends and family established the Hand-in-Hand foundation.