Rise & Grind
Southern Illinois-bred Jerry Sloan grew up from a stand-out college and pro player into one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
by Rus Bradburd
Until the early ’80s, just one pro basketball game was televised nationally each week. The same with college contests. That seems impossible now, but it’s true: You had to wait until Saturday for the “Game of the Week,” and even then you only saw the marquee teams—UCLA or Notre Dame; the Celtics, Lakers or Knicks.
Unless, like me, you lived in Chicago.
WGN televised every Chicago Bulls game beginning in the late ’60s, although the Bulls were hardly a marquee team then. Young players in Chicago grew up seeing Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Elvin Hayes, Lou Hudson, Bob McAdoo, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Billy Cunningham—whoever the Bulls played, and not just the glamour teams.
More important, this also meant that Chicago kids grew up watching Jerry Sloan play 80 games a year from ’66 to ’76. This exposure had a huge impact on the local basketball scene. Chicago kids had their understanding of how to play basketball tattooed on them—metaphorically, in those days—by Sloan and WGN.
Jerry Sloan was born in 1942, while World War II was still raging. He grew up in southern Illinois, an area near McLeansboro known as “Gobbler’s Knob.”
Sloan was raised on a farm, but it wasn’t like the farm that Chicago kids saw on school field trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo. This was subsistence farming, just enough to get by. One cow, a couple of chickens. And, of course, corn.
Jerry was the youngest of 10 Sloan children whose father was a no-nonsense guy. Or so he was told: The elder Sloan died when Jerry was 4.
Like many kids, urban and rural, Sloan was in search of a father figure, and he found what he needed on the basketball court—which his father would have considered a frivolous luxury. In fact, Sloan thinks that had his father been around, sports might not have even been an option.
In high school, he woke up at 4:30 each morning to do chores, then made it to the McLeansboro Foxes’ 7 a.m. basketball practice with Coach Gene Haile. Sloan also played football and ran track, but when he grew six inches one summer, basketball clearly held more of a future than the other sports—or farming. Nobody could have predicted that the future meant 45 years in the NBA as a player and coach.
As a high school senior, Sloan accepted a basketball scholarship from the University of Illinois. But things didn’t go smoothly.
“I’d never even been out of the county,” he says. “I was just overwhelmed.” The enrollment of the big state university was 10 times more than the entire town of McLeansboro. Homesick, Sloan returned after five weeks and found work in the nearby oil fields.
This was an important crossroads in Sloan’s life, the first of what today can be seen as a recurring pattern: Sloan getting knocked to the floor but resurrecting himself into something better.
Plenty of schools that are now DI were classified as College Division in the ’60s, and Evansville College in Indiana was a national power in the smaller school division. Their coach, Arad McCutchan, had won the National Championship in ’59 and ’60 when Sloan was still in high school. McCutchan heard about Sloan’s quick exit at Illinois and offered him another chance, a full ride to Evansville—just 90 miles east of McLeansboro.
McCutchan was the coach at Evansville from ’46-77, and his Purple Aces would win five NCAA College Division Championships: 1959, ’60, ’64, ’65 and 1971. When McCutchan retired, he and John Wooden were the only two coaches in NCAA history to win at least five NCAA titles. Sloan played well in Evansville, winning two of those NCAA titles in ’64 and ’65. (Sloan likes to stress that he didn’t score as many points as his teammate, Larry Humes.) And despite its remote location, Evansville was No. 6 in the nation in attendance when Sloan starred.
Arad McCutchan was quite a character. He liked to point out that his first name was Biblical and meant “Wild Ass” in Arabic (Some interpret it as “Wild Ox” in Hebrew.) He gave Sloan plenty of more serious things to ponder.
“He taught us manners,” Sloan says. “How to use a knife and fork properly, how to handle yourself in the world. And I’d never done any public speaking at all.” McCutchan fixed that: Anytime the popular Purple Aces appeared at a local banquet, Elks Club or media function, each team member had to stand up and introduce a teammate to the audience. That was precisely the kind of responsibility to the team that would define Sloan’s playing and coaching over the years.
McCutchan had a peculiar omniscience about Sloan’s future. After his sophomore season, the coach cornered Sloan: He wanted his star to return as the head coach at Evansville. “In 10 years,” Sloan remembers being told, “after you’re done playing in the NBA.”
Becoming a college coach? After a decade in the NBA? Sloan hadn’t given those options any thought. But now, as a mere undergraduate, he couldn’t get either out of his head.
Sloan was spotted at Evansville by a young Baltimore Bullets scout named Jerry Krause at the national tournament his junior year. The Bullets drafted him fourth overall, and he had a decent rookie year in Baltimore. Sloan became the “Original Bull” when he was selected by the newly formed franchise in the ’66 expansion draft. The Bulls struggled their first few years, although Sloan played well enough to be selected for two NBA All-Star Games.
The NBA had tried teams in Chicago before that: the Chicago Stags, Packers and Zephyrs all failed in the large Midwest market. But they didn’t have Jerry Sloan. Or WGN, for that matter.
Three transactions the Bulls made would have an enormous and lasting impact on the franchise—and on Sloan’s career.
First, in 1968, the Bulls hired Dick Motta as coach. Within three years, the Bulls were 51-31, despite not having the then-necessary Hall of Fame center to compete.
Second, in 1971, the Bulls picked up Norm Van Lier from the Cincinnati Royals. Just 6-1, Van Lier led the NBA in assists the previous year, in addition to scoring 16 points a game.
Third was a less-publicized acquisition the Bulls made before that 1971 season. Motta hired Phil Johnson, who’d played for him in junior high and high school, to be his assistant.
With Sloan and Van Lier in the backcourt, the Bulls improved to 57-25 in the 1971-72 season; the Bulls were consistent 50-game winners until 1975, with Sloan averaging close to 15 ppg over that stretch.
As usual, though, the stats don’t tell the whole story. Motta brought a tough, grind-it-out style that suited the Bulls—and the City of Big Shoulders. Forwards Bob Love and Chet Walker were the top scorers. Center Tom Boerwinkle couldn’t jump over a Chicago phone book, but he dished out assists like Christmas presents at the orphanage—which was precisely where the grit-over-glamour Bulls practiced in those days.
But the boiler room of that team was in the backcourt, and in Van Lier, Sloan found his alter ego. Van Lier played with a furious anger. And like Sloan, he cared little about scoring. Winning—and it was often ugly—was everything. Sloan and Van Lier seemed to crave collisions on defense; the two were constantly taking charges, finding themselves horizontal in a very vertical world. Their knees and elbows were constantly swollen from crashing onto the hardwood.
In his typical understated style, Sloan says, “Norm and I were a good fit. I had tremendous trust in him. We were on the same page immediately, from the first time we practiced together.”