- Award-winning columnist and author
- Recipient of Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award
- Joined ESPNBoston.com in 2010
Don Nelson, the winningest coach in NBA history, had just finished a stroll on the beach in his beloved Hawai’i on Friday when a reporter informed him that his coaching contemporary Jerry Sloan had died from complications of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia at age 78.
“Oh, he was a dear friend,” Nelson told ESPN. “Even if he did fight me the first time we ever met.”
Nelson was a player with the Boston Celtics when the team traveled for a game against Sloan’s Chicago Bulls at Chicago Stadium on Nov. 8, 1966. Nelson was bombing back on defense, trying to catch a streaking Sloan, when Sloan stopped suddenly, causing the two players to collide violently.
“He set me up,” Nellie recalled with a laugh. “He knew I had no choice but to run over him. And then, even though he got the call, he got up and tried to hit me.”
Nelson said he and Sloan each took a couple of wild swings at each other that didn’t connect. They were quickly separated by officials and teammates.
“Back then, they didn’t throw you out of the game,” Nellie said, “so we kept on playing. And Jerry was fine. That’s how he was. He was a real tough guy, but he’d have his say and move on.”
Though Sloan logged 11 rugged 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 the Utah Jazz.
In Salt Lake City, he instituted a no-nonsense, physical brand of basketball that enabled 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 that of their taciturn coach — was thwarted by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Even though Sloan never won a championship — and, incredibly, was never named NBA Coach of the Year — George Karl said he was one of the most gifted coaches he has ever seen.
“I’d put Jerry as one of the top three or four all time I’ve ever faced,” said Karl, who sits two spots behind Sloan at No. 6 on the all-time coaching wins list. “His teams were really difficult to play against. They were very tough-minded, very team-oriented.
“Jerry would not tolerate a lot of the NBA bulls— that goes on. He was demanding, but respectful. Every Utah Jazz player I ever spoke to had nothing but great things to say about him.”
Sloan was raised in Gobbler’s Knob, Illinois, the youngest of 10 children. When Sloan was only 4, his father died. He would rise before the sun to complete his chores on the family farm, 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 hardscrabble upbringing.
“Jerry was a farmer at heart,” Phil Jackson said in a text message. “We all enjoyed his fire and his sportsmanship … both ends of the coaching spectrum.”
Sloan ran a disciplined franchise and would not tolerate excuses or dissent. He expected his players to exhibit the same grit that was his trademark. In 2006, when asked if he needed to be patient with his youngest player, 19-year-old C.J. Miles, Sloan retorted, “I don’t care if he’s 19 or 30. If he’s going to be on the floor in the NBA, he’s got to be able to step up and get after it. We can’t put diapers on him one night, and a jockstrap the next night. It’s just the way it is.”
Sloan also exhibited ferocious loyalty to his players. So, when Kenyon Martin leveled 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 relayed this gem to author Michael Lewis: “Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner, at his age. You might even lick him. But you’d lose an eye, an arm, your testicles, in the process.”
Sloan’s wrath was not reserved strictly for opponents. If he felt one of his players was whistled via a phantom call, he had no qualms about vociferously challenging the referee who made the decision, with some choice words to illustrate his point. In 2003, he was even suspended seven games for shoving referee Courtney Kirkland in the chest.
Former NBA official Joey Crawford said he warned younger refs that if they decided to slap Sloan with a technical, they should immediately turn and walk away to defuse the situation.
“But here’s the wonderful thing about Jerry,” Crawford said. “He’d get mad, but you could go back at him and say a lot of stuff to him, and he would never ever rat you out. You could even curse him out, but he was never going to call the league office the next morning to complain, like some other coaches would.
“I had a helluva lot of respect for the man. We all did.”
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 the time, he and Sloan were not particularly close, but Wilkens wanted him 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 all-time coaching wins list. “His teams were always so prepared, and he wasn’t going to let you do what you wanted to do. We both believed defense could influence a game.
“And, like me, he wasn’t about to let you walk to the basket. That’s not how we were raised.”
During their travels, Wilkens came to appreciate Sloan’s wry sense of humor and passion for the game. His face softened when he spoke of his family. His devotion to his players was also evident.
“He had a great influence on our team,” Wilkens said. “He’s one of those people who had instant credibility on the court.”
Four years later, Sloan was bypassed as Wilkens’ successor for the 2000 Olympics, a slight that still bothers Wilkens.
“I was very disappointed for him,” he said, “and I let the people on the Olympic committee know about it. It 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 enamored with Sloan’s offensive sets.
“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 drew up was rock-solid, and his players followed his lead.
“I loved the battles with Jerry. They were physical, but [the Jazz] played as a team and understood that you had to stick together in competition.
“Jerry demanded that. He demanded that his players be good teammates.”
Sloan retired in 2011 third all time in coaching wins and now sits at fourth. The man who since passed him for third place, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, released a statement Friday, lauding Sloan as “genuine and true.”
“And that is rare,” Popovich said. “He was a mentor for me from afar until I got to know him. A man who suffered no fools, he possessed a humor, often disguised, and had a heart as big as the prairie.”
Nelson said behind Sloan’s gruffness was a gentle, fun-loving, even mischievous man. In their later years, he said, the opposing coaches were not above sneaking out for a beer or two when their teams were in the same town.
“I think Jerry may have been the most competitive guy I ever coached against,” Nelson said. “But when the game was over, it was over. I remember talking to him when he was getting ready to retire. He was looking forward to going back to his farm. He loved driving the fields on his tractor.”
Though Sloan never raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he appreciated his basketball journey, Wilkens said.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy to sit and cry about what he did and didn’t do,” Wilkens said. “He loved the game. That was enough.
“And there’s no question the game loved him back.”
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