Most days, Jerry Sloan would slip into the small gym and stand alongside the baseline, his trusted John Deere baseball hat pulled low.
The legendary Utah Jazz coach and former Bulls star didn’t do this to seek anonymity. The epitome of unassuming, Sloan did this because he never took himself too seriously.
When the Bulls used to play in the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league hosted by the Jazz at a community college, Sloan was well on his way to his eventual Hall of Fame recognition. But at his core, Sloan never strayed too far from the kid who’d wake up early to do farm chores and then walk from tiny Gobbler’s Knob, Ill. for basketball practice at McLeansboro High.
You show up. You put your head down. You put in an honest day’s work. You treat people with respect.
The Jazz announced that Sloan, 78, passed away Friday after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia — illnesses he’d been fighting since at least 2015.
Though he leaned toward a more private nature, Sloan, whose No. 4 Bulls banner hangs in the United Center rafters, would talk basketball with anyone and everyone who asked. Walk up to him along that baseline and you’d be there for a while. And you’d be smarter afterward for doing so.
As a player or coach, Sloan was as old school as the antique tractors he’d tinker on when he left Utah to retreat to his southern Illinois farm. He was as no-nonsense as they come. He’d eat his pregame meals in the media dining room, typically alongside longtime trusted assistant Phil Johnson.
And most any writer’s memory from the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals is of the Jazz coach, that same John Deere hat omnipresent, staying and answering questions for as long as they came on off days.
Sloan loved competition but not necessarily the attention that came with it. Watch his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame speech. It’s delivered in monotone fashion — not because he wasn’t thrilled with the honor, but because he loved talking about the game. Not himself.
In many ways, Sloan coached as he played — unrelenting, no excuses allowed, tough as nails. The late Bulls general manager Jerry Krause scouted Sloan at Evansville and worked for the Baltimore Bullets when they drafted Sloan in 1965.
In 2016, a year before Krause passed away, I asked him what his scouting notes said about Sloan. Krause replied: “I would chart how many fouls he took. He’d get bowled over 10 times a game. He didn’t care.”
Sloan’s ferociously-physical pairing with backcourt mate Norm Van Lier provided the defensive backbone for the great and gritty Bulls teams of the 1970s.
Those Dick Motta-led teams, which also featured Bob Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle, connected with a blue-collar city with their toughness and tenacity. They never advanced past the Western Conference finals, but left bruises trying.
“Jerry was the ultimate teammate,” Love said when reached by phone Friday. “Nothing scared him. Nothing was too hard for him. Nothing was too tough for him. Jerry was always on top of everything. He always wanted to win.”
Love paused as he tried to find the right words. It’s clear that Sloan’s passing impacted Love, whose No. 10 also hangs in the United Center rafters. Sloan’s was the first number retired by the Bulls, who only have graced those two, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the honor.
But then again, Sloan always seemed to find himself in rare company. Before coaching the Jazz, he coached the Bulls, and ran one of the first girls basketball camps in the Chicago area. He did this because he had daughters and because, in the days before Title IX, he watched grade-school teammates no longer be able to play basketball when they reached high school.
If you asked Sloan about being progressive, he’d wave his hand and shake his head. Basketball was basketball to him.
Then he’d tug on that John Deere hat and — if you were done asking him questions — get to work.