Utah Jazz

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

There’s country strong. And then there’s Jerry Sloan.

The NBA Hall of Fame player and coach, a tenacious defender and steady offensive threat, became a household name with the Chicago Bulls in the 1970s. Four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team. Two-time NBA-All-Star.

Sloan died Friday after a courageous battle against Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He was 78.

But it was Sloan’s perseverance as a child and his dedication to the game of basketball —and his home town— 300 miles south of the Windy City that made him a real star.

[MORE: Remember ‘Original Bull’ Jerry Sloan as he lived: tough, humble and honest]

The former Bull, who went on to lead the Utah Jazz to the playoffs in 15 of his 23 seasons there as a head coach, grew up on a farm near McLeansboro, Illinois. The youngest of 10 children, Sloan would routinely wake up in the wee hours to do family chores. He’d then walk two miles to the town’s high school for basketball practice.

The foundation of a hard work ethic and a ferocious competitive nature paved the way for Sloan’s rise to stardom.

Sloan played on several great McLeansboro teams in the late-50s. In his junior season, he helped guide his squad to a 19-6 record for coach Gene Haile. He followed that up with a senior season most kids would dream of: 26 wins, 3 losses. He was named to the All-State team.

He would later guide the Evansville Purple Aces to two Division II national championships. He became known as “the Original Bull” shortly after the startup Bulls franchise drafted him in the 1966 expansion draft. The rest was history—a brilliant 10-year career in Chicago as a player and nearly three more as a head coach on West Madison before becoming a legend in Salt Lake City.

But it was his small-town roots that made Jerry Sloan all the more genuine.

He would return to McLeansboro several times in 1984 —the year he became an assistant with the Utah Jazz— to watch his high school team play. His son, Brian, led the Foxes to the Class A state championship that year, going 35-0 in the process. Brian went on to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana.

Sloan would return frequently to this Southern Illinois town many times during his run with the Jazz— a run where he only finished below .500 once and racked up an astonishing career 1,221 wins. Hamilton County High School, formerly known as McLeansboro, dedicated its gym in Sloan’s honor in Dec. 2012. A road in McLeansboro is now called Jerry Sloan Avenue.

In a statement, a representative from McLeansboro High School said the following:

“Today is a sad day for Hamilton County and the Foxes. Coach Jerry Sloan has passed away. Coach Sloan graduated from McLeansboro High School in 1960 and was always a hometown boy. Whenever he returned he was just one of us. He will be greatly missed. RIP Coach Sloan.”

McLeansboro will always be Sloan Country.

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Remember ‘Original Bull’ Jerry Sloan as he lived: tough, humble and honest

Remember ‘Original Bull’ Jerry Sloan as he lived: tough, humble and honest

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.

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'Last Dance': Did Michael Jordan push off Bryon Russell? 'Bulls**t'

'Last Dance': Did Michael Jordan push off Bryon Russell? 'Bulls**t'

Whether Michael Jordan pushed off Bryon Russell on his game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals is one of the most classic debates in sports history.

So, did you push off, Michael?

“Everybody says I pushed off — bulls**t,” Jordan said in Episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance.” “His energy was going that way I didn’t have to push him that way.”

“Russell was already stumbling away,” sportscaster Bob Costas said. “That hand on his backside was the equivalent of maître d' showing someone to their table.”

Push off or no push off, Jordan drilled the jumper to all but secure championship No. 6. Anyone saying otherwise can save their debate for the barstool.

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