The Utah Jazz announced today that former coach Jerry Sloan has died at the age of 78. He had been battling Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia for several years.
And battling is what Sloan did most of his life.
He was a fighter as an NBA player, when he was in the tough-as-nails Chicago Bulls’ backcourt alongside Norm Van Lier. As a coach with the Utah Jazz, he preached a physical approach to the game and was as feisty as any NBA coach has ever been. I saw him square off with former teammate and Blazer Coach Rick Adelman after a summer-league game in Salt Lake City once -- neither man willing to back off. And of course, they were great friends.
You won’t find many people who don’t think he was a better human than coach. And he was a Hall of Fame coach. He was a wonderful, self-deprecating man with the kind of spirit you probably get from growing up as the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mother in the little town of Gobbler’s Knob, Ill. You get up at 4:30 in the morning to do farm chores and then walk two miles to school, you might just develop some character, too.
The writers loved him. He’d always pop into the media dining room a couple of hours before the game and enjoy a meal with us, so cordial to everyone -- whether you worked for the New York Times or the Sellwood Bee. I was fortunate to share a friendship with the Jazz trainer, the great Mike Shimensky, and Mike would always make sure I knew when and where Jerry and his top assistant Phil Johnson were going to be hanging out the night before a game in Portland. Usually, it was Champion’s at the Marriott, and I’d meet up with them for a night of nachos, wings, a few cold drinks and a lot of laughs.
The man was a storyteller of the highest order.
But he kept it real. And he trusted. He would talk openly about his team or yours, knowing you wouldn’t run out and share it with anyone.
That doesn’t happen much these days.
I watched several times as the Utah owner at the time, the late Larry Miller, jumped out of his courtside seat at halftime and followed his team into the locker room.
I asked Jerry if it bothered him to have his owner eavesdropping during the intermission.
“Not at all,” he said with a wide smile. “I want him to see what I have to deal with. I want him to know what’s going on in there. He can come in anytime he wants.”
That was Coach Sloan. Transparent. Nothing to hide. His teams seldom tried to trick you. Every team in the league knew what the Jazz would run. And they would run it so well you couldn’t stop it.
And if you couldn’t stop it, you might see the same thing 15 times in a row because that’s what worked. Pretty simple.
Jerry Sloan liked it that way. He was beloved within the NBA family and you will see that in the days to come, as those who knew him much better than I did, memorialize him. There was nobody like him.