Rick Adelman

There was nobody like the great Jerry Sloan -- and there still isn't

There was nobody like the great Jerry Sloan -- and there still isn't

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.

Still isn’t.

How Mario Hezonja's admiration for Drazen Petrovic fuels his journey

How Mario Hezonja's admiration for Drazen Petrovic fuels his journey

Like all young basketball players growing up in Croatia, Mario Hezonja knew all about Drazen Petrovic, the ex-Trail Blazer who died in an auto accident at the age of 28 in June of 1993. After all, there are some big-time athletes from Hezonja's home country – and then there is Petrovic, who is still known as the Croatian Mozart, on another level from the rest for his skills on the court.

So when Hezonja signed to play for the Trail Blazers this season, he wanted to carry on Petrovic’s memory and perhaps set some things straight in Portland. Petrovic was a seasoned and renowned international star when he came to the Trail Blazers as an NBA rookie for the 1989-90 season. He did not get immediate playing time behind Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Young and was disappointed. In the following season, after Danny Ainge was added as the team’s third guard off the bench, Petrovic wanted out and was traded to New Jersey, where, with regular playing time, he became an all-star.

Since that time, then-Portland Coach Rick Adelman was vilified in Croatia for not putting Petrovic in the starting lineup and the Trail Blazers were not a favorite team.

“When I realized that Portland could be an option for me, I knew that Drazen was drafted here but the team was stacked, or whatever the story was,” Hezonja said Tuesday after the Blazers’ first training-camp practice. “I talked to people back home and his brother, who was my coach, and Drazen never wanted to be on the bench, right? Regardless if there were better players than him.

“An amazing player and our best of all time. In Croatia, we don’t treat any of our athletes like we do Drazen, because he’s not with us anymore. He’s like a legend for us. I never had a thought of wearing my number here. Out of my heart, and the hearts of all Croatians, I decided to continue his journey and finish what he couldn’t.”

So this season, Hezonja will become the 13th player to wear No. 44 for the Trail Blazers.

And it could actually be Petrovic’s career in reverse.

While “Petro” never got a real chance to show what he could do in Portland, Hezonja might find his own personal salvation with the Trail Blazers, after a struggling start in Orlando and New York.

He arrived early in Portland and has been a regular at the team’s informal pre-camp workouts at its practice facility. And he’s been a big topic of conversation because of his speed, his movement, and his playmaking ability. It appears he may be a point-forward on the team's second unit, perhaps making that group more uptempo than the starting lineup.

“I can run,” said the 6-8, 225-pounder. “I can get out.”

And in Portland, he’s going to get a chance to run, make plays and do the things that made him the fifth pick in the 2015 draft.

“Where I’ve been before, you’re always bothered by something,” Hezonja said. “There was always so much negative. I am so happy coming to practice here. There is no negativity here. Other places, there was ‘Watch out for this guy – he’s weird.’ I don’t have that here. I have been here for the month and I can’t think of one bad detail. I don’t have a bad feeling about anything or anybody. The is the first time in many years when I’m happy – happy with what I’m doing, happy with where I’m at and happy with my teammates around me.

“We’re all here for one thing – to win a championship. But we don’t talk about that. It’s in our minds, our goal is to do that. But slowly. We don’t talk about it.

“The coach lets us do our own thing but we have to be on the same page.”

And for Hezonja, that will be page No. 44.

Original Trail Blazer owner Larry Weinberg "a great owner and a great man"

Original Trail Blazer owner Larry Weinberg "a great owner and a great man"

Larry Weinberg, one of the original three owners of the Portland Trail Blazers, sold the team to Paul Allen in 1988. But he was still always a Trail Blazer until his death this week at 92.

Weinberg was a successful home builder in southern California and very active politically with the Democratic Party. He was a president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and involved in the business of the NBA while owner of the Trail Blazers.

Even though he lived in Beverly Hills, he was a frequent visitor to Portland to watch his beloved Blazers play, with wife Barbi at his side.

During his visits, Weinberg would wander through the team’s offices in Memorial Coliseum or the Lloyd Building and chat with employees. He knew most of them by name and remembered details about their lives.

Personable and soft-spoken, he kept close track of his favorite NBA team until his death. The last time I spoke with him was minutes after the death of Allen, when he called to verify the story.

We had developed a friendship over the years and he’d check in at times with questions about the team.

He was unlike Allen, who was not frequently available to the media. While he was still the team’s owner, I asked Weinberg  if I could spend an hour or so with him for a major story I wanted to write.

He not only agreed, he invited me to meet him at his beach-side home outside of Los Angeles. There, we spent several hours of me trying to steer the conversation toward him and him trying to talk basketball. It was a lot of fun.

He was a kind, generous man who cared deeply about the world and its people. He was a World War II veteran who was wounded in France and spent a year in military hospitals recovering.

And he was part of a group put together by Harry Glickman to purchase Portland’s NBA expansion team in 1970. That group included Herman Sarkowsky and Bob Schmertz. Together with Glickman, they bought the rights to the team for a reported $3.7 million.

“He was a great owner and a great man,” said Rick Adelman, who was a player and assistant coach during Weinberg’s ownership. "When I got the head-coach job (with the Blazers) he was one of the first people to call me.

We have gotten a Christmas card from his family every year.”

As far as I know, Weinberg’s last visit to Portland was two years ago when the team celebrated the 40th anniversary of its championship. He had a ball with his former players and enjoying a game in Moda Center.

He owned the team during that championship run and appreciated those who made it happen.

"It was like the end of World War II and New Year's Eve all rolled into one," Weinberg told me at the 40th anniversary celebration.

After all, he’d been with the franchise from the start – back in the days when Glickman was working overtime just to convince the league that this city could support a franchise.

That was back when the president of the New York Knicks, Ned Irish, scoffed at the idea of Portland in the league:

“How am I ever going to be able to put Knicks vs. Portland on the marquee at Madison Square Garden?” he said.

Larry Weinberg was the owner of the Trail Blazers on the day when that marquee meant New York was playing host to the NBA champions.