Sloan's straightforward approach, and his winning, never changed
The last time I was around Jerry Sloan for any length of time was back in September, at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Springfield, Mass., where some NBA types were sharing a few tables at the Marriott Hotel bar. Jerry likes bars, which is something he has in common, of course, with a hundred million other males and females. He liked bars even better years ago when he spent far too many hours in them, drinking away the losses -- and the wins, too -- a man addicted to late nights, beer and cigarettes.
Sloan sat there with his wife, Tammy Jessop, whom he married after his first wife, Bobbye, died of cancer in June 2004. I'm not even sure if he was drinking; I didn't check. He had given up alcohol for a while because it had become a problem. A John Deere hat was perched on Sloan's head. If the NBA would allow hat wearing on the bench, I'm sure Jerry would have coached with ol' Deere up top. He doesn't feel complete without it.
I don't think he moved from his seat all night as he talked quietly with his wife and Maureen Barkley, wife of Charles. God only knows what that conversation was about. I'd come over from time to time and say, "You all right?" and he'd say, "Just fine." Real tabloid stuff.
No one noticed that the third winningest coach in NBA history, a man who has been around the pro game almost continuously for the last five decades, was in the house. Sure, Sir Charles was among the denizens that night, so we know where the center of attention was, but the Utah Jazz coach went totally unnoticed, just another guy with a cap on his head.
Which is exactly how he likes it.
We make the assumption that bright lights have to change people, and I suppose that Sloan has changed a little from the farm boy who grew up in an area with the impossibly rural name of Gobbler's Knob, which is 15 miles south of McLeansboro, Ill., itself not exactly a roaring metropolis. But Sloan changed less than anyone I knew in the game. Phil Jackson, after all, went from full-blown hippie to an Armani model, not to mention a one-time lefty who had some good things to say about John McCain during the 2008 election.
But even after Sloan piled up winning season after winning season -- he shares with Jackson and Pat Riley the distinction of having 15-plus consecutive winning seasons -- he never changed the way he coached (fundamentally), the way he interacted with the press (straightforward), the way he negotiated his contracts (a series of one-year deals with himself as his agent). Which means that the biggest surprise was not that he abruptly announced his retirement after 1,127 wins in 23 years with Utah; it was that he had stayed this long in a league that had changed so much since he played his commando style with the old Chicago Bulls of the 1960s.
I loved coming to Salt Lake to see Sloan. I could usually find him courtside, an hour or so before the game, and our casual conversation might go like this:
Me: How you doing, Jerry?
Sloan: Well, I'm still vertical, so I guess that means something.
Me: You still on a diet?
Sloan: A seafood diet. I see food, I eat it.
Me: How's your team?
Sloan: We're terrible.
Me: Maybe it's you. Maybe you can't coach.
Sloan: Hell, everybody knows that.
When you needed something substantive after the game, he would give that, too, as long as you didn't come looking for him to bust one of his players; it wasn't going to happen.
Back in the winter of 2002, I spent a long time with Sloan for a profile I was writing about him. He was uncomfortable talking about himself, but he did it, partly, I believe, because he thought he owed it to Bobbye. They were in the process of repairing a relationship that had gone sour, largely, as even Sloan conceded, because he was hard to live with, what with the late nights and the booze and the agonizing over tough losses.
As I asked him painfully personal questions, Sloan didn't duck. He admitted that he drank too much but was adamant that it never affected his coaching. "I was always there," he said, and as far as I know that's the truth.
But he knew he had to change to save his marriage (and maybe himself) and he put it this way: "I had a bad habit of smoking, then I had a bad habit of drinking, and they go together. I never thought it affected me, but other people did, particularly my family, and I began to see that maybe they were right. When you get away from these things, you realize how nasty they are, how they control your life."
And so now the NBA prepares for life without Sloan. It will be a little poorer without his constancy. I'm sure that, to those who were around him all the time, Sloan had a little bit of that codger-chasing-the-neighborhood-kids-off-his-lawn aspect. As we get older, that's what happens. And there are reports that his talented point guard, Deron Williams, was growing upset with the Sloan half-court system, believing that more transition offense (and a few different players) was the way for the Jazz to climb out of their doldrums.
Williams is entitled to his opinion, but he should remember this: Over his quarter century of assistant and head coaching, Sloan has never (as far as I know) hung a player out to dry. On the record or deep-deep-off-the-record, I never heard him criticize anyone except himself. From Jerry Sloan, you got the same system and the same curmudgeonly temperament, and what that did was produce the same standard of excellence year after year after year.