With Sloan gone, Jazz at risk of being just a small-market team
Eight years ago, Jerry Sloan walked out of the gym during a Utah Jazz practice. He was upset over the divisiveness within his team. The belief among several members of the organization was that some players were rallying around backup point guard Mark Jackson at the expense of starter John Stockton. That's why Sloan threatened to retire then and there.
Sloan was dissuaded at an emergency meeting called by team owner Larry Miller, president Dennis Haslam, general manager Kevin O'Connor and Sloan's wife, Bobbye. "That had the real potential of Jerry saying, 'To heck with it,' and walking away," Miller told me in 2003. Miller believed Sloan's pent-up frustration with the team had led to his seven-game suspension that season for shoving a referee.
Eight years later, the Jazz weren't able to keep Sloan from retiring at age 68. The reason Sloan had taken to signing single-season contracts to stay with Utah, year after year after year, was to underline his freedom. At his age he didn't want to commit beyond the horizon, and -- in a way that showed how different he was from other NBA coaches -- the short commitment gave him power. While other coaches on one-year deals would have been viewed as lame ducks who lacked the support of management, Sloan's willingness to walk away at any time gave him the appearance of strength in his locker room, because it meant the players couldn't get him fired. He would rather walk away from his career than give that kind of power to the players.
That's why I think it is wrong to connect the dots of Deron Williams' acknowledged skirmishes with Sloan and draw a picture of the star player forcing the legendary coach out of office. Going back to 2003, Sloan has known it was going to end this way, suddenly, when he was no longer interested in meeting the terms of his job description. He set those terms for himself, and he decided when he wanted to leave.
The funny thing about Sloan and Williams is how much they share in common. Each is tough and stubborn and lives according to his own code. That sense of code is rare in a league that makes millionaires of players and coaches alike. Who wouldn't be willing to compromise to keep the money flowing in?
We all know of Sloan's principles, which were recognized as he maintained control of his franchise for decade after decade, but which were never fully appreciated -- he never once won a Coach of the Year award, after all. But Williams is just as stubbornly principled. I think most NBA coaches would tell you that Williams is the best -- surely the most versatile -- point guard in the league, and yet why do we rarely see him on TV as an endorser of products? It is because he has not been willing to sell himself. He refuses to put on an act for the cameras. He is his own man, and he commands respect.
Both Sloan and Williams have long memories. To this day Sloan seethes at the uproar in his locker room in 2003. To this day, too, Williams seethes that Sloan brought him off the bench for 33 games as a rookie, when Williams was certain he should have been starting ahead of Keith McLeod and Milt Palacio. Much good has happened for the careers of Sloan since '03 and for Williams since '05, yet neither was willing to sell out his principles. That's why they were been lucky to have each other, as much as their dueling point of views would collide over what was best for the team.
The NBA has been weakened by the departures of Sloan and assistant Phil Johnson, because now the Jazz are at risk of becoming nothing more than another small-market team. The franchise was eventually defined by Sloan's values. The Jazz succeeded because they knew which players could be married to Sloan's style of play as well as to his personality. Now their players and front office must adapt to sudden replacement Tyrone Corbin, who must be given time to develop his own voice as a rookie head coach. Remember what became of Green Bay after Vince Lombardi moved away, and to Alabama when Bear Bryant retired? Can the Jazz avoid the same kind of uncertainty as they plot a new direction?
There will never be another Jerry Sloan, because no one may ever again be able to coach the same professional franchise for 23 seasons. But it is going too far to say that his principles are leaving with him, that something has died, because that means the other 29 NBA coaches are lacking in principle.
Has financial success changed the NBA? And did the pressures of so much money create a new culture of player power -- driven by guaranteed contracts and unrestricted free agency -- that helped convince Sloan it was time to leave? The answers are yes and yes. But it is also wrong to forget that the financial growth of the NBA made a lot of money for Sloan as well as for Williams. All NBA coaches now profit from their torment: It is one compromise worth making. More than he ever could have imagined when he became coach of the Jazz in 1988, Jerry Sloan could afford to walk away.
Carmelo Anthony, you are doing everything you can to persuade the Knicks to trade for you in time for you to sign a three-year, $65-million extension before the current financial rules expire July 1. This leaves you and others around the league to wonder what is taking the Knicks so long to make a competitive offer.
But I keep coming back to the Nets as the team that can provide the greatest return to Denver. Let's say the Knicks make their very best bid -- Danilo Gallinari, Landry Fields, Wilson Chandler, whatever the package may be -- and then the Nuggets try to re-engage the Nets with this message: We are trading Anthony to either you or New York. Want to make your best offer?
Don't you think the Nets, after months of interest, will make a move for you to help themselves at the expense of the rival Knicks? So then what do you do? I'm sure you're all over this, knowing the Knicks don't have the means to compete with the package of draft picks the Nets can offer for you.
Maybe the Nets really don't want you anymore (hard to believe), or maybe the Nuggets will decide to take on extended salary (which would turn your trade into an extra-expensive loss for them, which is also hard to believe). Maybe the Knicks will wind up with you, if you're willing to force your way to New York at the risk of losing the $65 million extension. But I cannot imagine why, if faced with a Feb. 24 move to New Jersey as your best option, you would turn down the $65 million from the Nets. Especially knowing, as you do, that you have the talent and relationships to get other stars to follow you to Brooklyn as early as 2012.
Derek Fisher, at age 36, you and 35-year-old Allen created an inspiring show Thursday in Boston. Who would have thought, as the No. 24 pick in the 1996 draft, you would win five championships as one of the most important last-second shot-makers of modern times, or that the No. 5 pick (Allen, whose rights were traded by Minnesota with a later pick to Milwaukee for Stephon Marbury) would become the most prolific three-point shooter of all time?
How many hours of private conditioning and training goes into each of the big shots that you and Allen continue to make? You are two of the league's oldest players and yet you remain relevant against the most explosive young talent. So it was right that each of you had your say in the glare of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry: Allen was celebrated for breaking Reggie Miller's record, and you launched the second-half comeback with a timely three-pointer of your own -- your trademark -- in the Lakers' 92-86 win. Will the two of you be meeting again in June?
Gregg Popovich, you need to hope the Bobcats bring back 67-year-old Paul Silas, who is currently the oldest coach in the NBA. Lucky for you, you are still an irascibly young 62.
But now that Sloan, Larry Brown and Don Nelson have gone away, and Phil Jackson insists he's following them out the door, that leaves you and your friend George Karl (59) as the last of your generation to be full-time NBA coaches over the last decade or more. You're both headed to the Hall of Fame, but you especially -- because of your four championships -- will be viewed as the upholder of team-first values. Fortunately for us, you will crack self-deprecating jokes whenever given the opportunity to take credit.
The bottom line of Sloan's retirement is that you and Karl will be valued more than ever.
"Confidence is the most important factor in shooting, and it comes from correct practice: repetition, repetition. Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen -- they all had a routine before games, and Allen still has it. The routine is to get on the court early, before the other players come out. I would walk into Boston Garden two hours before a game and see Larry Bird alone shooting. He would have the ball boy passing to him; same with Reggie Miller. When I was in Milwaukee, we beat [Bird and the Celtics] one night by 25 in Milwaukee, and three weeks later we had the game in Boston, and two hours before the game he had that game face on, and they blew us out.
"Allen's routine is to arrive at 3 p.m. on the day of the game. All three of them would start shooting from close in, from the dotted line 8 feet from the basket and make five in a row; then a giant step back, five in a row; another step back and continuing out to the NBA three-point line.
"I coached Dale Ellis when he went from 38 percent to 48 percent from the three-point line. We would have him shoot 10 in row from different spots, and he'd say, 'If I make 10 in a row, let me keep going.' It would get to be 20, 22, 24 in a row.
"Some of these young guys coming into the league, they have no routine. They just go out and shoot.
"Rhythm is the second-most-important factor in shooting. Rhythm gives you range. You get rhythm and range from the down-and-up motion of your legs. That motion is vital for three-point range, just like it's vital for a young kid shooting at a 10-foot basket -- instead of heaving it from the hip, use the down-and-up action from the legs.
"When you're shooting off the catch, which is Ray Allen's thing, the 'down' -- the lowering of the knees -- comes just before the catch. Then the shot goes up as your legs go up, providing for a quicker release. So you catch the ball in position to shoot with the feet ready and the knees flexed.
"Good passes make good shots. You want to catch the ball high with your shooting hand facing the rim and your feet set. Ray is great at moving without the ball behind screens, and so were Bill Bradley and John Havlicek, and so is Richard Hamilton from Detroit. Hamilton would say, 'I know I'm going to make the shot before I catch it, because when my feet are set I'm making it.'
"Your legs and shooting arm move together. As your legs go up, your arm goes up. As your legs reach full extension, your back shoulders and shooting arm extend in a smooth, continuous, forward direction toward your target.
"Everybody knows how high Michael Jordan would leap, and that height would enable him to get his hands set at the top of his jump. When he came back with Washington, he couldn't jump as high, which meant he didn't have as much time to get his hands set in the air. That's why he couldn't shoot as well. You would see him posting up more during that comeback, because he found out he needed to get his hands set before the jump, like the rest of us.
"Some people step into the shot, and that may help their range but it also makes them slower -- it becomes a two-count, which makes it harder because you have to catch it and step.
"You should use the down-and-up motion of your legs for rhythm, rather than lowering the ball for rhythm. Ray Allen doesn't do that: He lowers the ball. But he does it so quick that he gets away with it. Steve Nash lowers the ball, too. I talked to him about it, and he just smiled at me. Steve can lower it because guys are playing him for the drive, so he can get away with it.
"Ray is the best at coming off screens, and I don't know anybody better at catch-and-shoot. In my mind, he is the best ever."
"I learned that because I was coached by that [style]. My high school coach was a Marine, there was no debating. He had the Marine haircut; I was in the Afro generation, but [on the team], we all had Marine cuts, and in the inner city people enjoyed making fun of us. But that's how we looked and that's how we played. He was a big believer in roles and that probably had the biggest imprint on me in general, that before every game and every practice he would [point to player after player and] say, "You're shooting. You're rebounding. You're dribbling. If I find out you're thinking about shooting, I'll bench you.' He was that direct, and I always thought it's not that hard to say. It's just very hard to do."
"I look down the line and don't see it getting better over the next two or three years. If you're a pathetic team that's looking to rebuild through the draft, the next two or three years of domestic talent is not going to save you and prevent you from being pathetic."
American fans should be reminded that in 1965 a fan of the basketball club in Milan mentioned to the club president that a famous American player was planning to live in England. "You should ask him to play for us," the club president was told. The club president had never heard of Bill Bradley, who had graduated recently from Princeton University as the most famous college basketball player in America. Bradley had led his Ivy League school to third place in the national basketball rankings, which would earn him the Sullivan Award as America's leading amateur athlete, the first basketball player to be so honored. In 1964 in Tokyo, he had won an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo with the USA basketball team. Bradley was hailed for his ingenuity and his humility, arriving as he did from an era pioneered by Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell -- all of whom were social activists as well as athletes.
"I had never heard of him, either," Rubini recalled in an interview with me a decade ago. Rubini was coach of the Milan club in 1965.
He scouted Bradley at the World University Games in Budapest that summer. To Rubini, this player was the embodiment of European potential: not impressive physically, but intelligent and dedicated, a scholar of the game as well as an artist. Bradley was 6-5 and 21 years old, and in the autumn he would enroll at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship that would postpone his NBA career by two years. At a meeting in Budapest, Bradley read aloud from a list of questions that he had prepared for Rubini. The list did not deal with the issue of money. "To all of his questions we answered, 'Yes' " Rubini said.
In the fall, Bradley joined the club Simmenthal Milan for its monthly appearances in the European Cup, the international tournament played in concurrence with the Italian League season. The name "Simmenthal" was that of the club's sponsor, an Italian meat-packing plant. After flying from England, Bradley would present Rubini with a short list of expenses.
"I still remember the price of the taxi for him from Oxford to the airport: 4.75 pounds," Rubini said. "And maybe he had a drink, which he would also mention on the list, for 75 pence. He never asked us for any other money except for his expenses."
Upon his arrival, Bradley would train alone in the gym with the assistance of a coach, Alessandro Gamba, who had retired from playing in the preceding year. Gamba's background could not have been more different from Bradley's. On an afternoon when Gamba was 13 and the war was nearing its end, he was playing soccer in a Milanese street when a gunfight broke out between the partisans and the fascists. Two bullets struck Gamba in the right hand.
"At first, the danger was amputation," Gamba told me. "But then later the doctor said to me, 'You have to do something to save your right hand.' This was how I started to play basketball, to exercise my hand."
He played with the American soldiers at a basket they had planted in a neighborhood demolished by the war. Like Bradley, Gamba was a self-made player, but that was all they shared in common. Gamba was as true an inner-city player as his country could fathom, growing up to captain the Italian basketball team in the 1960 Olympic Games at Rome -- and now he was assisting the son of a bank president from suburban St. Louis, an Ivy League basketball genius on leave from Oxford.
"We would be walking down the street in Milano," Gamba said. "He would be looking straight ahead and without turning his head he would point to the right and say, 'Those shoes over there, they're going to cost you one hundred and fifty dollars.' I would say to him, 'What are you talking about?' and Bradley would say, 'I am just working on my peripheral view.' "
Bradley may have been the first player in Italy to stretch his muscles before playing. "What is that you are doing?" Gamba would say to him. Whenever he had the ball his teammates would watch him intently, in fear of being struck by a pass they could not anticipate. "During the timeouts, I would say some things to the team," Rubini said. "Bradley would never say anything against what I was saying; but if he thought I was wrong, he would go onto the court and do what he wanted."
Bradley traveled with the team behind the Iron Curtain to Moscow and Prague. In Israel, the defense minister Moshe Dayan came down to the court to pose for photographers with Bradley. Like a celebrity explorer he would be received at the airport by the local official of the American Embassy, who would be waiting with a car to take him on a tour of the city. He would visit the local museums, the art galleries, the opera houses. To his hosts, he seemed to be the prototypical American. He did not seem to waste time.
"One night I asked him, 'Do you want to come with me to visit a friend of mine?' " Rubini said. "This person we were visiting was a Duke. Bradley would sit talking to the Duke like this, with one leg over the other, and I would notice that he had a hole in his shoe."
In April 1966, Milan beat the Czechoslovakian club Slavia Prague 77-72 to become the first Italian team to win the European championship. The following season Bradley declined to play abroad as he finished his studies at Oxford. In 1967, he joined the New York Knicks for a record $100,000 salary, winning two NBA championships in his 10-year career. He refused commercial endorsements while playing for the Knicks, on the grounds that he would have been exploiting his position as a white star in a league dominated by minorities. In between NBA seasons he continued to travel and explore overseas, which gave him a sense of America's place in the world.
He was not the best player in the NBA, and yet, looking back, Bradley seems to have represented the highest ideals of professional sports in those days, much the same as Michael Jordan would embody the ambitions of his ensuing generation. Both players were determined to use their sport as a vehicle. Shortly after retiring from the NBA in 1977, Bradley was elected to the U.S. Senate as a liberal Democrat from New Jersey for the first of three successive terms. In 1999, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
1979-80 Lakers 20-of-100 (20.0 percent)
1984-85 Lakers 90-of-295 (30.5 percent)
1989-90 Pistons 177-of-541 (32.7 percent)
1994-95 Rockets 646-of-1757 (36.8 percent)
1999-2000 Lakers 344-of-1047 (32.9 percent)
2004-05 Spurs 507-of-1395 (36.3 percent)
2009-10 Lakers 532-of-1562 (34.1 percent)
When the Celtics won the championship in 2007-08, they were 596-of-1564 from the three-point line (38.1 percent). Ray Allen led the team with 180 threes in 452 attempts (45.2 percent).