Little things add up to Hall of Fame careers for Sloan, Stockton
In the winter of 2002, one season before
"Why wouldn't I?" Stockton said. "He's the coach. He runs the team."
End of explanation.
And so they will go into the Hall of Fame together, as they should, two rock-solid and stolid personalities, the architect and the quarterback of one of the greatest precision offenses in NBA history. Sloan set it up, all those across-the-lane and back screens, all those little things that nobody saw that resulted in wide-open jump shots. And Stockton saw that it got done, the engineer, the executor par excellence.
The obvious visual associated with Stockton is this: He dribbles downcourt, quickly but carefully, head up, eyes wide open, deliberating his options. With seven or eight seconds left on the shot clock, forward
But I have a different visual. Stockton comes down with the ball, gives off to a wingman, then veers into the lane where the heavy traffic is congregating. At precisely the right moment, he sets a back pick on a much larger player, a center or power forward, bounces off the neck-rattling contact, and comes back to get the ball in better position, closer to the basket, his defender perhaps lost in the scrum. He did that thousands and thousands of times, contact ill-befitting a man built (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) for passing, not picking.
In that respect, Stockton was a second-generation version of the former Chicago Bull Sloan, who for 11 years was a monster on- and off-the-ball defender, an outside linebacker of a player who could also score (14 points a game), rebound (7.4), pass (2.5 assists) and pugilize (he once squared off against
"Whatever I asked John to do, he did," Sloan told me once, extending his ultimate encomium. When I asked Stockton to sum up his coach, this is what he said: "Teaching players the right habits -- that's what Jerry Sloan is about."
If they were ideally matched in personality, they also seemed geographically well-placed in conservative Salt Lake, two no-nonsense, hold-the-bright-lights-hold-the-big-city types who never drew attention to themselves. But do not go overboard trying to make them into a single archetype, the introspective gunslinger, perhaps, or the unsmiling Marlboro Man.
For one thing, Stockton never touched a Marlboro. As far as I know, he never drank either. The same cannot be said of Sloan. For many years during a coaching career with the Jazz that began in 1984 (he was an assistant for three years and elevated to the head job early in the 1988-89 season), Sloan did too much of both. Away from the court, Sloan was most at home in a barroom, chasing away the demons of coaching with alcohol, tobacco, profane bluntness ("Right now our main problem is that we're f------ terrible," he might say of his team) and corny jokes. "I'm on a seafood diet," he told me one night over a postgame beer in Chicago. "I see food, I eat it."
In talking about life with Jerry,
Their final years together were some of the good ones, though. Sloan says he stopped drinking in 1998, about the same time he weaned himself off tobacco with the help of Zyban, an antidepressant. He and Bobbye had been closer than ever when she contracted pancreatic cancer in the winter of 2003 and died in June 2004. Sloan has since remarried and, by all accounts, including his own, lives a domesticated, blessedly boring existence when he's not hollering at his team or helping the referees try to get it right.
In other words, the way Stockton
The greatest difference between coach and player is obvious. Sloan is a lifer, married to the NBA, still going strong at 67, still in love with the nightly challenge of playing the game the right way. Stockton, on the other hand, remains that rare superstar who walked away without so much as a glance backward, content to spend his time with family in his beloved Spokane. There's a mention or two of him every year at NCAA tournament time when Gonzaga (his other alma mater), advances, and you might catch sight of him at a Jazz game or some other Salt Lake event, as was the case in February when he attended the funeral of Jazz owner
I end with the angle that most would put at the beginning -- the fact that neither Stockton nor Sloan won a championship,
But when both say that they "don't care about that stuff," I believe they don't care about that stuff. What fueled them -- and still fuels Sloan -- is that aching desire to give it your all, then do it again the next night, then do again the night after that. I'm glad they'll be enshrined together. And when Stockton gets up to give his acceptance speech, I hope he first looks over at Sloan, gets the play call, and begins. Listen closely, for the speech will probably last all of three minutes.