On Jan. 2, 1998, maybe the worst day of her life, Bobbye Sloan sat
alone in a Salt Lake City hospital room, waiting for a surgeon to
give her a new left breast. Well, she wasn't actually alone. Her
husband, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, was present, but even in
the best of times he is not much of a talker, and Bobbye, who is,
was frightened and depressed. The relationship between husband
and wife, who were high school sweethearts more than four decades
ago in McLeansboro, Ill., had deteriorated, mostly because Jerry
tended to brood and internalize. When he did that he tended to
light a cigarette, and when he did that he tended to drink a
beer, and when he did that he tended to do it in a bar, and when
he did that he tended to come home after last call. "We were in a
horrible place," Bobbye said recently, tears filling her eyes.
Fast-forward to Jan. 16, 2002, right before the Jazz tips off
against the Seattle SuperSonics at the Delta Center. Bobbye
settles into her customary seat several rows up on the baseline
farthest from the Jazz bench. She searches for her husband's eyes
as he searches for hers, and they lock glances. Almost
imperceptibly, they put two fingers to their lips then hold those
fingers aloft. Only then can Jerry Sloan begin coaching his team.
He proceeds to do so in almost the same way he did on Dec. 9,
1988, his first game after sliding over from an assistant's seat
to replace Frank Layden, who had abruptly quit. There has been a
numbing consistency to the regime of Sloan, 59, the
longest-tenured head coach in any professional sport. The Jazz
has finished either first or second in the Midwest Division 11
times in his 13 years. Sloan has never had a losing season or
failed to make the playoffs in Utah, where, after last
Saturday's 97-96 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, he had a
winning percentage of .672 (715-349). His 94-121 record as coach
of the Chicago Bulls from 1979-80 to '81-82 lowers his career
mark to .633, sixth best in NBA history and surpassed among
active coaches only by Phil Jackson's .740 and Pat Riley's .683.
In 1997 and '98 Sloan led the Jazz to the Finals, in which Utah
bowed each time to Jackson's Bulls. Sloan has never been voted
Coach of the Year, a slight that Jackson (a onetime winner)
This promises to be another grind-it-out campaign for the Jazz
(25-22 at week's end), especially since it will go 26 days
between home games because of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake
City. Utah is running the same plays, or variations of them, that
it has run every year under Sloan, engineered by John Stockton
and completed by Karl Malone, those holy pick-and-rollers who
came to Salt Lake when Sloan was an assistant. "Best offensive
system I've ever coached against," says Riley. Flip Saunders of
the Minnesota Timberwolves admiringly calls it "meat and potatoes
basketball," even if Jazz fans less admiring of the team's bland
style might prefer a splash of truffle oil from time to time.
Last February, Sloan signed a three-year, $12 million contract
extension. His negotiations with team owner Larry Miller tend to
be pro forma affairs. Sloan sits, sans agent, on the couch in
Miller's office, wearing his beloved John Deere cap; Miller
throws out a figure that generally ranks in the top third of
coaches' salaries; Sloan thinks it over for a moment and says
something along the lines of, Yep. "Jerry represents everything
we need to be as a franchise in this market," says Miller. "The
dependability, the loyalty, the effort."
Around the league, however, it is a foregone conclusion that
Sloan won't stick around for the length of his contract if his
locker room lieutenants leave. "Jerry establishes a tone, Karl
and John maintain it, and everyone quickly learns to fall into
line," says the Washington Wizards' Doug Collins, who among NBA
coaches is closest to Sloan. "It's an enviable system."
The Mailman, who, if he stays healthy, may become the league's
alltime leading scorer in 2003-04, has periodically asked to be
traded and could be in the off-season. He and Sloan have had
public run-ins, but their mutual respect has never wavered.
"Jerry has a philosophy I love: Even if you have words with
somebody, you get over it right away," Malone says. "You stand by
the team bus and you say hello to each other no matter what
happened during the game or at practice. You don't have a
40-minute meeting to clear the air. You just clear it."
In Stockton, Sloan has his bounce-passing, charge-taking,
relentlessly competitive alter ego, who still glances at Sloan on
almost every half-court possession to get the play call. "Why
wouldn't I?" he says. Stockton, who turns 40 on March 26, will
almost certainly be gone by the end of 2002-03. Yet Sloan won't
rule out coaching, even with another team, well beyond Stockton's
departure. He enjoys nothing more than "piddling around" (his
favorite phrase) with lineups and has been energized by the
enthusiasm and talent of 23-year-old rookie center Jarron
Collins, 20-year-old guard DeShawn Stevenson and the 20-year-old
Russian rookie forward, Andrei Kirilenko. At a recent practice
Sloan told his team, as is his wont, "You've got to f---ing
compete!" Kirilenko approached him later and asked, "Coach, what
does this word compete mean?"
"I could see him going on [coaching] because he loves the game
and knows he has something to offer younger players," says
Stockton. "Teaching players the right habits--that's what Jerry
Sloan is about."
For a long time Bobbye figured that when Stockton left, her
husband would follow. "Now I'm not so sure," she says. "The
losses are hard because the game means so much to him." She tears
up again as she says, "But now we have each other. Again. We can
go through it together."
Bobbye Sloan first felt a stabbing pain in her breast on June 13,
1997, the day the Jazz was eliminated in Game 6 of its first
Finals. She had performed a self-examination four months earlier
without detecting anything, but Bobbye, who earned a degree from
the Washington University School of Nursing in St. Louis, knew
what to do. She made the doctor's appointment without telling
anyone, least of all her husband.
At the time Jerry was consumed by basketball, and though making
the Finals had been gratifying, losing them was depressing. His
coaching career had mirrored his playing career (and has
continued to do so). The Bulls for whom he scratched and battled
for 10 of his 11 NBA seasons--as a reliable scoring guard (14.0
points per game), an in-your-jock stopper (four berths on the NBA
all-defensive first team) and a willing and able pugilist (he
squared off against Wilt Chamberlain)--were recognized as the Best
Team Never to Win It All, the backhanded encomium now affixed to
the Jazz. Around his family Sloan rarely showed the aggressive
streak so evident on the court, but there were dark places in his
soul, and he medicated himself with hops and nicotine. He played
in an era when many players lit up before games and got lit after
them, and Sloan, who is nothing if not old school, just kept it
For Bobbye, the last person she would confide in was the man
whose history had for so long intertwined with her own. She was
the one who had picked up Jerry when he stood in the cold, thumb
extended, after high school basketball practice and given him a
ride home to the hardscrabble area known as Gobbler's Knob, 15
miles south of McLeansboro. She was the one who had told him to
get cracking after he had left both Illinois and Southern
Illinois, devastated by homesickness, and gone to work in the oil
fields. She was the one who had cheered him to an All-America
career at Evansville and raised their children (two daughters and
a son) while he was making headlines as a player and a coach. All
those shared experiences, and still, they couldn't talk.
Just before the June 1997 appointment at which she would find out
the results of her biopsy, Bobbye finally told her son, Brian,
then an emergency room resident, what was going on. He was there
with her when she got the news that the pea-sized tumor was
malignant. It was excised later in the summer, and the first
round of chemotherapy left her in the bathroom, puking her guts
out all night long. On the day of the reconstruction, when Bobbye
felt the gulf between them had never been wider, Jerry was
reflecting on something she had said a week earlier: "Here I am
fighting for my life with all I've got, and you're snuffing yours
out," and then she got up and walked away.
Jerry is not the type to admit he had an epiphany--and certainly
not the type to identify it as such--but her words stuck with him.
About a week after her reconstruction he came to her and said, "I
need to make some changes. We'll start with the smoking, go on to
the drinking, and see if we can put this thing back together."
The thing is back together. Bobbye's latest tests have shown no
sign of cancer, and it is with renewed relish these days that the
Sloans pursue their joint passion for collecting. Jerry is known
as a man who guards a buck as closely as he guarded the
opposition's top scorer, and he is a bargain hunter of the first
order--a devotee of garage and estate sales, a regular at
auctions, a votary of flea markets. He can discourse at length on
American art pottery and art glass, antique toys and tractors. A
turn-of-the-century vase made at Sophie Newcomb College (that
means something if you're into vases) that Jerry bought 25 years
ago for $10--the asking price was $12, but no self-respecting
collector pays tag--the Sloans now estimate to be worth at least
The Sloans look, buy and rarely discard. "My kids are going to
shoot me when I die," says Jerry. On an off day during the
season, and on any day back in their beloved McLeansboro, where
they are building a house on an 80-acre field, they might be
found among their fellow foragers, horse trading their way to the
Sloan says he hasn't had a drop of alcohol in four years. He has
also quit smoking with the help of Zyban, an antidepressant. His
oldest daughter, Kathy, a pharmaceutical rep, recommended he get
a prescription, and once he started taking it, he says, giving up
cigarettes "was the easiest thing I ever did." After games he
goes directly home or to the team hotel, rarely replaying the
results in his mind or agonizing over late-night TV highlights.
He hasn't been able to run much since he retired with arthritic
knees, but he has upped his workout regimen (weights, stationary
bike, walking with Bobbye) and, despite a voracious appetite,
keeps his weight at about 225 pounds on a 6'5" frame.
"Basically," he says, "I'm a real boring guy these days. And
Sloan feels that his drinking never affected his coaching. He has
worked for 18 years in the most conservative of pro towns, and
while he's been criticized (quietly) for never winning it all,
and while some have winced as they lip-read his commentary to the
refs, his off-the-court conduct has never been publicly called
into question. Around the league it was long known that Sloan was
a good bet to have an adult beverage after the game, but he was
always at practice the next day and never seemed to give anything
less than his all on the bench.
Sloan is loath to talk about his past habits, both because he is
a private person and because he feels he might appear to be
endorsing a misguided lifestyle. This much he will say: "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 what would happen, Jerry, if you were to win a championship.
Would you enjoy some champagne? He shakes his head and says,
"Nah. I can get just as crazy with water."
A Jazz championship almost certainly won't come this season,
probably not next, probably not the one after. Utah has failed to
put the complementary parts in place that would complete the
mission of Malone and Stockton. Midseason deals for guard Derek
Harper in 1997 and center Rony Seikaly in '98 fell through when
neither wanted to move to Salt Lake City. The Jazz has also
ignored free agents with controversial pasts (players like
Derrick Coleman and Isaiah Rider weren't welcome, players like
Jeff Hornacek and John Crotty were), because Sloan doesn't want
them on the court, Stockton and Malone don't want them in the
locker room and Miller doesn't want them within the city limits.
Sloan admits he will be disappointed if he retires without
winning a championship. "I know this, though," he says. "A lot of
guys will show their rings to you who didn't have anything to do
with winning a championship. There's something to be said for
coming back after you lose, for putting yourself on the line, for
having the will to try it again and again, for putting every
ounce of energy into achieving something after you've fallen
short. That's the kind of guys we've always had here."
That's the kind of coach they've had, too, a hard man who these
days, before each home game, seeks a familiar pair of eyes and
can get down to business only after he finds them. "What's
happened between Bobbye and me is a good thing," says Sloan.
"I've always believed that something good can come out of every
bad thing. Sometimes you've gotta work awful hard to find it. But
Bobbye's doctor has promised her that he will soon write "ancient
history" on her file, but in another way she already feels as if
she's cured. "When you go through what we went through," says
Bobbye, "things that seemed so important don't seem so important
anymore. What is important is loving and having someone to love
you. I think Jerry has found that. I think together we found
drinking," Sloan says, "and they go together."
longest-tenured head coach in any pro sport.
Bobbye says. "But now we can go through it together."