Defining Jerry Sloan’s legacy

A little piece of Utah died today. The announcement that Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan is resigning after 22 and a half seasons with the team came as a shock to those outside of the organization and marks the end of an era for the NBA. We will likely never see a coach who sticks around with one team as long as Sloan, not to mention one who defines his team’s identity as much as Sloan.

When Sloan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, Dime reader and Jazz fan/blogger Amar penned this piece on the legacy of a true pro’s pro:

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What do you say about a man who has been involved with the NBA (as a player or coach) during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama Administrations that has not already been said before?

We know that Jerry Sloan is old school — it’s been established over the years a few times: he still insists that players have to have their shirts tucked in to get into the game; players aren’t allowed to wear headbands, can’t use phones on the team bus, and Sloan strictly enforces a system that emphasizes fundamental defense over gimmicks, and layups over three-point bombs. Yes, he is old school. So old school that he’s been part of the NBA longer than Avery Johnson (COY 2006), David Robinson (same Hall of Fame class as Sloan) and Scottie Pippen (faced Sloan in two NBA Finals as a player) have even been alive.

Sloan has also coached the Jazz for a very long time. As a franchise, the New Orleans/Utah Jazz have had a total of six coaches in their entire history, which stretches back to the ’74-75 season. The first five years of the franchise saw three of those six stalk the sidelines. Now, I’ve been a Jazz fan since the young upstart tandem of Stockton and Malone took the Showtime Lakers to a Game 7 in the ’88 conference semis — and I’ve only known two head coaches in my entire experience as a Jazz fan. Yes, Sloan has been a beneficiary of, and also contributed to, the fabled stability of the Jazz franchise. As a point of reference, the Memphis Grizzlies have had 5 different coaches in the last 3 seasons alone.

Even went dealt a poor hand, Sloan can coax a roster to a respectable number of wins. In the brief Raul Lopez/Michael Ruffin/Ben Handlogten era, the Jazz still finished 42-40 in a tough Western Conference, barely missing the playoffs. (Hmmm, wonder how Phil Jax would have done with a roster that didn’t have the undisputable best players in their generation on the team? No MJ, Pip, Shaq or Kobe.) Jerry has won 1,137 regular season games (and nearly 100 more in the playoffs) over his career as a coach of the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, good enough for 4th-best all-time. With the Jazz alone, he eclipsed the 1,000-win mark with a single franchise last season. He’s only had three sub-.500 seasons on his resume, the most recent one coming the year before the Jazz drafted Deron Williams (a year where top players Boozer and Kirilenko missed nearly all of the season to injuries). To find the other two, you’re going to have to dig pretty far back in time — back when the United States and Iraq were military allies. (Seriously, look it up: the U.S. and Iraq were so buddy-buddy that Saddam Hussein became an honorary citizen of Detroit back in 1980! How’s that for perspective of just how long Sloan has been involved in the NBA!) Jerry has 12 seasons where he coached a team to at least 50 wins.

(Ed. Note: Sloan currently sits at 1,221 wins, ranking 3rd all-time, and has 13 seasons of 50-plus wins.)

These career qualities alone do not make him Hall worthy. As far as personal accolades go, not many coaches get the call to the Hall of Fame if they’ve never coached a title team, or even won a single Coach of the Year Award. (For a point of reference, Don Nelson has three — he sure looked like a COY when he quit on the Knicks back in the 90’s, right?) So what makes Sloan special? What makes him Hall worthy in spite of his empty trophy case? Why should this simple, poor, Southern Illinois farm boy (youngest of 10 children) who had to hitch-hike to school both ways be so honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame? (BTW, seriously, how messed up is that? That’s a surefire way to end up as a case file on a homicide detective’s desk, if everything I learned from serial killer movies is even 50% accurate; hitch-hiking to school every day on a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere — as a teen?)

In my opinion, it’s simple: it’s all about his work ethic. I never thought I’d see a coach who was more worked up and physically into a game more than a player who was actually playing in an NBA Finals game. Fortunately/unfortunately, I did see this when Sloan was fighting as hard as he could on the sidelines — doing his Tony D’Amato thing — all but actually taking charges on the court, while team doctors tried to find a pulse on Greg Ostertag during TV timeouts. Sloan said it best about his days as a player for the Bulls; those teams were filled with hard workers who tried to make up for their lack of talent with grit. “The other team had to beat us,” Sloan says about his playing days.

You did not win against Jerry Sloan, or those Bulls teams, unless you beat them. It was a clearly zero-sum arrangement. While it may sound simplistic or even corny, it’s genuinely Jerry Sloan. And his hard-on for hard work did not change once he moved from a player to a coach. (Which probably explains why, in his system, hard working guys with few talents play over gifted players who don’t try.) Similarly, most battles against his Jazz teams have been rough and tumble, halfcourt wars of attrition — where at the end of the game (or series) a victor is announced, but it would be unfair to say any one team “won.” Recent history aside, few Western Conference playoff teams that were engaged in a prolonged series against the Jazz have come out of it unscathed enough to continue on and forge long playoff sojourns. Why? Because of Sloan’s dedication to working hard and fighting for every inch. (Which probably explains why some Jazz games end up looking like football more than basketball — and sadly, why the franchise values Matt Harpring so much.)

Sloan is now decades from his Dirty Harry days (getting the jobs that no one else would want) and moving, restlessly, into his Gran Torino years. He’s been in the NBA so long that a rookie he’ll be coaching this season, Eric Maynor, is actually the son of a player that Sloan once cut when he first started coaching in the NBA. Perhaps that alone is testament enough to Sloan’s long, successful career. A career that may not have been filled with awards — but ultimately one that rewards his dedication to the game, teaching fundamentals, and work ethic with a lifetime achievement: the Hall of Fame. A place that Mike Brown, Byron Scott, Sam Mitchell, Avery Johnson, Doc Rivers and Don Chaney will never be honored in as a coach, despite their COY awards. (This is where Sloan pulls out a shotgun and points it to Smitch and growls “Get the $@%# off my lawn!”)

— Amar / All That Jazz