Sloan loses his job; NBA loses the battle


Feb 10

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Sometimes you have an epiphany, and Jerry Sloan apparently had one Wednesday night when his Utah Jazz were losing to the Bulls.

Jerry realized the inmates had taken over the asylum, and this time the guards weren’t going to do anything about it. Deron Williams, so it seems from the reports of internal friction with Sloan, got the biggest coaching scalp of all–he got Jerry Sloan fired.

Williams vociferously denied any such thing and blamed media distortions, though reports were widespread in Utah he’d quit on the team and was pushing for Sloan’s ouster.

Though Williams really may be just a symbol of what is occurring in the NBA. Not that it’s anything new, but maybe more sophisticated and pernicious these days.

Sure, sure, I heard all the talk Thursday during Sloan’s farewell press conference of how Jazz management begged Jerry to stay and would have done anything and blah, blah, blah.

Yes, Larry Miller would have done anything. He wouldn’t have allowed an insurrection of this sort, just as he didn’t when Adrian Dantley tried it and Karl Malone tried it and Carlos Boozer was accused of it, though for Boozer it was more mistimed commemts. But Miller died two years ago this month, along with accountability, and Deron Williams took over the franchise.

Not only Williams, but Dwight Howard in Orlando and Carmelo Anthony in Denver and Chris Paul in New Orleans. It’s why, perhaps more than ever now, the NBA will have to fight to the end to have a form of NFL franchise tag to prevent not only the destruction of teams, but teams having to betray their better instincts to cater to their star players lest they all gather in just a few markets and turn the NBA into a few New York Yankees and a lot of Pittsburgh Pirates.

I think what Sloan saw was a player basically telling him to go to hell. Not that as Sloan said it hasn’t happened many times before, and Larry Kenon could tell you as well about the chair that whizzed by his head in the Bulls locker room once in Sloan’s first head coaching job.

No, Sloan wasn’t giving up anyone. He wasn’t going to dump this on Williams because that’s not Jerry and, really, it was about way more than just a player.

But because that player is the team’s best and can leave as a free agent after next season, his bosses have to sit there without saying anything. Jerry always had your back. For the first time in Utah, they apparently left his unprotected. Now, this is my speculation not having talked to Jerry since his apparent resignation. Though maybe I would have done the same thing if I were them as much as I would rather think I’d take the Clint Eastwood way.

There’s this notion that old school is out, which we hear every decade or so, and the league’s nascent talents need fresh, young voices. But since when is accountability and responsibility passe’? Since when is discipline and professionalism unnecessary. Since when is respect unimportant? 

I happened to have dinner with Sloan Wednesday night.

Hardly formal or planned, but just like always.

Jerry hasn’t changed much—OK, not at all—from the McLeansboro farm kid he was. He’s the only NBA coach who eats pregame meals in the press room, where, yuck, media dine.

Wednesday it was some not so tender pork chops, potatoes and crunchy broccoli. Jerry was shoveling it in and I joked that he was in remarkable shape for someone who’d recently established a league record for eating press room meals for more than 45 years.

“The food’s good,” Jerry said.

I agree with a lot of what he says. Not everything.

In my years in the NBA, there have been just two coaches who actually enjoyed being around media, going out after the game to have a beer or just hanging out with guys who second guess them. So what! Sloan and Rudy Tomjanovich. Regular guys, as we’d like to say.

I ran into Jerry last spring at the Chicago predraft camp. He was waiting in the lobby of the Sheraton for his daughter and grandchild to drive to Indianapolis and visit his kids. It was storming and she was late, so Jerry sat and sat in the lobby. We talked for a few hours. Jerry had checked out of his room early. He figured he’d save the Jazz a night’s room cost. Hey, he said, the chairs down there were pretty nice. Why not use them?

It’s a delight to talk with Jerry because it’s never any different no matter who you are.

We talked about basketball mostly, and I mentioned Derrick Rose starting an All-Star game and noting the Bulls had a pretty good point guard long ago, Guy Rodgers.

“Got him for Jimmy King and Jeff Mullins,” Jerry shot back immediately. Said they’d played together in the All-Star game in San Francisco in ’67. Wasn’t sure about the Baltimore one a few years later.

We talked some about dribbling for some reason and Jerry, always good with the old country homily, recalled the words of his old high school coach: “Dribbling is like salt on a steak. A little is good. Too much can ruin the steak.”

Jerry recalled Guy had the all time assists record at one time with 28. Jerry said John Stockton had a chance to break in one game, “but I took him out. The game wasn’t close. I told him he’d do it another time.”

Sloan laughed, but then turned serious: “John would never want any record he had to get that way.”

Somehow we got onto players forgetting plays from the timeout to when they get on the court. Jerry said Stockton only once in his entire career forgot the play. It was in a raucous playoff game. He came back, apologized and said he’d forgotten the call. “Just one time,” Sloan said.

Actually, that was somewhat prophetic given what eventually occurred.

Jerry gave not only no signal Wednesday night an hour before the game, but I’m convinced he had no idea it was coming, apparently a blowup with Williams during the game when Williams, according to reports, defied his coaching. Presumably because of all Deron’s championships and Hall of Fame credentials.

Jerry signing his extension for next season actually came up. We were talking about media in this era and Jerry wondered why when the team was in Sacramento recently there was a big story of Jerry signing the extension. Jerry said he’d done that in November and it was no secret around the Utah media. Phil Johnson was there, as he’s always by Jerry’s side, and pointed out it was the same reporter as last season who wrote about Jerry’s extension.

“I guess he thought it was a big story,” Jerry shrugged.

There wasn’t even a whiff that he wasn’t fulfilling that extension.

We talked some about this season and I asked him about the Spurs and he said he loved watching them play.

“They make the basketball game so easy,” Sloan said. “One of my favorite teams. They play so unselfishly.”

He said he loved watching Manu Ginobili. Jerry called him the toughest guy who never lifted a weight. “But we’ll knock your head off,” Jerry said with pride. Jerry’s kind of guy.

This didn’t sound like a guy anxious to get back to that collection of antique tractors at his farm.

But all Sloan’s stuff is not just country hokum.

I happened to be having a conversation with a Bulls player the other night about just such a thing. He said, unpromted, it’s your responsibility to listen to the coach. We were discussing some bad situations he felt he’d been put in. You may believe the coach is wrong or find he isn’t doing what’s best for you or think for the team, he said. But unless you listen and follow his directives, the entire system breaks down. It was interesting to hear this from a player who hasn’t always had coaches seem to do what’s best for him in his career.

I suspect it was the same philosophy with Sloan.

Once you violated the tenet that it’s not the coach right or wrong, and it didn’t appear you were going to get the backing you had received before, well, there was nowhere for Jerry to go but home.

It’s not like Sloan is just some stubborn old hick who gets this notion and walks away. He’s been with the Jazz a quarter century, unheard of in professional sports. He abided by the fundamentals of discipline and respect, providing it to the players and expecting it in return.

Jerry always said he worked day to day and understood any day ownership or management could say it was time and he’d leave. I believe he leaves without the slightest regret. He’s a man who believes in a few strong principles and stands by them.

But the system apparently was breaking down. And in the Jazz’ small market, Deron Williams meant a lot more to them than Jerry Sloan. No one will ever say that, and, in fact, Jerry would tell you that himself. He always believed it to be a players’ game and you don’t take away from that. He stood in he background and never believed he was responsible for the success.

I enjoyed Jerry in the playoffs most when his teams were losing. You’d come to practice and he’d have no different expression than when he was ahead 3-0. He’d say he was looking forward to the game because he so wanted to see how the players would perform in the circumstance and under the pressure.

He was a fan in many ways like the rest of us. He didn’t know what would happen, but was anxious to find out: Who would rise up to the challenge and who would shrink in its face. He’d do what he can to put the players and the team in position to do their best, but then he’d stand back.

Though there was a way to go about it. Unless you had team discipline, unless there was one voice and everyone pulling in the same direction, there was no point in continuing. So Jerry seemingly reached that point Wednesday night. You can be sure Jerry Sloan walks away with no regrets.

He knew one way from when he was a small child to when he was a Hall of Famer. If they didn’t want that anymore, well, his time had expired.

This was the youngest of 10 whose father died when he was four who did walk 16 miles through the snow to school. Each way to a one room schoolhouse that had all eight grades in it. This was the original Mr. Bull, the player who perhaps best ever represented how the city of broad shoulders sees itself. This was a man about values.

It is a bit unseemly the way it happened, the middle of the season with the team in the playoffs. But then Jerry would have to be a phony for the rest of the season. And since he never has been for one day, he likely didn’t know how.

Jerry’s had a great run, and someone would do well to have him back to coach their team. If only because the NBA continues to need men like Jerry Sloan. There are never enough.

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