Don Nelson, the winning coach in NBA history, had just finished a walk on the beach in his beloved Hawai’i on Friday when a reporter informed him that his coach, contemporary Jerry Sloan, had died of complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy’s body dementia at age 78.
“Oh, he was a dear friend,” Nelson told ESPN. “Although he fought me the first time we ever met.”
Nelson was a player with the Boston Celtics when the team traveled for a match against Sloan’s Chicago Bulls at Chicago Stadium on November 8, 1966. Nelson bombed back on defense and tried to catch a streaked Sloan when Sloan suddenly stopped, causing two players to clash violently.
“He set me up,”
Nelson said he and Sloan each took a couple of wild swings at each other that didn’t connect. They were quickly separated by officials and teammates.
“Then they didn’t throw you out of the game,” Nellie said, “so we kept playing. And Jerry was good. So was he. He was a really tough guy, but he would say and move on.”
Although Sloan logged 11 tough seasons as an NBA player from 1965 to 1976, he was best known for his 26-year stint as an NBA coach, with 23 of those seasons with Utah Jazz.
In Salt Lake City, he introduced a no-nonsense, physical basketball brand that allowed the Jazz to advance to the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998. Both times he led his team – led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, whose personalities reflected it as their sedentary coach – was prevented by Michael Jordan and the bulls.
Although Sloan never won a championship – and, unbelievably, never was named NBA coach of the year – George Karl said he was one of the most talented coaches he has ever seen.
“I had placed Jerry as one of the top three or four of all time I’ve ever met,” said Karl, who sits two places behind Sloan at No. 6 on the list of all-time coaching wins. “His team was really hard to play against. They were very tough-minded, very team-oriented.
“Jerry can’t stand a lot of NBA bulls — it goes on. He was demanding, but respectful. Every Utah Jazz player I ever talked to had nothing but good things to say about him.”
The sloan was raised in Gobblers Knob, Illinois, the youngest of ten children. When Sloan was only 4, his father died. He would rise before the sun to complete his chores in the family yard and then walk more than two miles to school. Those who knew him said he attributed the work ethic that served him well throughout his NBA career to his tough school.
“Jerry was a farmer at heart,” Phil Jackson said in a text message. “We all liked his fire and his sports … both ends of the training spectrum.”
Sloan ran a disciplined franchise and would not tolerate excuses or dissent. He expected his players to show the same grain that was his trademark. In 2006, when asked if he needed to be patient with his youngest player, 19-year-old CJ Miles, Sloan replied: “I don’t care if he is 19 or 30. If he is going to be on the floor in the NBA, he must be able to rise “We can’t put diapers on him one night, and a jock stream the next night. It’s just the way it is.”
Sloan also showed violent loyalty to his players. So when Kenyon Martin Malone planned in the open floor, it wasn’t Malone who threatened to fight him – it was Sloan.
Think of former jazz president and coach Frank Layden, who once handed this gem to author Michael Lewis: “Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner, his age. You might even But you would lose one eye, one arm, your testicles in the process. “
Sloan’s anger was not strictly reserved for opponents. If he felt that one of his players was whistling through a phantom call, he had no behavior to challenge the referee who made the decision, with some choice words to illustrate his point. In 2003, he even interrupted seven games to shoot Judge Courtney Kirkland in the chest.
Former NBA official Joey Crawford said he warned younger refs that if they decided to slap Sloan with a technician, they would immediately turn around and step away to expel the situation.
“But here’s the great thing about Jerry,” Crawford said. “He would get angry, but you could go back to him and say a lot of things to him, and he would never ever tease you out. You could even curse him, but he never intended to call the league office the next morning to complain , as some other coaches would do.
“I had a lot of respect for the man. We all did.”
Lenny Wilkens said he was exposed to a much softer side of Sloan when Wilkens chose him to be part of his staff for the 1996 Summer Olympics. At that time, he and Sloan were not very close, but Wilkens wanted him because of his respect for how Sloan approached the game and the attention he commanded from players.
“I liked his competitive spirit,” said Wilkens, No. 2 on the all-time coaching list. “His team was always so prepared, and he wasn’t going to let you do what you wanted to do. We both thought that defense can affect a game.
“And like me, he wasn’t about to let you go to the basket. That’s not how we were raised.”
During his travels, Wilkens Sloan appreciated the steadfast humor and passion for the game. His face softened as he talked about his family. His dedication to his players was also evident.
“He had a great influence on our team,” Wilkens said. “He’s one of those people who had instant credibility on the court.”
Four years later, Sloan was passed by as Wilkens successor to the 2000 Olympics, a small one that still troubles Wilkens.
“I was very disappointed in him,” he said, “and I let the people in the Olympic Committee know about it. It wasn’t right. We did a good job [in ’96] and Jerry was a big part of it. ”
Karl said that while Sloan received attention for his defensive plans, he was equally fond of Sloan’s offensive sets.
“Our first years when I was in Seattle, we doubled Malone and we doubled Stockton, and they figured out how to destroy us,” said Karl, who went head-to-head with Sloan-coached teams 82 times, fourth behind Rick Adelman, Nelson and Jackson. “He kept it simple, but what he pulled up was rock solid and his players followed his lead.
“I loved the fighting with Jerry. They were physical, though [the Jazz] played as a team and understood that you had to stick together in the competition.
“Jerry demanded it. He demanded that his players be good teammates.”
Sloan retired in 2011 2011 third all-time in coaching wins and now sits fourth. The man who then passed him in third place, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich released a statement Friday praising Sloan as “genuine and true.”
“And that’s rare,” Popovich said. “He was a mentor to me from afar until I got to know him. A man who got no fools, he had a sense of humor, often disguised and had such a big heart as the prairie.”
Coach Pop’s statement about Jerry Sloan’s passing. pic.twitter.com/ihmVNfh8bI
– San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) May 22, 2020
Nelson said that behind Sloan’s gravity was a gentle, funny, even wicked man. In recent years, he said, the opposing coaches were not above sneaking out for a beer or two when their team was in the same city.
“I think Jerry may have been the most competitive guy I’ve ever coached,” Nelson said. “But when the match was over it was over. I remember talking to him when he was getting ready to retire. He was looking forward to going back to his farm. He loved driving the fields on his tractor.”
Although Sloan never raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he appreciated his basketball trip, Wilkens said.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy to sit and cry about what he did and didn’t do,” Wilkens said. “He loved the game. It was enough.
“And there’s no doubt that the game loved him back.”