I should be focused on Celtics-Lakers tonight, or at least Ray Allen’s quest for history. Instead, I just can’t stop thinking about Jerry Sloan.
He never quite won an NBA championship, and never could garner the votes to earn a Coach of the Year Award. But let’s not make this about what Jerry Sloan wasn’t, or what Jerry Sloan couldn’t achieve. Because Sloan was the last old-school coach standing, the last respect-driven teacher who would whip a player’s ass for not following instructions. He was the NBA’s answer to Norman Dale — and if there’s a better coach to be compared to than Hickory High’s sergeant, I haven’t heard of him.
Over his 23 years as Utah’s head coach, Sloan became synonymous with pick-and-rolls and the flex offense. His name will rarely be mentioned without also mentioning Karl Malone and John Stockton, yet Sloan made his own name during the Stockton-Malone era, and even afterward. He coached 23 years in Utah, yet his teams had only one losing record. He once coaxed 42 wins out of a team that started Carlos Arroyo at point guard, DeShawn Stevenson/Gordan Giricek at shooting guard, Andrei Kirilenko at small forward, Tom Gugliotta/Michael Ruffin at power forward, and Greg Ostertag/Jarron Collins at center. In other words, he manufactured wins out of five donkeys. This wasn’t a man who rode the lapels of John Stockton and Karl Malone to great heights. This was a man who needed hardly any talent to compete.
And yet here we are, in February of 2011, and Sloan’s gone. One too many spats with team star Deron Williams, according to numerous reports. Sloan was losing the team, according to others. If so, that represents a sad state in the current Utah Jazz franchise. If you can’t respect Jerry Sloan, a man of virtues, values and morals carved from another era, who the hell are you going to respect?
I hate to bring Hoosiers up for a second time, but Sloan really does remind me of Coach Norman Dale. I picture the town meeting from Hoosiers, when the town was busy running Coach Dale out of his head coaching position at Hickory High. Dale had instituted a four-pass rule, and everyone in town hated it. Rather than shooting jumpers during practice, his players ran in and around chairs for conditioning. Rather than scrimmage, they worked on the chest pass. Rather than sit back in a soft zone, he made them play a tenacious man-to-man. Rather than play with a player who would not accept his way, Coach Dale sent only four players on the floor.
Coach Dale’s players were struggling to accept his new rules, his strict attention to detail, his unwillingness to let them slide. And so the town wanted him out. Except Jimmy Chitwood — good ole Jimmy Chitwood, the golden boy with the perfect jumper, the only person in town with the power to keep Coach Dale as head coach — spoke up.
“I don’t know if it will make any change,” Chitwood said, “but I figure it’s about time for me to start playing ball.”
A man in the crowd shouted, “I told you!” Then he pointed at Coach Dale: “Once we got rid of him.”
But Chitwood wasn’t done speaking. “But, there’s just one thing,” he continued. “I play, Coach stays. He goes, I go.”
The town vote had already been taken, and, by virtue of a 68-45 vote in favor of firing Coach Dale, Coach Dale should have been on his way out. But Chitwood’s nod of approval was enough to call for a re-vote, and Coach Dale’s job was saved. Coach Dale’s strict regime may not have fit the rest of the town, but Chitwood saw his integrity. Chitwood saw that he did things the right way. Chitwood saw that no other man would do as good a job molding the Hickory High team.
I wish Deron Williams had stepped to the podium today to back Sloan. I know why it didn’t happen; I know that bridge has already been burned. But Williams, and anyone else who fight with Sloan, fail to realize that the discipline and values he instills will make them better players. Better people, even. And so Sloan will leave today, pushed away from basketball by a team that no longer recognizes his importance, by players who no longer understand his strict ways.
Here I am, with Celtics-Lakers tonight, foregoing a game preview so I can give a legend some sort of due. My words won’t be enough to encapsulate his time in Utah. They won’t be enough to explain what he has meant to the Utah Jazz, to the NBA. But I just want to let it be known: There are plenty of people who understand the importance of each hard flex cut, the importance of everything Sloan stands for.
No coach will ever replicate Jerry Sloan’s career in the future. He’s truly the last of a dying breed. But we were lucky enough to have him in the game for this long. The Utah Jazz will never be the same again, I know that. But Sloan’s going out the way he came in, unwilling to sacrifice his morals for anything, and I doubt he’d want it any other way.