Jazz’s Sloan picks a good place to roll
SALT LAKE CITY -- The league shifted toward fun-to-watch, hard-to-guard, run-and-gun teams, sprinkled -- as has long been the NBA’s case -- with a couple of dominant centers.
Jerry Sloan’s teams were none of those.
All along they plodded along. They picked. They popped. They rolled.
Oh, did they roll.
Through the John Stockton and Karl Malone era and a trying time of transition to now, when one doesn’t have to look hard to see Stockton and Malone reincarnated in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, Sloan’s teams are marked by their physical play, diligence and execution.
Just like their coach.
He just won’t admit it. These are different players with different motivation than when he scraped and scratched for a living as a Chicago Bulls guard four decades ago, so much so that his No. 4 hangs from the United Center’s rafters as the first jersey to be retired there.
Still, in a league full of turnover among coaches, Sloan, a John-Deere-hat wearing, no-nonsense-taking or -talking type, is the one with an anchor firmly planted.
He is in his 20th year guiding the Jazz, the longest tenured coach in all of the major professional sports, with 202 NBA coaches having come and gone during that span.
As he again guides the Jazz tonight against the Lakers in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals series, Sloan is only the fifth coach to surpass 1,000 regular-season victories and has led Utah to the conference finals six times.
Nothing to it, right?
“Other than I’ve been fortunate to be able to keep the job,” he said. “We lost 56 games one year and I was still able to keep my job.”
Sloan, 66, responds to obvious questions with obvious answers, Clint Eastwood-like demeanor and all. Even his stance screams intimidation, his arms folded across his 6-foot-5 frame.
On why he never changed from his bread-and-butter pick-and-roll system after the retirement of Malone and Stockton to an up-tempo offense: “I would if I had those kinds of players. When you don’t have guys that can run and run with guys that are more athletic, then you better do something to try and compete with them.”
Or on why his pick and roll has been so effective throughout the years: “It’s just a play that everybody runs and if you have a good passer, a good shooter, then it works pretty good,” he said with a wry smile and a knowing laugh.
He took the helm of the Jazz in the 1988-89 season. Seven years earlier, having been fired as coach of the Bulls, he learned he could not waver in front of his players and still count on their respect.
There would be no teetering the line between chum and coach. It was his way and few would find it wise to disagree. He’s had his share of run-ins with players. His style occasionally fosters it.
But just how tough is Sloan? One time, former Jazz center Greg Ostertag launched a bag of ice at his head as Sloan gave a halftime speech. Sloan did not move, watching the ice explode against the wall, landing next to him. He went right on talking.
“Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high,” Frank Layden, a former Jazz executive who preceded Sloan as coach, once told the media in Utah.
But beneath that gruffness lies a man who collects antiques and antiquated trailers, retreats to his southern Illinois farm every off-season and is full of “dry, dry, desert jokes,” according to Williams, his latest point guard protege.
“When he’s on the court, he’s all business and wants you to be all business, but he’s a funny guy off the court, a guy that’s easy to get along with, and that’s something a lot of people don’t know about him,” Williams said.
Jeff Hornacek, who played under Sloan in the Malone-Stockton era and now coaches alongside him, said Sloan has “mellowed a little bit, maybe.”
The operative words are “a little” and “maybe.”
“It’s always funny when he gets after somebody on the bench and you look back at the front row of people with their eyes wide open, saying, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Hornacek said. “There’s been several times like that. That’s what makes him Jerry. He gets after guys, he pushes them to the limit, but no matter what he says to you during the game, you know after the game, he’s your buddy.”
It’s an intensity, a tough-guy persona honed over decades, matched by few other coaches.
“I think part of him still thinks he can play,” said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played under Sloan last season. “So then when the game starts, a whole new level of intensity comes out. For one split second, he might just jump out there and set a screen or knock somebody down.”
And along with himself, Sloan’s offensive system of meat-and-potatoes basketball has changed little.
Said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant: “It’s the same stuff, all of their plays. Sloan’s such a great coach, he gets them to execute extremely well. You know what’s coming, but still the execution is so precise that a lot of times we find ourselves being behind plays.”
The blemish, to outsiders at least, is that Sloan has not won it all. His teams have come agonizingly close, twice losing in the finals to Phil Jackson’s Bulls in 1997 and 1998.
Does that bother Sloan? Keep him up at night? Heck no.
Sloan dedicates himself to basketball but also realizes that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t mean a lot.
“I don’t think it’ll make me a different person, winning a championship or not winning a championship,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys win championships, then after the year’s over and that’s happened, then they disappear.
“The important thing to me is the ability to strive to do that. Obviously, we haven’t won a championship here, but we haven’t stopped from the owner to the coach. The important thing is how you come back after you lost. Or how you come back after you win.”
And come back Sloan always has. He has thought of retirement, sometimes when he goes back to southern Illinois on those long nights on the farm. But not when Stockton and Malone left the ballclub, necessitating a rebuilding period that lasted three seasons.
The closest he came to leaving was when Bobbye, his wife of more than 40 years and high-school sweetheart, lost her battle with cancer four years ago.
But basketball needed him. Or he needed basketball.
He signed an extension through the end of next season, and his negotiations with Jazz Owner Larry H. Miller are usually quick and to the point with the notion that Sloan will step down whenever he feels like it.
“For the most part, I’ll stay as long as they let me,” he said. “I’m a day-to-day guy. I was a day-to-day guy when I played.”
Some things -- slow and steady like Sloan -- are best unchanged and unyielding.