On December 9, 1988, Frank Layden abruptly resigned as the head coach of the Utah Jazz, and was replaced by Jerry Sloan, thus triggering the longest coaching tenure in modern sports. Over the next 23-plus seasons Coach Sloan would leave an indelible mark on not just the Utah Jazz, but also the NBA and the game of basketball.
Sloan approached basketball, as a player and a coach, with the same mentality that he used to approach life. Over the years Sloan changed and adapted, but his core values never changed. The overriding theme of his life -- toughness -- never wavered. It was this quality that made Sloan the ultimate one trick pony.
From the Farm to the Hardwood
Jerry Sloan was born on a farm in McLeansboro, Illinois, the youngest of 10 children. When he was four, his father passed away, leaving his mother alone to raise the family. The only reason he was able to play basketball was because he was the youngest child, and so his brothers and sisters worked in the fields to take care of the family. Had Sloan been the eldest, or even a middle child, he would never have touched a basketball, much less coached a game.
In high school, Sloan's basketball coach insisted that the team practice before and after school. So Sloan would wake up early and hitchhike 16 miles each way just to get to practice. (I wonder how far Allen Iverson would have commuted.)
After dropping out of the University of Illinois-Champaign after two weeks because he was homesick, Sloan enrolled in Evansville College, and began playing on their Division II basketball team. Although he was drafted during his junior year, Sloan opted to return to school and finish his degree, because that's what he promised he'd do. Luckily, he was drafted again the next year with the 4th overall pick.
The plan was to return to Evansville in about 10 years to take over as the head coach. Turns out that Sloan's NBA career lasted about 10 years, eight of them with the Chicago Bulls, where he was a two-time All-Star. And so, as planned, he returned to Evansville to coach his old college team. But something just didn't feel right, and Sloan resigned for personal reasons after just five days on the job. Later that fall the entire team, including the coaches, died in a plane crash. The event taught him that there are things more important than the game of basketball.
Sloan served a brief stint as coach of the Chicago Bulls during the 1980s, but was fired after less than three seasons. He was later hired by the Utah Jazz in 1984 as an assistant coach, where he remained for the next 26 years, including the last 23 as head coach.
Sloan implemented a simple but effective system that squeezed the most out of his players' potential. On the defensive end his players were expected to play hard and live by the simple motto, "No easy buckets." Offensively the team ran a pure motion set, based on the old UCLA Offense, that emphasized cuts to the basket, off-ball screens, and the pick-and-roll.
Both methods were predictable, but the system worked. And even though he never won a championship, Sloan led the Jazz to 19 playoff berths and two appearances in the NBA Finals. He's the only NBA coach to ever win 1,000 games with the same team, and he's by far the longest tenured coach in NBA history. (Red Auerbach is second, having coached the Celtics for 16 years.)
But Sloan's greatness as a coach isn't solely tied to his longevity. Sloan's greatness lay in his ability to make his players better. John Stockton and Karl Malone probably would have been great players even without Jerry Sloan's influence. But what about Bryon Russell, Jeff Hornacek, Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Carlos Arroyo, Donyell Marshall, and the slew of other players whose heydays were in a Jazz uniform, only to bottom out once they no longer had Jerry Sloan's influence? These players thrived under Jerry Sloan precisely because he knew how to make them better. That's coaching.
Making two consecutive NBA Finals, while twice beating a Lakers team that featured a young Shaquille O'Neal, with some guy named Ostertag as your starting center? That's coaching.
Winning 41 games during the 2003-04 season, the year after Stockton-to-Malone left, with a team whose best players were Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring's left knee? That's coaching.
One of a Kind
Sloan was never the fastest or strongest player on the court. But he was always the toughest player. That was his trick. That was his life. It was this toughness that he expected -- demanded -- from his players. He didn't demand that Stockton be quicker than Allen Iverson, that Deron Williams be quicker than Chris Paul, or that Malone be more athletic than Kevin Garnett. But he did expect them to be tougher. And when they weren't, he'd let them know.
At the end of the day, no matter how many games he coached, or playoffs he'd make, Sloan knew that the only reason he was able to play basketball was because his siblings sacrificed for him. That the only reason he got drafted (twice) was because a college coach took a chance on him. And that the only reason he ever made it in coaching wasn't because he had the best players, but because he got tough players.
Deep down, Sloan knew that he didn't earn the right to play basketball while his brothers worked the farm, and that he didn't really deserve to survive that plane crash while the team he should have been coaching died. He got lucky. And no matter how hard he worked, or how tough he was, he could never truly earn the opportunities that others gave to him. But he sure would try.
Players today are even more lucky than that washed up old farm-boy named Jerry. These days they go to prep school, get coddled in college, and are awarded millions of dollars in endorsements from the second they are drafted. They get splashed on TV and some even get their own reality TV shows. It's not that Sloan begrudged them for it. He just wanted to make them earn it.
Much will be said about whether Sloan lost touch with his players, or whether his players forced him out. But one thing is for sure: he made those players tough.
Sloan may have been a one-trick pony, but that pony ran longer and harder than everyone else.
Must have been one hell of a ride.