In 1976 at age 34, Chicago Bulls two-time All Star and six-time NBA All-Defensive Team guard Jerry Sloan blew out his knee. Age and circumstances had conspired against him and the handwriting on the wall was clear enough. He had to walk away from the game he loved to play.
Yesterday, Sloan, now 68 and in his 23rd season as Utah Jazz Head Coach, could again read the writing. Hard as it was, it was time for him to move on.
Word is that the end was hastened by increasingly-frequent disputes between Sloan and his superstar point guard Deron Williams. The flashpoint occurred Wednesday night in a game against the Bulls when Williams reportedly ignored the play Sloan signaled for and ran one of his own. A heated exchange between the two occurred at halftime. In a report by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, a league source said “He (Sloan) decided right there at halftime that he was done. He felt like ownership was listening more to Williams than they were to him anymore. He was done.”
After the game (a loss, dropping his team’s record to 31-23) Sloan met with Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor. Reports are that Sloan resigned during the meeting, but O’Connor asked him “to sleep on it.” Sloan agreed, but his mind was made up. Sloan said he slept very well Tuesday night.
The story of a NBA superstar causing the departure of his head coach is certainly nothing new. Though the head coach is nominally “the boss,” we all know the truth. Superstars generally make 4 times as much as their head coaches…and that gap would be greater if not for the NBA’s maximum salary rules. You do the math. So it’s not surprising that when a head coach locks horns with his team’s superstar, the coach traditionally fairs poorly in the exchange.
The thing is that, for nearly all of Sloan’s tenure in Utah, the Jazz were an exception to the rule. The organization was committed to its head coach and his system. If a player couldn’t or wouldn’t play within Sloan’s system, the player rather than the head coach was shown the door. Sloan was the constant. The result was a record of consistent excellence that was the envy of every other small and mid-market sports franchise. In 23 seasons as the Jazz head coach, the team had only one losing season…one. His record with the Jazz was 1127-682, a remarkable .622 winning percentage.
Truth be told, I don’t know that Sloan was any sort of coaching genius. He was just a gym rat who turned into a basketball-lifer. He understood the beautiful simplicity of the game and stressed the fundamentals of team play. On offense, you move the ball, set screens and work for the open shot. His best teams, the Karl Malone-John Stockton teams, simply ran the pick-and-roll until an opponent showed they could stop it…very few could. On defense, Sloan’s specialty as a player, you got down low, got as physical as the referees would allow and helped your teammates. Most of all, you played your tail off all the time…no exceptions.
Nothing tricky about it…it’s just how you’re supposed to play the game and how Sloan coached it. It’s a credit to the Utah Jazz organization that for so many years, they allowed Sloan to be what a head coach should be, namely, the undisputed boss. Unfortunately, Sloan saw this unwavering commitment to him and his system changing. Their superstar Williams would become a free agent in 2012 and Williams wasn’t happy. Sloan was asked to be reasonable, to appease his young star. While in the NBA this seems like a reasonable enough request, Sloan knew only too well that what he was being asked to do had nothing to do with playing winning basketball. He understood more keenly than his superiors that the secret to the Jazz’s success as a team and his success as a head coach is that “players play and coaches coach.” When it becomes OK for a player, no matter how good he is, to decide whether the play the coach has called is the right one, you’re no longer the head coach…not really.
Sloan wanted none of it so he acted quickly, decisively and with characteristic class. He rightly thanked the Jazz organization for giving him, for so many years, the increasingly-rare opportunity to be a genuine head coach in the NBA.
I only had two boyhood sports heroes – Dick Butkus and Jerry Sloan. As a player, Sloan wasn’t particularly talented, but he was tough as nails and absolutely relentless on the floor. When it came to the game he loved, there was no room for compromise.
Some people don’t change.
Godspeed, # 4.
Sources: Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, nba.com, basketball-reference.com