By John Schmeelk
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It has been a year of change in the sports world with the three longest tenured coaches in the three major sports retiring. Bobby Cox is no longer managing the Braves, Jeff Fisher no longer leads the Titans, and now Jerry Sloan has resigned from the Utah Jazz.
Jerry Sloan had become such a staple on that Utah sideline that no one really thought he would ever leave. If only that was true.
The NBA loses one of its best coaches and a true loyal soldier to the game. He might not come up in any conversations as one of the top five coaches of all time with no championship rings in his drawer or Coach of the Year honors in his pocket, but he could coach my NBA franchise any day. He got the most out of role players and superstars alike, making them better players, even if the recipients of his wisdom didn’t know it at the time.
He taught things often eschewed by the younger generation of players and coaches. On offense there was constant movement of players away from the ball and the ball itself. Screens were set all over the court as the ball moved with more precision than most NBA teams could match.
When you watched a Sloan coached team, you watched team basketball. It wasn’t a glorified game of one on one filled with isolations, like so many of today’s games degenerate into. It was great to watch.
John Stockton and Karl Malone were great players, but they wouldn’t have been quite as great without Jerry Sloan. Their teams wouldn’t have gotten to the precipice of a championship so many times, just to be stopped by Michael Jordan and his Bulls. Those two superstars slid into their coach’s offense and made it look easy, their constant screen and roll was one of the most unstoppable, yet simple plays in the NBA. The consistent precision of it came from their coach.
Both those guys were also known for their physical play, and in Stockton’s case, his borderline dirty play. Toughness was something Sloan demanded from his players, and he wouldn’t tolerate otherwise. Fans rarely saw them, but players often felt the subtle Stockton elbow to the ribs on a down screen. It was the same for the knee that Karl Malone might quietly stick out while setting a high screen.
They were staples of a Jerry Sloan team, as was defense. If you were on Sloan’s team you played defense, or you didn’t play. There had to be effort and discipline at all times and if there wasn’t he was not shy in pointing it out. Just ask Greg Ostertag. All these things sound simple, but are in fact, so rare in today’s game. It’s old school basketball at its best.
Jerry Sloan taught his teams to play basketball the right way. It sounds corny but it’s true. He was a pure basketball man, and in the end the game was all that mattered to him. He wasn’t media savvy or photogenic. Was there ever anyone more uncomfortable or unhappy about doing those dopey in-game interviews than him? (Gregg Popovich being a close second).
When he finally decided he couldn’t do things his way, the right way, he stepped down. It was his way or the highway.
The pain on the faces of everyone in the Jazz organization at his press conference should tell everyone all they need to know about how a city he coached in for nearly a quarter of a century thought about him. He meant just as much to the NBA. It’s been a pleasure watching him all these years, and I hope there will be a few more.
Did Sloan influence you as a fan of the NBA? Sound off in the comments below!