I was sitting outside the entrance to the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, watching three small kids play on the rocks while I waited for everyone else to come out so I could get a turn, when I got a text from my brother:
"What do you think about Sloan retiring? Crazy, huh?"
I believed my heart had stopped. I didn't reply until a day later because I had no idea what had happened, no idea how to respond.
I had been gone from the world of the Jazz for a week, and all hell broke loose. Sure I checked up on the box score after the Bulls game, but that was about it. And now, all of the sudden, everything seemed to be falling apart.
My first coherent thought was about Deron. I wondered if he had pushed Sloan out, if this was the end of the Ninja Jazz, if the team was on its way to becoming the next Cavs. I wondered again at why this season had taken a turn so wrong. I wondered why they struggle so much when, on paper, they ought to be so good. And I wondered if I could ever like the Jazz as much again.
I spent all that day—on all the rides, in all the lines, at all the shows—in a daze, wondering what had happened. And I had no way to check up on anything until I got back to the hotel.
When I finally got back, when I could finally read up on everything everyone was saying about Sloan ... well, that's when I got disgusted and angry. Not at Deron. Not at Sloan. Not at the Jazz. But about all the people writing all the crap that swept the internet.
* * *
To understand a story you have to look at the beginning. Because the ending begins on page 1. And the events of page 19 are as important as the events on page 375. Well ... this is true if it is a good story. A story crafted with care for Truth.
And so I loathe the stories that have been written about Sloan's retirement by the media, particularly the national media. Because the stories forget page 1, page 19, and all the other pages that get in the way of their sorry little fables.
Here's the Truth: Jerry Sloan resigned for his own good, and for the good of the team. I feel confident writing this because all he has ever done, all his decisions, have always been to try to give his team the best chance to win and to help his players have as good careers as possible. Why would it suddenly change now?
Why would did he so often refuse to call a timeout to interrupt an opponent's run? He wanted his players to learn to fight through on their own, because the players and team would be better if they learn to do so. Why did he reward playing time for hard work instead of talent? Because he believed talented players would only become as good as they can if they learn to work hard. Why did Sloan play vets over rookies? Because when he was a rookie his coach made him sit and watch, and Sloan believed it was crucial to him becoming a successful player.
We can all argue back and forth about whether the decisions, the attitudes, were the best way to handle things. And we have argued about them. But I hope there is no arguing that Sloan's intent was about as honest and decent as any coach in the league. I hope we can all agree Sloan was one of the least self-serving coaches ever.
Again, why would that change now?
So why resign? Why was that a decision necessary to help the team?
Unless you believe either Sloan or Kevin O'Connor are blabbing about their private meeting, we'll never know what was said then. And you can feel pretty confident that anyone who says they know is lying. They have sources, but it's all hearsay: "My best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with a girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it's pretty serious."
But I think we can create a story that makes sense, based on what we know from watching Sloan coach for 23 years. And likely one that has more Truth than the tired cliches regurgitated by the national media.
Sloan fought with players. We know that. He fought with Karl Malone, he fought with Deron. In fact, one of my favorite things about Sloan was his willingness do fight with them. I remember games from the classic Jazz days—games that Malone and Stockton weren't playing up to snuff and Sloan would bench them without hesitation. And after the games, Sloan explained that if the starters weren't going to play as he demanded, then he'd find someone else who would.
When Deron was a rookie, Sloan wanted to make sure his talented PG understood that he wasn't going to be given anything—not even a starting job over the dynamic duo of Milt Palacio and Keith McLeod. Deron would have to work for it.
When Ostertag pulled off one of his patented 2 turnovers and 3 fouls in 30 seconds, Sloan would yank him out faster than we could blink.
We could go on. AK got yanked for his ... um, interesting shot selection. Arroyo got yanked for trying to be a superstar at the team's expense. Giricek got yanked for eagerly jumping to spots that were not in his prescribed screen/cut routes.
The funny thing is that the players who learned from the fights, those are the players who became better than they had been previously. The players who stubbornly refused to learn, they fell off the NBA map. The fights made the players better, and they made the team better.
But when was the last time Sloan yanked out a star for refusing to play defense, for killing the play? I don't remember Boozer ever being pulled out for his awful effort on defense. Talented guys started playing regardless of their effort. The fights were engaged in less and less frequently.
My hunch is the head-butting with Deron in the Bulls game showed something to Sloan. It showed him that his players need a coach willing to fight, that the team needs a coach willing to fight, but that he was done with the fighting. And I believe Phil Johnson resigned for the same reason. Sure, part was loyalty to Sloan. But for 20 years, Phil got to coach while Jerry did the fighting. And Phil knew he didn't have it in him to start doing it, not now, not at this age, not after 20 years.
And, of course, Phil basically said this: "You have to live with yourself and you have to know that you’re capable, and right now I don’t think that I could give the Jazz everything they need. I think I could try, but I’m just being honest about it."
What we do know is that Sloan was never a quitter. Here's a quote from Sloan about Dan Issel, Denver Nuggets coach in 2000: "It bothered me when [Issel] quit in the middle of the season." How many times has Sloan said, after a tough loss, that the thing he's interested in seeing is how the team rebounds—because that's when you see what a team is really made of? How many times has Sloan explained a loss by saying the players "started feeling sorry for themselves" and gave up?
No, Sloan wasn't a quitter. He was a fighter—always interested in the fights that make teams stronger and players better.
But there have been signs that Sloan had mellowed in the past few years. I already wrote about how Sloan stopped yanking players as often. Anyone could see that he spent more time sitting in his chair and less time stalking and pacing the sidelines than he did 10 years ago. Jerry has often talked about how his relationship with his new wife and stepson has given him perspective. And he's gotten older. Time does stuff to people.
* * *
In the end, what everyone wants to know is why Sloan would quit in the middle of the season like this. Why not just finish it out? And the nonsense spouted about the internet has been trying to figure out who to blame: Deron pushed him out. Or the front office was going to trade AK against Sloan's wishes. Or the management was siding with the players in the spats. Or Sloan wanted to suspend his star PG and the GM said "No." Or the team had started tuning him out. Or Sloan no longer cares about winning.
But maybe it was something else.
Maybe—just maybe—it's because the Jazz still have a lot of talent, and they have plenty they can accomplish this season. Maybe it's because he believed that the team needs a coach eager to jump into all the fights in order for the team and the players to reach their potential. And maybe he realized he didn't enjoy the fights anymore, that he was tired of them, that he wasn't able to give the team what they needed. And maybe he looked at his bench and saw assistant coaches who he believed could give the team what it needed more than him.
Is it crazy to believe?
Well, once upon a time there was a Jazz team that had enormous hype and pressure put on it over the summer—a team led by a PG on his way to his first All-Star appearance and a PF from Louisiana Tech. The team's fans and the national media were all anxious to see what it would do the next season. The team started out strong, but suddenly and mysteriously fizzled. They lost to teams they ought to beat. They muddled about for a stretch of .500 ball.
As the team muddled about, the head coach decided he didn't have what it took to get the team to reach its potential. He didn't enjoy coaching the same as he had years before. Looking at his bench, he knew he had an assistant coach who did have what it took: a guy who would enjoy the battles with referees and with the players, a guy whose basketball knowledge was as good as anyone's, a guy the team already liked and respected.
And so Frank Layden suddenly, unexpectedly resigned 18 games into the season. He did it for himself, but he also did it for the good of the team. Not because the team no longer liked him, no longer respected him. Not because the front office no longer supported him. But because the assistant coach could give the team what it needed more than he could.
To understand the ending of a story, you have to start at the beginning. Because the ending begins on page 1.