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Honoring Jerry Sloan, The Man Least Likely To Honor Jerry Sloan

If you asked Jerry Sloan -- and he would probably prefer that you didn't -- to define his career, he would not focus on the number of games he won. In fact, if you asked Jerry Sloan about Jerry Sloan, he would probably not say very much about Jerry Sloan at all.

Douglas C. Pizac-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is, and was, the most important thing in Jerry Sloan's life.

Except it wasn't.

When the banner is raised to the rafters tonight in his honor, bearing the number of his triumphs, his life's work summed up in 1223 chunks of 48 minutes at a time, it will be a contradiction in terms. It will be at once appropriate and inadequate, impressive and irrelevant.

If you asked Jerry Sloan -- and he would probably prefer that you didn't -- to define his career, he would not focus on the number of games he won. Nor would he focus on the fact that he never won a championship, although he would probably be candid about how hard he tried to do so.

In fact, if you asked Jerry Sloan about Jerry Sloan, he would probably not say very much about Jerry Sloan at all.

Even when forced to speak about himself -- for example, at his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame -- Sloan attempted to deflect the praise. He told his life story in the context of those who helped him, stood with him, beside him. Always thanking another coach, another player, the owners, the fans, his family, his wife.

By way of comparison: Sloan's longtime floor leader, John Stockton, matched the coach's self-effacing tone. By way of contrast: Michael Jordan, the most celebrated player of all time, spent his speech naming everyone who ever doubted or wronged him.

And this might interest you, too: Jordan's speech has been viewed on YouTube more than 2.4 million times.

Jerry Sloan's views number just over 11,000.

I cannot imagine anything he would care less about. But if he did care, I can picture his reaction: Good.

Five days. That's how close you and I came to never hearing the name Jerry Sloan.

Five days after accepting the head coaching job at his alma mater in 1976, Evansville College, he resigned. His heart was still in Chicago, where injury had cut short a playing career that the Bulls would later recognize with the first jersey retirement in franchise history. He joined the Bulls staff as a scout, the first step in a long road that would lead him to Salt Lake City.

His replacement at Evansville did not survive the decade. A plane crash claimed the lives of the entire basketball team in December of 1977.

Jerry Sloan does not like to mention this. "It's something I kind of stay away from," he told Grantland in 2013. You wonder if this is part of what he means when he says, as he will surely say tonight, that he has been blessed, and fortunate, to have the success that he has.

You know, when Jerry Sloan speaks, that he does not think of himself as one of the best basketball coaches of all time. He still defines himself as a farm boy from McLeansboro, Illinois. On anyone else, the John Deere caps of which he is so fond would be an affectation. But they are a part of him, as indelible as his crooked nose (proof of his trademark toughness) or his furious abuse of NBA officials (a practice he refers to as "making suggestions," tongue firmly in cheek).

He does not think of himself as someone who has won 1,223 basketball games as Jazz head coach. Those were team efforts, team achievements. Likewise, the losses he endured -- over 600 of them -- were the fault of all, himself included.

Speaking of headwear, that's why he was notoriously stingy about not allowing his players to wear headbands. It had nothing to do with the article itself. It was the sense of disunity. If every player wanted to wear one, Jerry would've been fine with it. He took the concept of a "uniform" both literally and seriously.

I am convinced that Jerry Sloan could not be pretentious if he tried. (Come to think of it, watching him try would be pretty amusing.) He is what he is: a farmer that somehow became a legend, through talent he does not acknowledge, effort he makes seem commonplace, and desire he treats as standard.

Jerry Sloan is a paradox. He is the most unassuming of men, yet he strove for the pinnacle of athletic success for years. He is the ultimate competitor, yet he never achieved the ultimate victory over his competition. He won everything he needed, but lost what he wanted most.

His beloved first wife, Bobbye, once told Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson how much winning means to Jerry:

"We were talking about his career," she said, "and he said, 'I can never consider my career a success if I retire without winning a championship. I can never consider myself a success because I didn't win it as a player and now as a coach,' " Bobbye shook her head sadly. "I tell him, 'You can't do that. You've got to look at all the things you've done.' ... I tell him, 'Look at the number of people who have played and coached in the league who didn't win a championship.' But he just says, 'I can't do that. If I don't win it, I'll consider myself a failure because that's the goal I set for myself when I started playing.' He has said this time and time again."

I asked Jerry about this later, and he explained, "Why else would you play? How else do you judge my record?"

How could a man so obviously excellent, with so many superlative achievements, define himself as a failure? Can he not see that success may be measured in many ways? Does he not realize that his unique qualities -- loyalty, longevity, endurance -- are more rare and valuable than the championship that eluded him?

Perhaps he does. Or perhaps, as is more likely, he does not think of himself very much at all.

For all his competitive fire, his foul-mouthed fury, his anguish and ardor, Jerry Sloan knew the game of basketball was just that: a game. On Thursday I heard a writer for Sports Illustrated on the radio, discussing his memories of Sloan. The writer spoke of a time, early in his career, when he had to interview the coach after a particularly difficult defeat.

"Coach, I know you must be feeling really frustrated and angry, losing a game like that," the writer began, trying to mitigate Sloan's mood.

He needn't have bothered. "It's okay," Sloan told him. "It's just basketball."

To me, the story seemed representative of the inherent contradiction of Jerry Sloan: fierce competitor and common man, legendary winner and folksy farmer. He is neither and both and more than both, all at once.

He is, and was, not perfect. It is easy to deify him, as I have sort of done here, and as we will do tonight. It is easy to look back on his time as a halcyon age, full of victory, harmony, success and goodwill.

He was slow to change. He did not suffer fools. His inflexibility, his toughness, and his dogged determination probably inhibited the growth of more than one player during his tenure. When you're really, really good at hammering things, the whole world starts to look like a nail.

His teams consistently ranked in the bottom third in three-point attempts, year after year. His defensive philosophy often led to a high foul rate. His pace was slower and more deliberate in a league increasingly populated with players who need to run. And while he tried to adapt to these things, his success in doing so was mixed.

In the end, he just got tired. "Out of gas," is the way he put it to Greg Miller. You can blame the players, or the style of play, or the opponents, or any number of factors. I prefer to think that Jerry just knew himself.

When you've always got another life -- your real life, the way you really think of yourself -- to go back to, you weigh the life you're in, and you see which one is better. I think for Jerry, the balance had finally shifted.

At least Jerry Sloan got closure. I didn't.

"It's a little bit tougher than I thought it'd be," he said, choking back tears as he spoke to the press for the last time. "But today's a new day. Let's get this over with, and I know I'm gonna feel much better."

I'm sure he did feel better, and for that I'm glad.

But I'm still getting over it.

I was there, in the press room at the arena, wiping away tears of my own (journalistic principles be damned). I couldn't handle the abruptness. Jerry Sloan had been coach of the Utah Jazz almost for longer than I had been alive. I couldn't imagine the team, or the state, or even my job, without him.

I guess I had to grow up sometime.

I have used verb tenses interchangeably throughout this piece. It's hard not to. He's not dead, of course. Jerry is still here, still with the team in an advisory role. But he is no longer active. He looks on, like an aging father who knows his children must deal with their own problems now. His coaching life feels very much in the past tense -- although each of his flirtations with other NBA teams have filled me with a deep and genuine existential fear.

I do not like to dwell on these feelings for very long.

Anyway, I have other, better memories of Jerry Sloan with which to occupy myself. I will close with my fondest. It's arguably the high point in Jazz history: John Stockton's buzzer-beating three-pointer to defeat Houston and send Utah to the Finals for the first time.

There is Stockton, leaping several feet in the air in a wholly uncharacteristic explosion of joy. There is Karl Malone, enveloping Stockton and Jeff Hornacek in a jubilant bear hug as the rest of the team rushes out to join them.

And then there's Jerry, yelling, throwing up his arms, then (after quickly glancing at the referees to make certain the game had ended) running out to the celebration at center court. Yet he slows his trot ever so slightly, making sure the players share the glory first, content to stay on the periphery. He knows he will get his turn. This is his victory, his breakthrough. Yet even in this moment, he cedes the spotlight to others.

Tonight, Jerry Sloan will take center stage, whether he likes it or not. And I'll watch, and I'll honor him with every other Jazz fan.

But when he returns to his seat in the crowd, or better yet, his seat on the tractor...that's when I'll smile.