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40 at 40: Jerry Sloan was an institution, and model, for all to follow -- reflections on meeting a legend

Today is Jerry Sloan Day. And today the Utah Jazz will retire a number for him, #1223. Jerry was amazing, for many reasons. My personal story of meeting him has left a huge impression on me.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Today is Jerry Sloan day. No, I don't mean at this website, well, yes, at this website too; but, I also mean in terms of what Utah Governor Gary Herbert has announced. January 31st is now Jerry Sloan day. So, there it is. Sloan is deserving of much more than one day, I know for me personally if he wasn't so dedicated to his job I may have stopped being an NBA fan years ago . . . maybe, maybe not. I probably would have stopped writing about the team for sure, though. I started writing about the Jazz back in medical school, and if Sloan wasn't there to make sense of things post-Stockton and Malone I may have instead focused on my studies a bit more. Anyway, I can't possibly overstate how amazing Jerry Sloan has been - to me. What I can do is talk a little about the one time I met him.

While I'm not the right person to go over his NBA career history or off the court biography, I will go over a few points. Most of us know those important points by heart already. He's the youngest of a proud farming family and he felt grateful to be able to play the sport, or even go to school, which required him to walk for miles and miles to do. He faced a lot of adversity growing up, but that helped him develop a healthy respect for reality, while also giving him a tremendous competitive streak. He was humble, and always downplayed his abilities, talents, and was the quickest to deflect praise. And he would fight you to an inch of your life on the court. A product of a no-nonsense life, Sloan entered the NBA during the rise in popularity of the league. Increasingly flashier players were entering, and he was there to ground them back into the earth on the court.

Jerry Sloan was rewarded with being an All-Star twice, and All-NBA Defensive team member for six of his eleven seasons in the league. The game was rougher then, and only the strong survived. To play for over a decade meant that Jerry was made out of iron.

As a professional player he was coached by Paul Seymour, Johnny Red Kerr, and Dick Motta. Some of his teammates were Walt Bellamy, Gus Johnson, Red Kerr (yes, his future coach was his teammate in his rookie season), Don Ohl, Norm Van Lier, Nate Thurmond, Bob Love, Flynn Robinson, Bob Boozer, Artis Gilmore, Chet Walker, Rick Adelman, Matt Guokas, and Bob Weiss. I had to include those coaches, because there's a very interesting coaching family here.

And for most fans, Jerry Sloan is known for his coaching more than his playing. And that makes sense as he was only an NBA player for 11 years, 755 regular season games, and 52 playoff games. As a Head Coach he coached for 26 years, 2024 regular season games, and 202 playoff games. If you add it all up he's been either an NBA player or a Head Coach for over three decades. If you include his time as an assistant coach he pushes four decades. It's at this point that you recognize that Sloan is no longer a man, but an institution himself.

That's the Sloan I had firsthand experience with.  From watching him on TV during games, he appeared as an animal. He was almost frothing at the mouth during the most heated parts of the game, as a 60 year old. His competitive fire was such that he left it all out on the floor during games, even as a coach. So much so that it was normal for him to pick up technical fouls; but that was just part of the game. He could influence the refs through his sideline behavior. He made a positive difference on the court, without even stepping onto it. Of course, his coaching pedigree and smart selection of assistants have made him successful with the Xs and Os and in particular the remixed version of the Dick Motta offense he ran. But for me it was all about his passion for the game. He made a difference, and was absolutely spent after.

His post game interviews were completely different. He was almost placid, deflected praise, took all the blame, and never made excuses. The raging fire was now a controlled pilot light. He was still hot after some games that didn't go the way he thought they should have gone, but he was also willing to give credit to the opposing team, players, and coaching staff. Once again, the humble, simple, farmboy; it was impossible for him to manipulate situations off the court to his advantage. He never did the slick things that Phil Jackson did by playing the media or playing the league by suggesting ways to better regulate future games in his favor. Phil was great at deflecting blame and making excuses though. And picking and choosing which teams he would actually coach.

Jerry was a much simpler animal. He was grateful that he even got to go to school, let alone was able to play basketball for so many years. He was always able to dodge some real-life bullets, while those close to him had to make increasingly large sacrifices. I think that helped to keep him grounded. From the real brush with death as the college team he agreed to coach all died in an airline crash that he barely avoided, to the passing of his high school sweetheart wife to Pancreatic cancer, Sloan was always close enough to real life that he never got his head stuck in the clouds. He knew this was a game. People he grew up with were going off to fight in the Vietnam War. And he didn't have to, because he was trying to d-up Oscar Robertson and Hal Greer in All-Star games. He didn't feel entitled or felt like he was above reproach because he played basketball. He felt obligated to do his job. There was no difference between lacing it up to battle in the 60s and 70s version of murder ball to getting ready to coach a Keith McLeod, Kirk Synder, Matt Harpring, Carlos Boozer, Aleksandar Radojevic starting lineup in a 26 win season.

As Sloan mellowed he allowed more people to see his wit and were all enthralled by his stories and jokes. At the 1996 Olympics he was the ‘bad cop' who kept Dream Team III in line, but at the 2009 Hall of Fame ceremonies and meet and greets he was the guy everyone not on Michael Jordan's jock strap wanted to hang out with. Of course, Sloan's effervescent personality wasn't a secret to those who knew him best - the local media people in Utah who got to talk to him almost every day for over two decades.

I got to see this omega point Jerry Sloan last year, in his old stomping grounds of Chicago. The Original Bull, and former Chicago Bulls head coach, Jerry Sloan had returned to the public world from his self-imposed exile after retiring a few seasons ago. Mychal and I were sent by SB Nation to cover the NBA Draft combine. And we were the two who initially broke the story that Jerry Sloan was coming back to the Utah Jazz - he had just that day said no to the Milwaukee Bucks and was constantly flanked by a group of Jazz retainers.

Eventually as the first morning broke down he began to hold court. He was there to work, and not there for a social call, but more and more he had to give himself to the vast THRONG of people who wanted to talk to him. And Jerry talked with everyone who waited to see him. It didn't matter what color your badge was, whether you were a part of the NBA head office, a front office executive for another team, a GM, a coach, a former player, media, or any combination of the above, he talked to you.

He talked to me.

And it was the most surreal thing ever.

It was my first NBA event that I covered as credentialed media, and Jerry really blew my mind. Over a hundred different NBA people of actual importance came to talk to him on that first day, and in the morning before things started I was the last guy in line. He didn't mind, even though I'm sure he felt like the attention was unwarranted - after all, we were all here to see these college guys play, not talk to him. He was super pleasant as countless people came over to ‘kiss the ring', from big names like Rod Thorn (who came over to sit next to him), or other Hall of Famers like Bob Lanier.

By the time I got up the courage to approach him, minutes after he had noticed me being awkward in the corner, I had no idea what I was doing. Somehow he still managed to meaningfully communicate with me. We talked about his former coaches, his former players, the teams he played for, the teams he coached, Larry H. Miller, the Layden family, and more. It was a one on one conversation with a guy I had spent most of my life watching from afar on TV.

The angry guy who had forced his own players to intervene, and hold him back as he swore at opponents (including the game officials) during on court altercations was smiling, and patient, and joking around with me. He also went out of his way to inform me that all of his success as a coach were only possible because of his players and the support he got from Larry. He had no reason to say all that, but he did. Because that's the guy Jerry Sloan was.

Well, 1223 wins with the Utah Jazz later, I think you could say that some of the credit goes to Jerry. At least the important people in the Jazz organization think so. As a fan/media guy, I think so too. His loyalty to this organization knows no limits, despite the reality of how he left it a few seasons ago. He is loved here for his dedication to his job. No one fought harder for his players. He never threw them under the bus after a loss, or hinted that the flaws in his playbook were a product of the type of players he had to work with. While he was harder on rookies, and brought along younger players at a slower rate, he did make sure that they were getting chances. Guys like Paul Millsap, Wesley Matthews, and Shandon Anderson were all examples of second round or undrafted picks who got playing time under him as rookies. He was just as hard on veterans who came to him. He would yell at Karl Malone in practice, even after Karl had two MVP awards. And he used to deny Kyrylo Fesenko water after practice if he didn't work hard enough. He was a hard guy. But that's because life was hard, real life, and if these people were as lucky as he was -- to play a game instead of having a real job -- they were still all going to work for it as hard and honestly as he did. And he made them work every day. On a sliding scale he was mostly fair. However, during the games, the players had no greater ally than their coach.

We are prone to call Phil Jackson the ‘Zen master' (reality: he read ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance', which is a book written by a non-Buddhist, he has no actual training in Buddhist discipline), and we know that here's nothing MORE Zen than holding out for $10+ million a year and writing a tell-all book about a team and making money from it. Jackson is a jackass. He constantly ran away from adversity, he only coaches teams that have two of the top 15 players on it. He's an opportunist. He didn't even understand the triangle offense, that was Tex Winter's baby. Sloan embraced adversity, and was a part of two rebuilds, a stark contrast to coaching a team to the NBA Finals twice. His moniker in Eastern religions would have to be Dharmaraj. He was the Lord of Duty. He worked every day of his life, and put in an honest day's work. He yelled at stars and scrubs alike. He coached good teams and bad teams. And he addressed Hall of Famers, friends he had known for decades, and unknown Indian dudes he had never met, with the same openness, generosity, and candor.

Today is Jerry Sloan day in the State of Utah. But from now on till the end of time, every game played in the EnergySolutions Arena will be blessed to have Sloan's holy number #1223 up in the rafters. It's Larry H. Miller's court, and high above it, it is Jerry Sloan's sky. The man who was grounded in action will forever live above us. Finally he will not be able to protest being put on a pedestal, as all players, coaches, and executives will have to look up to gaze upon his holy number.

That's where he deserves to be.

Happy Jerry Sloan Day, everyone.