SALT LAKE CITY — In Jerry Sloan’s mind, he always was the kid from McLeansboro, Illinois. The farm boy who grew up the youngest of 10 children, who — as he saw it — lucked into being able to play basketball because all of his older siblings were back home doing the work.
He didn’t think of himself as a basketball star, despite reaching two All-Star games. He didn’t think of himself as a coach that helped change the NBA, despite just about every modern team building an offense around his famous pick-and-roll. Heck, he didn’t think he’d last 20 days on the job, let alone be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
All in all, Sloan thought of himself as simply lucky — lucky about the path that basketball had taken him on; lucky for the organization he got to spend three decades with; lucky for all the players he got to coach throughout his long career; lucky for all the people and fans that stood in his corner.
“From my beginning in McLeansboro, the game of basketball has introduced me to opportunities and life experiences I never dreamed,” Sloan said during his Hall of Fame speech in 2009.
Jerry Sloan never really saw his own greatness; millions of others did.
Sloan passed away Friday at the age of 78, after fighting Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
"He has left an enduring legacy with this franchise and our family," a statement from the Miller family, who owns the Jazz, said Friday. "The far-reaching impact of his life has touched our city, state and the world as well as countless players, staff and fans. We pray his family will find solace and comfort in Jerry’s life. The Miller family and Jazz organization will be proud to honor him with a permanent tribute.”
On Dec. 9, 1988, Jazz coach Frank Layden unexpectedly stepped away from coaching, citing that he simply had grown tired of it. It might have been a strange way to get a job, but Sloan was pegged as the replacement.
He coached his first game that night. For over 22 years, he kept on coaching.
Sloan did it in a way that San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich described as “consistency, mental toughness, no spin on anything. Just honesty. Fantastic.”
In a business where change is common, Sloan was the exception. He coached the Jazz for 23 seasons, making the playoffs in his first 15 years in Utah and taking the team to the NBA Finals twice. He turned players into All-Stars and Hall of Famers and found success in different eras of the NBA.
He won 1,223 games during his career and won 50 or more contests 13 times.
Images of Sloan are sketched into people’s minds up and down the Wasatch Front. Him wearing his customary John Deere hat. His fingers shaped in a “C” calling for one of the Jazz’s patented pick-and-roll sets. His hands clapping, a sign of encouragement and a gesture for the team to keep moving forward. His arms raised above his head as he ran to celebrate with John Stockton and Karl Malone.
And, of course, the warm smile from the man who was seen as so stern and so fierce.
He was a ferocious competitor, but one that made it about the people first. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, he talked about his accolades not by listing all the things that he had done, but by naming the people that helped him get there. Everyone from his family, to his high school coaches, to his first NBA teammates, to some guys named Malone and Stockton.
Sloan left a mark just about everywhere he went. He starred at Evansville before reaching the NBA — and the school offered him a head coaching gig after his playing career. He was part of the expansion Bulls, where he got the moniker of the “Original Bull” and was the first player to have his number retired by the organization. And once he got to the Jazz, he was able to stay as long as he liked.
As fierce as he was, the thought of Sloan as a young college kid that left the University of Illinois after five weeks because he felt homesick seems like a fantasy. That couldn’t have been Jerry — the man that talked about ice pick fights after games. It didn’t fit the narrative, but it was key to his story.
Sloan made the Sloan we all remember: The player, and later coach, that was one of the toughest guys in the league.
After leaving Illinois, he went home and worked in the oil fields — something he described as “tough work.” One day, though, his mother asked him what he was going to do for the rest of his life. That prompted a call to Evansville College coach Arad McCutcheon and later an All-American collegiate career.
At Evansville, the 6-foot-5 guard was also the tallest player on the team and therefore was tasked to guard and to outrebound the opposing teams’ forwards and centers. That was all fine by him. He got to compete for the ball and competition was what ended up being one of the things that defined him.
“I've always said that the most important thing in sports is to keep trying,” Sloan said when the Jazz reached the Finals for the first time. “Let this be an example of what it means to say it’s never over.”
He was talking about his players, but he may as well have been describing his life.
After getting drafted into the NBA in 1966, this small-town kid had to go up against Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. That meant scrapping, clawing and hitting the floor. He couldn’t back down — and he never did.
That’s how Sloan became a fan favorite in Chicago. He was a two-time All-Star and a four-time member of the all-defensive team. And after a career that was cut short by knee injuries, the Original Bull’s No. 4 was retired.
In 1977, a year after he retired from playing, Sloan accepted the job as the Evansville coach. But before he could even coach a single practice, he had a change of heart and resigned. Later that year, the plane carrying the Evansville team crashed and no one survived.
“That incident on December 13, 1977, made me realize that there are a lot more things more important than basketball,” Sloan said during his Hall of Fame speech.
Things like his high school sweetheart, Bobbye, who he was married to for 41 years until cancer took her away, and later, his wife Tammy, who stood by him and supported him during his final days. And all the other people, from players to owners to assistants to fans that he has come in contact with along the way.
It was that type of attitude that made Sloan more than just a coach for many in Utah. He was their coach. He was the Jazz. In 1984, he was hired by Layden as an assistant. Four years later, he took over the job that would end up defining him — and a job that would help define a team, an organization, and even a state.
The same toughness Sloan demanded from himself, he demanded of his players. They loved him for it.
“I just miss him," John Stockton said in 2014 when the Jazz honored Sloan by hanging a banner. "To walk on the bus every day and have him sitting on the front seat and give you a nod, knowing you are going back to work again today. Or seeing him in the gym or the arena, getting to have a chance to talk in the hotel afterward, those are things you can’t replace.”
In 2011, a somber Sloan leaned toward the microphone. After over 22 years of being head coach, after winning the third-most games of any coach (he is now in fourth), he had decided to step down.
"I had a feeling this time was the time to move on," an emotional Sloan said. "Twenty-six years is a long time to be in one organization. I've been blessed. Today is a new day. When I get this over with, I'll feel better. My time is up and it's time to move on."
Another new day has come. For many, it’ll take a little more time to feel better. It’ll take time to realize he’ll never make his way to his usual Row 11 seat at Vivint Arena. Or that he’ll never greet adoring fans with a sweet smile and a handshake.
But Sloan would likely have some advice on how to cope.
"I haven't heard anyone say it's going to be easy," Sloan told KSL when he went public about the diseases that would ultimately end his life, "so just take your lumps and go on."
Last winter, a member of the Golden State Warriors jogged out to the court for his pregame routine.
His focused gaze suddenly broke and he stopped to look back at the man he had just passed.
“Is that Jerry Sloan?” he asked a group of reporters assembled nearby.
As they nodded, the player once again turned back, almost longingly, as the beloved former Utah Jazz coach made his way slowly through the tunnels of the arena where he coached for decades; the place where he became a legend.
The player resumed his jog again as four words left his mouth.
“Man, he was great.”