SALT LAKE CITY — Trying to describe a legend in the printed version is virtually impossible and doomed to inadequacy on every level.
This brings us to Jerry Sloan, the very definition of the often-overstated word known as legend. In however the word is measured, in every possibility, the longtime Jazz coach had it in spades.
The man died Friday morning, his body ravaged due to complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. The life he led and the memories he left live on forever, never to be forgotten.
“I don’t compare him to anyone because he was unique,” said Phil Johnson, Sloan’s top assistant all those years on the Jazz bench.
Unique beyond comparison, as Johnson put it, is an accurate description. Nobody before, nobody after.
All of his basketball accomplishments are etched in stone for eternity. There is no argument that he is one of the NBA’s greatest coaches, as his 1,223 wins amplify.
He was the fifth coach in history to reach 1,000 wins and one of two coaches to reach the plateau with the same team. After playing one season with the Baltimore Bullets, he was traded to the new Chicago Bulls team in his home state of Illinois.
Sloan became known as the “Original Bull,” eventually having his jersey retired by the franchise. From Sloan to Michael Jordan, the link of competitive toughness is unmistakable.
Don’t you see the irony here? The man who never took any bull as a coach or player became to be known as the Original Bull.
Rather than focus on the basketball side, I prefer to share a few memories that go far beyond any X or O on a chalkboard. The tough-guy persona is only part of this man.
The tractor-driving, John Deere-hat-wearing coach had the proverbial soft. As much of a celebrity as he was, Sloan was at essence a common man.
Get a load of this — a Hall-of-Fame coach, a multiple All-Star player, just like you and me. Believe it.
“He was a real guy,” said former Jazz center Mark Eaton, who played for Sloan. “He was the kind of guy who you could say, ‘Coach, I’m building a fence post today.’ And he would say, ‘Oh sure, I’ll be there.’ “
I’ve seen it first hand over the years. In a stroke of good fortune, I went on trips to Mexico with Sloan, Johnson and their spouses as part of a beach-bash vacation the Jazz put together with fans.
Considerate of his statue, the trip organizers housed him in a hotel wing away from the group. But it was nothing he ever would have insisted. He was fine bunking next door to the rest of us.
Sloan mingled freely with the assembled crowd the entire time of each trip. The big-shot was approachable, willing to engage in conversation, however tedious it may have been.
“He was very open to talk to everyone,” said Johnson. “He was very considerate of other people. He definitely had a soft side.”
Beyond a doubt, the media loved him. In fact, in a rarity, the love affair the media had with him matches the same affection that former players and fans had for the coach.
All of us desire consistency, another in a long line of excellent qualities that Sloan possessed. Day to day, he was the same.
“What I loved about coach was just his consistency, his commitment to doing what’s right,” Eaton said. “Great coaches have simple executable philosophies. That’s what he was.”
It’s part of the reason why tributes to this man have flowed in. All those with any association to Sloan respected him.
Even Deron Williams, whose noted conflict with his coach helped prompt Sloan’s surprise resignation a decade ago, reconciled their relationship. Eventually, we see the correct principles in life lead to success.
“He lived a good life,” Johnson said.
Now, after 78 years, the time has come to say goodbye. So long, legend.