Sloan Reflects as Career Enters Twilight
"[The series] was 2-2 and going back to Salt Lake,'' said Charlotte coach Larry Brown, then coach of the Clippers. "Before the game, Jerry told me, if he loses, he might not be the coach next year.
"That was 18 years ago.''
We'll never know what might have happened had the Jazz lost. Utah won 98-89 to take the series. The Jazz went on to defeat Seattle 4-1 in the second round before losing to Portland 4-2 in the Western Conference finals. By then, Sloan's job was secure.
Flash forward a generation and it's still secure. Sloan, 67, is entering his 22nd season with the Jazz, something unheard of these days in pro sports.
The next longest-tenured boss is baseball manager Bobby Cox. But Cox, 68, who just completed his 20th season with the Atlanta Braves, already has announced 2010 will be his finale.
In the NFL, the iron man is Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, in his 16th Titans season. But Fisher is not helping his longevity prospects with his team's 0-6 start, the latest defeat a 59-0 humiliation Sunday at New England.
But Sloan will be the one who decides when he steps down.
"I don't know how long I'll coach,'' Sloan said in an interview with FanHouse. "I had to get my knee replaced this summer. I may wake up tomorrow, and say, 'This is it.'"
That's a bit of an exaggeration. But Sloan, whose contract expires next summer, offered no guarantees he'll coach beyond this season.
"I don't know,'' said Sloan, who in the past has regularly not been willing to commit to long-term plans. "I haven't gotten through this year. ... If I'm not healthy or something, I'll get out of it. ... I don't want to hold [the Jazz] up and put them if a tough situation. If they want to change, go ahead and change.''
The only thing that has changed lately is Sloan officially becoming a living legend. Sloan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month, joining Brown and the Lakers' Phil Jackson as active NBA coaches enshrined in Springfield, Mass.
When Sloan was named to the Hall last April, the Jazz made an announcement before a game. But you better believe that, unlike the Lakers, who regularly introduce "Hall of Famer Phil Jackson,'' there will be no such routine announcements at EnergySolutions Arena.
If there were, the modest Sloan might unplug the microphone himself.
"He feels it's a team game and, while individuals have to be singled out obviously, he feels that, if you win, everybody gets rewarded,'' said Kevin O'Connor, who has been Utah's general manager since 1999. "I think he appreciates [being a Hall of Famer], but that's not something he strived for. He strived to be a basketball coach and coach the game of basketball.''
It was O'Connor who got the Hall ball rolling when he wrote a letter of nomination for Sloan. But Sloan initially didn't want O'Connor to do it.
"I was reluctant at the beginning, but then I talked to my kids and they said to go ahead and do it,'' Sloan said of his three children, ages 40 to 45, that he had with Bobbye Sloan, his wife of 41 years who died of cancer in 2004. Sloan married his wife, Tammy, in Sept. 2006.
Once he learned of his enshrinement, Sloan prepared for his induction speech as meticulously as he would for a playoff game. But don't think Sloan, who isn't just old school, but rather one-room schoolhouse old, took to the computer.
"I can't even write my name [on the computer],'' he said. "But my wife was able to [write the speech on a computer with notes provided by Sloan] ... As soon as I knew I was going to be inducted, I started writing things down from over my career. I just tried to say who I was about.''
Sloan mostly read from his prepared speech. He talked about some of the tragedies in his life, including the death of Bobbye and of longtime Jazz owner Larry Miller last February from diabetes complications.
"I don't like to do [speeches about himself],'' said Sloan, who said he was ready to "quit in a second'' when Bobbye got "very sick,'' but she urged him to continue. "I just get too emotional about it. I've got a lot of emotional things that have happened to me in my lifetime. It kind of brings that back. ... I was less comfortable, and a little bit intimidated by it.''
O'Connor said "the most nervous I've ever seen'' Sloan was "before he gave his speech.'' But overall Sloan said the Sept. 11-13 weekend in Springfield was quite memorable.
"My college coach is in the Hall of Fame [Evansville's late Arad McCutchan],'' Sloan said. "He won five small-college championships. He was a great coach and a great man, so I was really excited to see the stuff he had among the other people in the Hall of Fame. So that was exciting. I would love to go back sometime with just [Sloan's family], and spend some time [at the Hall]. It was kind of overwhelming.
"It's kind of strange [getting all the praise for being a Hall of Famer]. I don't feel comfortable. ... It hasn't been about me, It's been about the opportunity to be involved with basketball and the players and things like that.''
Two weeks after the induction, though, Sloan was back to where he really feels comfortable: coaching a Jazz practice.
It would be extreme to say the fiery Sloan has mellowed. But some Jazz players have noticed a bit of a change in him since he has become a Hall of Famer, an enshrinement called "way overdue'' by Brown.
"I think he [mostly] hates [being regularly praised as a Hall of Famer], but (in) a little piece of his mind, he enjoyed it,'' said forward Andrei Kirilenko, who has been with the Jazz since 2001. "Not softer, but he's a little different. He's a little bit lighter off the court. I think he's more relaxed. He's more talking with the players in front of them instead of just, 'Let's get ready.' "
Sloan's players have congratulated him plenty on his Hall of Fame induction. He mostly clenches his teeth.
"He doesn't want anybody to pat him on the back,'' said forward Carlos Boozer, who has been with Utah since 2004. "He just likes to go about his business and do it quietly and be unnoticed. ... Coach doesn't like that, but [players have congratulated him on his induction].''
Sloan admits to some change as a coach over the years. He said he longer tries to "be involved with everything that happens,'' delegating more to his assistants.
Of course, Sloan's top aide, Phil Johnson, is hardly a typical assistant. He had been an NBA head coach for all or part of nine seasons and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1974-75, an award Sloan amazingly never has won.
Sloan, despite a career coaching mark of 1,137-751, also has never won an NBA title, losing in the Finals to Chicago in 1997 and 1998. He insists his hunger to win the final playoff game of the season hasn't diminished, but doesn't believe there will be something significant missing if he retires without a ring.
"I don't think I've ever lost that desire, but I always realize that a lot of guys don't get an opportunity to [win a title],'' said Sloan, who was a gritty NBA guard from 1965-76, primarily with the Bulls, and coached Chicago from 1979-82. "It hasn't happened to me. But I don't think it takes away any of my desire to do the best you can in whatever you're doing.
"Some people won a championship and never played. But that's fine. I don't hold that against them.''
It's doubtful anybody will hold anything against Sloan if he never wins a title. Perhaps his biggest win came 17 1/2 years ago in the first round of the playoffs.
If you ask Brown, it led to a lifetime contract.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org