Only a handful of coaches in any sport at any level gets to walk away from the job on his own terms. Strictly speaking, Jerry Sloan took that walk Thursday afternoon afternoon, and strictly speaking, he was entitled to that after devoting 45 years of his life to the NBA, and the last 23 to coaching the Utah Jazz.
In reality, he deserved to go out better than that, as the target of a palace coup. And now, because of that, the target is on the back of Deron Williams.
Does Williams now become Magic Johnson, or does he just become the public's latest example of a player deluded about his own entitlements, who wins a battle of wills with a Hall of Fame coach but still loses the war?
Magic, of course, was spectacularly and historically right about pulling rank on Paul Westhead 30 years ago. It opened the door for Pat Riley, Showtime, four more Lakers NBA championships to go with the one under Westhead's leadership, and a reputation that obliterated the one he'd acquired after leading the overturn of the former coach.
But Paul Westhead, with all due respect, was not Jerry Sloan, that one ring notwithstanding. And Deron Williams, so far, isn't on the cusp of becoming Magic Johnson.
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He's not even John Stockton, although he should be closer to being him than he is at this point. Williams was supposed to be this generation's Stockton for Sloan and the Jazz, and the basketball world readily accepted his imitation and was patiently awaiting whom Sloan and the front office would provide to be the new Karl Malone. Williams was getting there; let's not lose sight of that as he takes the brunt of this and, as he already has been, gets tagged with the usual selfish-greedy-spoiled-ballplayer bad-mouthing that the lazy among us toss around so carelessly.
Malone and Stockton, of course, are also in Springfield with Sloan. They had their volatile moments, at least The Mailman did -- his annual outbursts about contracts, roles and respect fade into obscurity as time passes -- but they all kept their partnership intact for as long as possible, found common ground, discovered foundations of trust, and made history of their own.
That's why, when Sloan was asked Thursday if a conflict with a player -- and no one named Williams as a culprit, but he was the elephant in the press conference -- was the reason he was walking away, he answered in his trademark curtness: "I've had confrontations with players since I've been in the league. But,'' he continued, softening slightly, "those things were minor in terms of trying to go forward. And that's how it is.''
As he sat and spoke at the podium in Salt Lake City Thursday, Sloan looked and sounded like he was every day of 68, like a man who had had enough, and not just for the immediate reasons floating about. Again, he had earned the option of leaving when he wanted to, and he sure sounded like he wanted to. But all the other evidence pointed to the idea that he didn't want to on this day, with this nudge (even though Jazz CEO Greg Miller, the son of the late owner Larry Miller, insisted that "nobody pushed him out'').
Williams, as well, surely has the right, even the obligation, to follow his own path, rather than his Hall of Fame predecessors. But if Sloan and his way of doing things was good enough for Karl Malone and John Stockton, it ought to have been good enough for him.
It was worth trying to make it work longer, that's for sure, rather than disrupting the season, driving a one-of-a-kind coach prematurely into retirement, and putting your own image at severe risk. It's one thing to be labeled a coach-killer -- ask Magic, because that's exactly what many were calling him after Westhead was expelled -- but to be labeled the coach-killer of Jerry Sloan?
And yes, to be clear to anyone scoffing at the relic on stage, who became the Jazz head coach three months before Blake Griffin was born -- this wasn't about these young punks today who don't want to listen to some old-school codger preaching about discipline and sacrifice and pounding the ol' pick-and-roll down everybody's throat in this YouTube and Twitter age.
Sloan's coaching career may date back to the short-shorts days and intersect with the peaks of, yes, Magic and Michael and Larry, but to this day, hardly anyone in the league -- player, coach, scout, executive or otherwise -- had less than the utmost respect for Sloan and the way he performed his job.
Keeping the Jazz relevant and successful as the years stretched beyond Malone, Stockton and the 1997 and '98 NBA Finals was no trick. Sloan didn't change. He didn't get the players to change. He just got them to grasp why what he was giving them was worth taking, and that what he gave transcended the generations, from Red Auerbach on through the decades.
As commissioner David Stern put it in his farewell statement about Sloan, "His most impressive qualities were his leadership and his extraordinary ability to encourage his players to subjugate their individual games for the benefit of the whole.'' Believe it or not, there are scores of players, then and now, who get that, despite the ugly stereotypes NBA players are routinely subjected to. Many of those players have come through Salt Lake City and played for Sloan, and have come out the other side better for it, with a lot of wins and without a cross word to say about him and his supposedly antiquated style.
The same goes for Phil Jackson's teams, and Pat Riley's, and Gregg Popovich's -- and none of them are coaching copycats of each other, much less of Sloan. But they all got their players to buy into the most basic and traditional values of the sport. And they're the coaches who kept winding up in the playoffs and the Finals. Anyone in the NBA with a brain understood that.
Deron Williams has a brain, and uses it well on the court. It just appears that, in this instance, he let some other part of him guide him. The odds are that as accomplished as he is now, he'll wish someday that he'd made amends with Sloan and allowed them both to go out on the high note they both deserve.
The only way he'll escape that is if his career takes the Magic Johnson-Pat Riley track. That would make him one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
And the luckiest.
Watch Jerry Sloan's press conference: