Deseret News - Thanks for the memories, Coach Sloan

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  1. Jody Genessy

    Jody Genessy Guest

    [​IMG] A sign honoring former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan appears outside Vivint Arena in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, May 22, 2020, after Sloan died at age 78. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — A few mornings before he shocked the sports world by resigning during the middle of the 2010-11 season, Jerry Sloan stood on the Sacramento Kings’ court and told a small group of reporters how to defend the pick-and-roll.

    One problem players had, Sloan explained, is that they lock their knees and get lost in screens. The animated Utah Jazz coach then threw out his long arms to show how to fight through picks. My right arm was unfortunate to be in the path of his strong, extending arm.

    Smack!

    My digital recorder shot out of my hand, hit the hardwood floor and exploded into several pieces. Without skipping a beat, Sloan continued his defensive lesson. After reassembling the small device — similar to one he’d once jokingly asked me if it was a cigarette lighter — I returned to the media huddle.

    “My knees locked up,” I told him.

    Sloan responded, “If I broke that (bleeping) thing, I’ll buy you a new one.” He didn’t say (bleeping), by the way. Later that night, Sloan teased that I should keep a safe distance during interviews. I joked back, “I’m just thankful you weren’t showing us how to take a charge.”

    What I wouldn’t do to have another opportunity to keep a safe distance while interviewing the legendary man who meant so much to so many in Utah, Illinois and elsewhere around the sports world.


    News of Sloan’s death Friday morning brought mixed emotions — from sadness for his mourning family, fans and friends, including John Stockton and Karl Malone; to relief that he’s no longer embroiled in an awful and debilitating battle against Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia; and, thankfully, to sweet memories of the way he handled successes and struggles, his sense of humor, his passion for hard work, and all of the personal stories and tributes being shared about a Hall of Fame coach, player and person.

    “You can’t put into words his impact on my life,” Stockton once said.

    The Hall of Fame point guard isn’t the only one who feels that way.


    In retrospect, it’s heartwarming to think about the devoted friendship between Sloan and his longtime right-hand man, Phil Johnson. Sloan’s relationships with Frank Layden and the late Larry H. Miller were also built on loyalty. But Sloan and Johnson were always together — in the pressroom eating meals before games (a truly unique situation), on the road while traveling, on the bench for more than two decades and on the dais after their simultaneous retirement (even though Johnson could’ve been his successor).


    A coach teaches.

    Inspires.

    Gives all of himself in pursuit of something greater. pic.twitter.com/FWOf9Jcm8s

    — utahjazz (@utahjazz) May 22, 2020

    Fittingly, Johnson and Sloan were inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011 together. On the night of their ceremony, Johnson jokingly expressed concern during a photo shoot when Sloan was positioned next to ex-NFL referee Doug Toole. Johnson, who often leaped between Sloan and referees to prevent technical fouls, loved to point out that he finished more games than Sloan over the years.

    “I hate to see him stand that close to an official,” Johnson said.

    “He’ll be all right,” Sloan promised.

    It was the first time Sloan had visited the arena since his departure nine months earlier, but for that magical moment all seemed right again at the old Delta Center where his Jazz teams had played in two NBA Finals and won so many games.

    One of my favorite Sloan stories from the arena involves another big fan — the late Thomas S. Monson, who often attended Jazz games when he was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    In March 2008, the affable President Monson briefly stopped en route to his third-row seat as the Jazz huddled during a timeout. He greeted players, smiling and pointing at them. He gave the coach a friendly salutation. Carlos Boozer thought it was “cool” after being told who President Monson was. “He tapped Jerry on the shoulder and it was like, ‘Good job, coach. You’re the best,’” Boozer recalled. “And Jerry was like, ‘Who was that?”’ Sloan, who’d never met President Monson, also felt much better after he found out. All the better that the Jazz proceeded to go on a 27-11 run and beat the Clippers 121-101.

    There were times when Sloan didn’t hesitate to let someone know if he didn’t approve of their actions. Even reporters. Leading up to the beginning of his final season, I asked if he might toy around with his starting lineup. His glare melted my soul. “Toy? This is a job. I don’t toy.”

    Another time, Sloan bristled at me for a question about a struggling player. That didn’t go over well. He could be as protective as a mother hen about his players at times (ask Dennis Rodman, Chris Webber, Jerry Stackhouse, Kenyon Martin, etc.) “Are you always perfect?” he sternly asked, gazing at me while cameras and recorders rolled. “Have you ever had a bad day?” (The answers: “Far from it” and “This particular one is getting worse by the minute.”)


    I might just watch this on loop for the rest of the day. https://t.co/gmOkOPRQ38

    — Jody Genessy (@DJJazzyJody) May 22, 2020

    The vast majority of our interactions were professional, cordial and friendly. A career highlight was being in Springfield, Massachusetts, when he was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Stockton and Michael Jordan. He was humble about the accomplishment, saying he wished he was still Frank Layden’s assistant and deferring credit to Stockton and Malone.

    “I don’t think I really coached them,” he said. “I just kind of watched them play and got a good seat every night.”

    Though I only covered him on the Jazz beat for 21⁄2 years, Sloan shook my hand and warmly greeted me as a friend when he visited the practice facility years later. He noticed that I’d lost a bunch of weight.

    “You feel good?” he asked.

    “Even better than I look,” I joked.

    “Well,” he replied, “you look pretty damn good!”

    Every time he saw me after that when he’d attend Jazz games in his latter years, Sloan would extend his huge right hand, compliment me and wish me well.

    After he married Tammy Jessop in 2006 — following the death of his wife, Bobbye, in 2004 — Sloan lived in my town for a while. I’ll never forget driving by his home on one of the main streets and see him walking his toy-sized dogs (don’t tell him I called them toys), shoveling his driveway after a snowstorm and driving around a big ol’ clunker of a white van like he was any other person in the community and not one of the most famous coaches in the world. That’s just who he was.

    My wife at the time suggested that we should bake some cookies to welcome him. I laughed off the idea. I didn’t want him to think I was being unprofessional. Years later, I told him the story. He laughed and gave me a hard time for not letting her bring him some cookies.

    Sloan’s dry wit is as legendary as his fierce competitiveness, his famous courtside vocabulary, his preference for the pick-and-roll and his love for John Deere tractors. (Who will ever forget Sloan sporting baseball caps with the famous deer logo? Not John Deere. The company retweeted a heartfelt post on Twitter by the Jazz on Friday with an almost perfect tribute message: “Hats off to you, Coach.”)


    Hats off to you, Coach https://t.co/rmJbyzXFly

    — John Deere (@JohnDeere) May 22, 2020

    When I showed up to practice for an interview with pants that had holes in the knees, Sloan glanced at my outfit and asked if I was going to do yard work. (Who knows? Ever a farmer, he might have helped if I’d said yes.) For a story about the flamboyantly dressed Craig Sager, Sloan mused to me about the sports reporter’s clothes, “It’s easy to see him.” When asked about Jeff Hornacek’s coaching in Phoenix, Sloan defended his former player. “It’s hard to win the Kentucky Derby unless you have some thoroughbreds.”


    After a reporter dropped his pen in the garbage can Sloan always conducted his shootaround interviews next to outside of the locker room, the coach joked about the reason he always conducted his interviews next to the same trash receptacle.

    “You never know when you’re going to end up in the garbage,” he said.

    The line he delivered about the Jazz honoring his career in 2014 by raising a banner with the number 1,223 was classic Sloan. “I thought that’s how many technical fouls I had.” (It represents the number of his Jazz Ws, not Ts.)

    Other Sloanisms included quotes about “not jackpotting around,” not playing in tuxedos, resolving problems by using ice picks in the parking lot and not in the locker room, downplaying a notable streak of comeback victories by claiming, “That’ll get you a toothpick and a glass of water” but nothing else, informing players “they can feed their family a lot easier playing (basketball) than playing bingo” as preseason motivation, and publicly encouraging then-19-year-old C.J. Miles to play harder because, “We can’t put diapers on him one night and a jockstrap the next night.”

    The thing you have to admire about Sloan is that he said what he felt and felt what he said — to everybody. He was genuine. The Original Bull took no bull. He was blunt and grumpy, equally salty and soft at heart, folksy and funny — and sometimes all in one answer in an interview. There certainly wasn’t a P.R. spin machine between his mind and his mouth.

    The day after Sloan called it quits was truly bizarre. He was no longer the Jazz’s coach. That hadn’t been the case since before the Berlin Wall fell. The NBA had gone through 245 coaching changes over his career in Utah. The 246th change was a shocker. It would’ve been no less strange to roll out of bed and see that the Wasatch Front mountains had disappeared overnight.

    “I never gave an awful lot of thought to retirement,” Sloan told me later on. “I guess I thought I was going to work forever.”

    We sure hoped so. Nobody was prepared for your retirement, Coach.

    And we’re definitely not ready for this.

    The basketball gym in the sky got one of the great ones. Good luck to whichever angel gets assigned to tell him there’s no swearing in heaven.


    Thanks for the (bleeping) memories, Coach Sloan.

    Posted by Jody Genessy on Friday, May 22, 2020

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