End Of An Era

February 10

More than 2,500 NBA coaching wins have left the stage in the last year. Don Nelson and Jerry Sloan have likely coached their final games. Which coach do you think will be remembered as the best ?

To me, the answer is easy. Jerry Sloan was not only a better coach than Nelson, but one of the greatest NBA coaches ever.

I was covering the Jazz in Salt Lake City when Sloan arrived as a scout, then rose to assistant coach and head coach. He had no soft edges, but I remember doing a very poignant interview with Sloan when he discussed the 1977 plane crash that killed members of the Evansville University basketball team.

Sloan almost broke down on the air in talking about the kids from his alma mater. He remembered his roots at Evansville, and clearly, he never forgot them. He was “old school” before people used the term.

The Sloan I knew briefly in the 80’s was the same Sloan who shockingly called it quits on Thursday: no nonsense, all about team, and a basketball lifer. He was the longest-tenured coach in North American pro sports history, winning more than 1,200 games with the same team.

Sloan always got the most out of his roster. The Jazz never beat themselves. They were the most efficient offensive team around, and it was the same system from the days of Stockton and Malone to the days of Williams and Boozer. They were clearly a reflection of their coach.

What happened here ? They stopped being a reflection of their coach.

Theories will abound the next couple of days, the most popular concerning a rift with star guard Deron Williams. There is no question they had their disagreements over the years, but it probably went deeper than that.

It had to. A coach of Sloan’s makeup and caliber doesn’t up and quit in the middle of the season without good reason. Especially right after signing a contract extension.

Both Sloan and Williams deny a spat between the two was to blame. That’s what they’re saying publicly. They might be right. It might not have just been one player.

It might have been a culture clash that Sloan couldn’t abide any longer. Sloan is the type of guy who doesn’t put up with any mess if he thinks it detracts from the team concept. Maybe he figured he couldn’t get through to his star player, or any other player. ‘

The Jazz lost some key players in the offseason but the new group apparently didn’t jell with Sloan’s system. Sloan might have also grown weary, knowing his team was farther away from a championship than it had been in years. A limp effort against the Warriors last week was yet another clue.

More than all of that, Sloan couldn’t work without the backing of management. Jazz brass might have decided it was better for the coach to leave than the star player.

It’s happened before in the NBA — in fact it has happened in Salt Lake City. That’s where Magic Johnson had his blowup with Paul Westhead that hastened Westhead’s departure in favor of Pat Riley.

How will this latest episode be received in Salt Lake ? When you hang around somewhere 23 years you’re going to wear out your welcome with some people, and clearly some fans wanted him out. However, if I had to guess, most fans will miss Sloan dearly.

While Williams’ role in Sloan’s departure is up for debate, some Jazz fans will see him as a coach-killer. He might enjoy playing under Ty Corbin, but he might not enjoy the reception he gets from fans, at least at the outset. If the Jazz get hot, some of the anger will go away.

Williams might be done with Salt Lake City, anyway, even before his contract expires at the end of next season. It might time for the star player to move on, too. Especially with the echoes of “boos” in his head.

This was not a proper ending for one of the most intense players, and best coaches the league will ever see. But this isn’t Hollywood. It’s Salt Lake City, and it’s the NBA: where weird happens.

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2 Responses to “End Of An Era”

  1. Karlton Says:

    Ray,
    Great article on a class act. I’m not particularly a fan of the Jazz (die-hard Seattle Supersonics fan, but that’s another story), but you have to admire the way that Coach Sloan’s teams always played.
    But the real Jerry Sloan is a man of solid Midwest stock. My father lives in a small town in southern Illinois, just about 15 miles from Jerry Sloan’s hometown of McLeansboro IL, where he has a John Deere dealership. Every summer, he returns to host clinics, and just give back to the area. Dad met him a couple of times, and always had fine things to say about him.
    Again, very dark day for the state of today’s NBA when the inmates run the asylum. A full-season lockout in 2011-12 may be a good thing.

  2. Ardis Renell Eaglin Says:

    Yeah I was shocked when my Vegas contact told me several years ago that the owners in Utah were the Philedephia 76ers guys from Sacramento. Thats not good. Um I heard a lot after Karl Malone retired about Salt Lake City and now that place is not as connected to the players.

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