After battling Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia for over three years, Jerry Sloan died Friday morning, May 22. Sloan was 78 years old.
For 23 seasons, Jerry Sloan epitomized what it meant to be a member of the Utah Jazz. He was as likely to get thrown out of a game, spit flying while screaming at a referee, as he was to be seen embracing one of his players in a moment of teaching or celebration on the court.
“Jerry Sloan will always be synonymous with the Utah Jazz. He will forever be a part of the Utah Jazz organization and we join his family, friends and fans in mourning his loss. We are so thankful for what he accomplished here in Utah and the decades of dedication, loyalty and tenacity he brought to our franchise,” the Utah Jazz said in a press release recognizing Sloan’s contributions to the franchise.
Setting a consistently high standard for those around him, Sloan’s no-nonsense reputation was built on hard work, tenacity, a rare relentlessness and of course, the pick-and-roll made famous by John Stockton and Karl Malone.
To try to sum up Jerry Sloan by talking about 1,223 career wins, a 2009 Hall of Fame induction and numerous Jazz playoff successes would be a foolhardy endeavor and an insult to his legacy as a player, coach, leader, mentor and friend.
Prior to his time with the Utah Jazz, Sloan was nearly a Hall of Fame player during his 11-year playing career. Drafted 4th overall out of the University of Evansville by the Baltimore Bullets, Sloan played one season with the Bullets before being selected by the expansion Chicago Bulls as the first player in franchise history.
Sloan quickly became a fan favorite in Chicago, earning the moniker “The Original Bull” because of a knack for playing pesky defense that would wear down his opponents over the course of a game. In what would become one of his calling cards, Sloan played until the whistle and expected the same of his teammates and those he coached.
As a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, Sloan averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds over the course of his career; finishing his Bulls career as a two-time NBA All-Star, a four-time NBA All-Defensive first team selection, and a two-time NBA All-Defensive second team selection. In 1978, Sloan became the first Bull to have his number retired; his number 4 forever hangs from the United Center rafters.
After Sloan’s playing career ended, he spent time as a scout and assistant coach with Chicago before being named head coach in 1979. Fewer than three seasons later, in 1982, with a 94-121 record, Sloan was fired, for the first and only time in his life, as the Bulls sought to take the franchise in a different direction.
Out of the NBA for three seasons, Sloan then accepted an assistant coach position under Frank Layden with the Utah Jazz in 1984. During the 1988 season, after Layden stepped down, Sloan began his 23-year odyssey as the head coach of the Jazz.
Under Sloan’s leadership, a relatively inexperienced Utah team became a traditional Western Conference power and NBA title contender, reaching the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998.
Led on the court by budding superstars such as Stockton and Malone, Sloan’s message was always the same: Play hard, play fair and be ready to work. All 133 players that spent time in a Jazz locker room during Sloan’s tenure will tell you that you followed his rules, or you didn’t last in Utah.
Never one to mince words, Sloan didn’t shy away from controversial statements. From the stars down to the fifteenth player on the roster, players were expected to be ready when Sloan called their number.
Not one to back down from a fight, Jazz fans will remember numerous shouting matches, arguments and near fights, including on his own bench, that happened with Sloan at the helm.
Blue Edwards, Chris Morris, Greg Ostertag and Gordan Giricek have all been banished to the locker room mid-game for violating one of Sloan’s rules. Countless officials have suffered the ire of coach Sloan, to the tune of 446 career technical fouls. On several occasions, Sloan even looked to fight opponents like Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and most famously, Dennis Rodman multiple times.
“I don’t mind if I take a shot on the nose, I’ll be okay,” Sloan said after his altercation with Wallace. “I just don’t want my players to do something silly.”
Sloan always wanted to win, but the health and well-being of his players took the highest priority. After news of Sloan’s passing broke, many former Jazz players shared their memories of Jerry Sloan.
“Thank you for the opportunities, thank you for the lessons, thank you for help molding me into a great basketball player and man,” tweeted Paul Millsap, who played his first four-plus years in the NBA with Sloan and the Jazz. “I will always bring my ‘lunch pail’ to work! RIP Coach Sloan.”
“Jerry came from the old school. He was always full of fire, challenging his players to get after it. Leave it all on the floor,” tweeted Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, who faced Sloan twice in the NBA Finals as a member of the Chicago Bulls and played under Sloan with the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
In February 2011, after 26 years with the Utah Jazz, Sloan abruptly retired after a locker room disagreement with point guard Deron Williams. In an emotional press conference, Sloan said, “My time is up, and it’s time for me to move on.” He would later return to the franchise as a consultant, but never again found himself on the sideline of an NBA game.
Despite leaving the bench over nine years ago, Sloan’s fingerprints can still be found all over the Jazz franchise. From the personality and playing traits desired by the front office, to the hard hat and lunch pail mentality, Jerry Sloan forever enriched the Utah Jazz and the state of Utah.