Utah Jazz: The Long and Winding Road Ends for Jerry Sloan
It was June 1997. Utah was out to challenge Chicago for NBA supremacy. The Jazz team were newbies up against the veteran championship fixture. Michael was the predator, and in these games he relishes the moment to proclaim his greatness anew.
It's no wonder that with the game on the line Utah's best player choked; with Scottie Pippen psyching Malone out, telling him "Just remember, the mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays, Karl," while Malone was at the free-throw line. He missed both free throws and the Bulls rebounded and quickly called a timeout.
With the game on the line, Chicago put the ball into the hands of Michael Jordan. M.J. dribbled out most of the waning seconds and then launched a 20-footer that swished in at the buzzer, as the Chicago Bulls took the first game of the 1997 NBA Finals. And it happened three more times during the course of the six-game series; one of them was the infamous "flu" game in Game 5. Utah lost.
And it was that first Finals game that served as an omen that would prevail until the next year when Utah would again meet Chicago in the Finals. Utah this time had the home-court advantage. They won Game 1, lost the second, badly lost in Game 3 (by a total of 42 points), lost another in Game 4, then stole Game 5. Back in Utah with the game on the line, Jordan again rose to the occasion to shoot a lasting shot—the Chicago farewell and the Utah dagger.
It would be both teams' last Finals appearances (so far) and one of the best in Finals history—even the most controversial (as fans still dispute whether Jordan should have been called for a pushing foul or was it a let-go play?). It was clear to everyone though that Utah lost again to Chicago.
History might have been joking all this while between these two clubs because in the middle of the basketball coliseum was Jerry Sloan, the "Original Bull"—Chicago's first player selection in the 1966 expansion draft. As a player, Sloan was known for his tenacity on defense, and led the expansion team to the playoffs in its first season.
He also became a two-time All-Star and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team four times and the All-Defensive Second Team twice. He also led the Bulls to the playoffs on various occasions and helped them to win one division title, the only one the franchise has earned outside the Michael Jordan era. Sloan averaged 9.1 rebounds per game in his second season, and his career rebounding average of 7.4 rebounds per game is unusually high for a guard. With an average of 2.15 steals per game (tabulated over his last three seasons), Sloan is ranked 10th in the NBA's all-time leaders category for steals per game, just behind John Stockton (2.17 SPG). His playing career was cut short though by nagging knee injuries that kept him in the sideline.
Jerry's coaching career would also start in Chicago, succeeding Scotty Robertson at the helm. His initial coaching attempt in Chicago wasn't so successful as planned though, compiling a record of 94-121, and he was out of the Bulls sideline midway through his third season.
As it turns out Jerry's success as coach wasn't meant for Chicago but for another club, the Utah Jazz, where he would compile 1,130 wins against 682 losses. Jerry went to the Hall of Fame as the only coach to compile 1,000 wins in the NBA under the same club.
Sloan was a passionate, defense-oriented, blue-collar coach. There isn't a coach in all of sports who rips his team to shreds the way Sloan does when he feels his team hasn't competed. The Sloan method means anything less than full effort is unacceptable. It means no excuse is satisfactory. One memorable quote of Sloan's coaching: "Size doesn't make any difference; heart is what makes a difference...These guys over there want to make the playoffs more than we do."
He is a teacher that wanted results—results that come from hard work. Let everyone be reminded that Coach Sloan's coaching structure was the same structure that captivated Gregg Popovich's own coaching regimen. It's amazing to note that even without Karl and John to lead his team, Jerry Sloan would coach the Jazz to a 42-40 record, barely missing the playoffs and the Coach of the Year award (which he never won) behind Hubie Brown of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Sloan's abrupt departure also seemed to be in defiance to the new breed of players' consistent whining and disregard for authority in the locker room. It was reported that he and point guard Deron Williams had a huge verbal fight prior to the coach's resignation. Some even said the two almost came to blows during the huddle.
We may never know the truth to that because Coach Sloan downplayed the reports: "I've had confrontations with players since I've been in the league," Sloan said. "There's only so much energy left and my energy has dropped." KSL-TV later asked Sloan whether reported conflicts with guard Deron Williams forced him to leave. "I forced myself out," Sloan responded.
I can understand kids who would dismiss the resignation as one of the other hundred resignations filed by other coaches. But for me it was as significant as when Magic announced his retirement, when Michael Jordan shocked the world during his first retirement. Here is a legend going out abruptly and will be dearly missed by true, long-time fans of basketball.
So to note, Jerry Sloan stepped down after losing against the Chicago Bulls. Life can be cruelly funny sometimes.
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