Written by Chris Kubala
As the saying goes, the only undefeated opponent in history is Father Time. Whether it’s in sports or life in general, there is no one that has yet been able to come up with a plan to defeat him, unless you’re Connor MacLeod in the Highlander movies. Despite knowing the statistics, it’s still a sad day when one of the warriors that we’re so familiar with ends up losing that battle. On Friday morning, it was announced that one of those warriors lost his battle.
Jerry Sloan, one of the league’s best coaches in the past few decades, if not league history, passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He made the diagnosis of those diseases public back in April 2016 and battled for four more years before succumbing at the age of 78. He had success in the NBA as both a coach and a player in his career, earning a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 for his efforts.
Sloan was drafted in back to back years by the Baltimore Bullets, going in the third round, 19th overall, in the 1964 NBA Draft, before getting selected fourth overall in 1965. He was there for just one year before being selected in the expansion draft in 1966 by the Chicago Bulls. Sloan was a hard-nosed, impact player for the Bulls, never being afraid to stick himself in the middle of things. He would crash the glass, bang with other players and play tough defense on opposing scorers. In his first year with the Bulls in 1966-67, he averaged 17 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while earning the first of two All-Star selections in his career.
Overall, Sloan played 11 years in the league, 10 with the Bulls and one with the Wizards. He averaged 14 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per contest. Sloan made the All-Star Game twice and earned four First Team All-Defense nods in addition to two Second Team All-Defense nominations in his career. He retired after the 1974-75 season and was going to be the head coach at his alma mater, Evansville, before backing out five days after taking the job. The move proved to be fortunate when in December 1977, the team plane crashed and killed everyone aboard on the flight. He took an assistant coaching job with the Bulls for the 1977-78 season and ended up with the head coaching job in the 1979-80 campaign.
Sloan spent two-plus seasons as head coach of the Bulls, posting a 94-121 mark before getting fired 51 games into the 1981-82 season. He was a scout for the Jazz for one season and eventually took an assistant coach job with Utah under Frank Layden in time for the 1984-85 season. Sloan had taken the head coaching job for the Evansville Thunder of the CBA but never coached a game as he took the assistant job with Utah. That move paid off as, when Layden was elevated to team president in December 1988, the Jazz turned to Sloan to take over the reins behind the bench.
Sloan, armed with the eventual Hall of Fame duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone, built Utah in a Western Conference contender year in and year out. Under his leadership, the Jazz won seven division titles and made the postseason 20 times in his 23 years at the helm. In his time with the Jazz, Utah reached the conference finals six times and earned back to back Western Conference crowns in 1996-97 and 1997-98. The Jazz couldn’t climb to the top of the mountain as they fell in six games in the NBA Finals to the Bulls both years.
Sloan won his 1000th career game with a 101-79 romp over the Mavericks on December 11, 2006. He became the first coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games with one team with a 104-97 win by Utah over Oklahoma City on November 7, 2007. In his final season, Utah was 31-23 when Sloan resigned on February 10, 2011. Under Tyrone Corbin, the Jazz went just 8-20 down the stretch and ended up finishing 11th in the Western Conference. In his tenure with the Jazz, Sloan won 1,127 games in the regular season while going 96-100 in the postseason. All told, he posted a 1,221-803 regular season record while going 98-104 in the playoffs. Sloan stands fourth all-time in regular season wins by a coach: Gregg Popovich (1,272-611 with the Spurs) is the only other coach with more than 1,000 wins with one team.
In a statement Friday morning, the Jazz paid tribute to Sloan:
“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.
“Our Hall of Fame coach for 23 years, Jerry had a tremendous impact on the Jazz franchise as expressed by his banner hanging in the arena rafters. His 1,223 Jazz coaching wins, 20 trips to the NBA Playoffs and two NBA Finals appearances are remarkable achievements. His hard-nosed approach only made him more beloved. Even after his retirement, his presence at Jazz games always brought a roaring response from the crowd.
“Like Stockton and Malone as players, Jerry Sloan epitomized the organization. He will be greatly missed. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Tammy, the entire Sloan family and all who knew and loved him.”
It’s always a sad day when an icon of a franchise passes away. As great as Stockton and Malone were, Sloan was the guiding force that helped Utah’s role players jell around their stars and helped push them to the playoffs year after year. He was fiery and temperamental but he got the most out of his players. He will be missed and we join the Jazz, the Bulls and others in offering our condolences to the Sloan family in this difficult time.