Sloan Provides Jazz Players With a Tough Act to Follow
It used to be, even after some runs deep into the playoffs, that Jerry Sloan would sit down on the final night of the season and face one question after another about the window of opportunity closing on John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz's chances of contending. Great as they were and as close as they got, there was a certain sad inevitability about their last four or five seasons.
But Sloan, who just completed his 19th year as an NBA coach, certainly didn't hear that question Wednesday night, even though Utah was bounced from the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs in five games. Nobody needs to ask because the Jazz's window of opportunity is wide open right now. Utah has the fifth-youngest team in the NBA, advanced to the Western Conference finals despite that inexperience and is led by a 25-year-old power forward in Carlos Boozer, a 22-year-old point guard headed toward greatness in Deron Williams and a creative staff of talent evaluators with an impressive track record of finding complementary pieces.
Not even a 25-point loss in Game 5 here to close the series and some frustrated finger-pointing in the Utah locker room afterward should darken the overall positive outlook.
One of the biggest reasons the Jazz has such a bright future is Sloan at the whip-hand, as hard, as demanding, as uncompromising on his basketball values as ever. Asked if he thought the franchise could retool post-Stockton/Malone without winning the lottery, while operating in a small market with limited appeal to the marquee free agents, Sloan said in a recent conversation: "There are still some guys who want to get on the yellow school bus every day and go play. We've been fortunate to find a lot of guys who'll go bust their butts. It's very difficult to find them . . . very hard."
Sloan isn't just preaching. Everything about him is tough, without pretense or contemporary interpretation. Sloan isn't within 25 years of reaching old school. Asked by ESPN's Shelley Smith if he knew what an iPod is, Sloan, now 65, said he thought it was the stand for a camera. You want to know how tough Sloan is? Here's how tough:
It was probably 1971 when Norm Van Lier was with the Cincinnati Royals. "We were playing an exhibition game against [Sloan's] Bulls, I think on the campus of Illinois State," Van Lier recalled the other day. "Jerry and I got to pushing and shoving each other and then fighting. . . . Well, play continued at the other end and Jerry and I kept going at it. The rest of the guys looked up and said, 'Where the hell are Norm and Jerry?' We had rolled right out of the gym into the halls of the arena. . . . I think we knocked over a popcorn machine."
In the offseason, the Bulls went to Sloan to say they had an opportunity to trade for Van Lier (whom Chicago had drafted then traded in 1969), but wondered if Sloan, an original member of the Bulls, would acquiesce to playing with a man he had fought so doggedly. Sloan, as he's recounted many times, told management any man who would fight him all the way out of the gym and into the halls during a preseason game was a man he wanted to play with. And the two became back-court mates for the rest of their careers, perhaps the toughest and best defensive back court in NBA history.
They're still exceptionally close, more than 35 years later. Van Lier, in a phone conversation from Chicago, where he works as an analyst for Bulls games, said: "You know what I called what Jerry had: controlled madness. I didn't know if Jerry would have the patience for coaching. But I knew he'd be no-nonsense with players, whether you were a superstar or not. I used to get to [Chicago Stadium] early, put my jersey on and go underneath the [stands] to take a pregame nap. . . . Jerry would come and find me, wake me up and start screaming at me, 'Get your butt ready to play!' He'd pound me in my chest. 'Norm! You ready to play? You ready to rock?' He's that way now. . . . He's ready and he wants you to be ready."
What Sloan has done against type in recent years, quicker than many of his peers, is adapt to the game's evolution toward more scoring. As rigid as Sloan is about certain basketball principles, as much as he made his reputation as a player on defense, he has tinkered with his system to fit the talent he has rather than the other way around. This season, for instance, Utah had the seventh-highest scoring offense in the NBA and Sloan gave Williams, his second-year guard, more rope than he gave Stockton three years into his career.
Van Lier said, "I like Utah's team concept, the way they go after it, the attitude they play with and the fact that they don't back down."
What Sloan will want to see between the end of the Game 5 blowout and training camp is, yes, even less backing down. Utah did a little too much of it against San Antonio. "Guys think shaking hands before the game is hard work," he said. "Look, I never expected these players to play like I had to in order to survive in the league. I didn't have any talent. I couldn't outrun Tom Boerwinkle [his plodding 7-foot Bulls teammate] down the floor. . . . But I'd run for 48 minutes. The only skill I had was playing hard."
The general perception in league circles is that if more Jazz players take on Sloan's combative personality in the months before next season's playoffs, Utah might be able to take one more step, even in the loaded Western Conference. In the immediate aftermath of Wednesday night's loss, Williams and Boozer were clearly and justifiably ticked off about the lackluster play of some teammates. They didn't name names, but the Charmin-soft play of Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, who were offensive no-shows during the Spurs series, comes to mind.
Boozer battled Tim Duncan, the game's best player. Williams played sick and injured, often brilliantly. Derek Fisher flew to and from New York, where his infant daughter saw specialists about her eye cancer. It made Boozer angry to see what he perceived as some teammates who weren't, to use Sloan's phrase, ready to rock. "I will never say anything negative directly to a teammate because I love my team and I believe in that code," Boozer said. "But we need guys that are always going to give everything they have. . . . When you have your vacation plans already, that's not a championship vision."
Sounds like Boozer already has a healthy dose of Sloan's attitude in him, as does Williams, as does Fisher. Sloan just wants the combativeness they've demonstrated to be infectious. It'll be necessary if Utah is going to get back to this point next year.
"What I want to see," Sloan said, "is what happens after you become pretty good and you have to prove yourself every night when people expect you to win. Guys live off what they did for a year or two, and make a lot of money. . . . Me? It's what you do tomorrow. We're trying to learn how to win. I'm not in this business for individual honors. I didn't play for those reasons and I don't coach for those reasons. I come back and do this because I love to have a bunch of guys who want to go play."