Jerry Sloan steps down as Utah Jazz head coach, and the NBA is lesser for it

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 11:56 PM

It was about two hours before his final news conference when Jerry Sloan picked up the phone. He didn't mind talking, but he asked the interview not be made public until after he spoke before the cameras and microphones in Utah.

It wasn't because he had ratted out Deron Williams, the headstrong player whom he feuded with and who failed to run a play his coach called the other night, or Jazz management, who reportedly failed to back him in that dispute.

There was no bombshell; Sloan was just making sure things were done in the proper order. The local papers get to hear him first, then everybody else.

"I realize it's the time of day when I need to move on," he said, solemnly.

For everything being made of the player-coach dust-up, Generation Next did not claim another old-school victim Thursday afternoon; the NBA's young-knucklehead fraternity didn't topple a 68-year-old lifer hell-bent on maintaining values of the game.

No. Sloan just got tired of teaching them to grow up.

"It's my decision," he said. "I knew all along that some day it was going to happen, that there was going to be a day when I needed to move on. Today is that day. I've been thinkin' about it for the last 48 hours or so."

The shock isn't that Jerry Sloan stepped down in the middle of the NBA season; it's that he lasted as long as he did in the I-gotta-get-mine NBA world of hangers-on and paid serfs, where kids are constantly told what they want instead of what they need.

"Did you hear what Jerry Sloan just called me?" Karl Malone asked about 11 years ago after a Jazz practice I had attended. I told the Mailman I had heard profanity, but did not know it was directed at him.

"He done cussed me out like I was a damn rookie," Malone said, still seething.

About a half-hour later, he added, "You know what? I needed that. I needed to hear what he told me today."

The reason Sloan lasted is because he had veterans such as Malone and John Stockton who understood that as good as they were, they could always get better, that no matter how much time they'd spent around the game, they hadn't spent as much as their coach.

Twenty-three years is beyond an eternity to be a head coach in pro sports. Forty players in the league today weren't even born when Sloan took over the Jazz in December 1988; 153 other men have come and gone as coaches in the NBA since then.

The Clippers have had 13 coaches alone since then. When Sloan took over the Jazz, Wes Unseld was the coach in Washington. The day he resigned, Flip Saunders is the guy. In between, there was Jim Lynam, Bob Staak, Bernie Bickerstaff, Jim Brovelli, Gar Heard, Darrell Walker, Leonard Hamilton, Doug Collins, Eddie Jordan and Ed Tapscott. Twelve in Washington couldn't equal one in Utah.

His Jazz was overshadowed by Magic and Kareem early on, then the Trail Blazers of the early 1990s, then by Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets, and finally by the greatness of Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals.

Was he the greatest coach to never win a championship? Does it matter? Like he said, "I never dreamed I would coach somewhere this long," Sloan said. "To be honest, I thought I was going to get fired the first week. I'm serious."

It is almost freakish Sloan lasted this long in a league where management continues to coddle its young, where fear of talent leaving inexplicably supersedes a young player learning.

Old school vs. Gen X actually happened long before Deron Williams in Utah. DeShawn Stevenson was drafted by Utah straight out of high school. If Sloan was the stereotypical taskmaster, Stevenson was the prima donna teenager who was told how wonderful his game was, how he didn't need to change anything. Predictably, they butted heads when Sloan noticed a young Stevenson not watching film and looking at the floor.

Stevenson ended up in Orlando after four years, a better player and a better person.

"We used to go back and forth, but I appreciate it now," Stevenson said in 2009. "It made me a man. Being that young, I think I needed somebody. A lot of high school guys come in with a lot of hype and they don't want to listen to nobody. They get put in a situation where they get to do anything."

I first got to genuinely know Sloan in 1998, when he and his first wife, Bobbye, sat in their modest condo beneath the Wasatch Mountains days before the Finals rematch that year against the Chicago Bulls. Fiercely private, Sloan, at Bobbye's request, spoke about her battle with breast cancer and how it changed him.

Beneath the rough exterior of one of the toughest defensive players in the game's history was a reflective man who began to find more of a balance between basketball and real life.

Within six years, Bobbye was gone. Sloan would remarry and, in 2009, was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

He has a farm in McLeansboro, Ill. But when asked what his immediate retirement plans were, Sloan said, "I don't have any idea. It's kind of like a dizzy duck. I'm just taking it day by day until my head stops spinning."

When that happens, he can say he coached an NBA team 23 years, won close to 300 more games than Red Auerbach. Jerry Sloan can also say the game never passed him by; he just got tired of waiting for the kids still learning to play it.

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