Jerry Sloan remembers fellow coaches Don Nelson, Phil Jackson and Lenny Wilkens


Don Nelson, the most successful coach in NBA history, had just finished a beach promenade in his beloved Hawai’i on Friday when a reporter informed him that his contemporary coach Jerry Sloan had died of complications of Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies at age 78.

“Oh, he was a dear friend,” Nelson told ESPN. “Even though he fought me the first time we met. “

Nelson was a Boston Celtics player when the team traveled for a game against the Sloan Chicago Bulls at Chicago Stadium on November 8, 1966. Nelson bombed the defense, trying to catch a Stoan Sloan when Sloan suddenly stopped, causing the two players to collide violently.

“He installed me,” recalls Nellie laughing. “He knew I had no choice but to topple him. And then, even though he got the call, he got up and tried to hit me. “

Nelson said that he and Sloan each made a few wild swings that did not connect. They were quickly separated by officials and teammates.

“At the time, they didn’t kick you out of the game,” said Nellie, “so we kept playing. And Jerry was fine. This is how it was. He was a really tough guy, but he would have a say and move on. “

Don Nelson, left, and Jerry Sloan, center, both played basketball in Illinois before embarking on their long NBA careers. Rocky Widner / NBAE / Getty Images

Although Sloan had 11 difficult seasons as an NBA player from 1965 to 1976, he was best known for his 26 years as an NBA coach, with 23 of those seasons with Utah Jazz.

In Salt Lake City, he established a physical basketball brand that allowed Jazz to advance to the NBA finals in consecutive seasons in 1997 and 1998. Both times, his team – led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, whose personalities reflected that of their silent coach, was thwarted by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

Even though Sloan has never won a championship – and, incredibly, has never been named NBA coach of the year – George Karl said he was one of the most gifted coaches he has ever had. never seen.

“I would put Jerry in the top three or four of all time I have faced,” said Karl, who is two behind Sloan at No. 6 on the all-time winning list. “His teams were really difficult to play against. They were very tough, very team oriented.

“Jerry wouldn’t tolerate many NBA bulls – this continues. He was demanding, but respectful. Every Utah Jazz player I ever spoke to had only great things to say about him. “

Sloan grew up in Gobbler’s Knob, Illinois, the youngest of 10 children. When Sloan was only 4 years old, his father died. He would get up in the sun to finish his household chores on the family farm, and then walk more than three kilometers to go to school. Those who knew him said he attributed the work ethic that had served him well throughout his NBA career to his hardscrabble education.

“Jerry was a farmer at heart,” said Phil Jackson in a text message. “We all appreciated his fire and sportsmanship … at both ends of the training spectrum. “

Jerry Sloan, top right, and Phil Jackson, top left, clashed as players and coaches. Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE / Getty Images

Sloan ran a disciplined franchise and would not tolerate any excuses or dissent. He expected his players to have the same grain that was his trademark. In 2006, when asked if he should be patient with his youngest player, CJ Miles, 19, Sloan replied, “I don’t care if he’s 19 or 30. If he’s going to be on the ground in the NBA, he must be able to step in and deal with it. We can’t put diapers on her one night and a jockstrap the next. It’s just like that. “

Sloan has also shown fierce loyalty to his players. So when Kenyon Martin leveled Malone upstairs, it wasn’t Malone threatening to fight him – it was Sloan.

Consider the words of former Jazz president and trainer Frank Layden, who once relayed this gem to author Michael Lewis: “No one is fighting Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You could come out victorious, at his age. You might even lick it. But you would lose an eye, an arm, your testicles, in the process. “

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Sloan’s anger wasn’t just for opponents. If he felt that one of his players was being whistled by a ghost call, he had no qualms about noisily challenging the referee who made the decision, with a few choice words to illustrate his point. In 2003, he was even suspended seven games for pushing referee Courtney Kirkland in the chest.

Former NBA official Joey Crawford said he had warned the young referees that if they decided to slap Sloan with a technique, they should immediately turn around and walk away to defuse the situation.

“But here’s the wonderful thing about Jerry,” said Crawford. “He would get angry, but you could come back to him and tell him a lot, and he would never judge you.” You might even curse him, but he was never going to call the league office the next morning to complain, like other coaches would do.

“I had a lot of respect for this man. We all did. “

Lenny Wilkens said he was exposed to a much softer side of Sloan when Wilkens chose him to be on his staff for the 1996 Summer Olympics. At the time, he and Sloan were not particularly close, but Wilkens wanted it because of his respect for the way Sloan approached the game and the attention he had commanded to the players.

Jerry Sloan, second from the left, was an assistant to the 1996 United States Olympic men’s basketball team. Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images

“I liked his competitive spirit,” said Wilkens, No. 2 on the all-time winning list. “His teams were always so prepared, and he was not going to let you do what you wanted to do. We both thought that the defense could influence a match.

“And, like me, he was not about to let you walk to the basket. This is not how we were raised. “

During their travels, Wilkens came to appreciate Sloan’s ironic sense of humor and passion for the game. His face softened when he talked about his family. His dedication to his players was also evident.

“He had a great influence on our team,” said Wilkens. “He is one of those people who had immediate credibility on the ground.”

Four years later, Sloan was bypassed as Wilkens’ successor to the 2000 Olympics, a slight that still bothers Wilkens.

“I was very disappointed with him,” he said, “and informed the members of the Olympic committee. It was not good. We did a good job [in ’96] and Jerry was a big part of it. “

Karl said that while Sloan drew attention to his defensive plans, he was equally in love with Sloan’s attacking sets.

“Our first two years when I was in Seattle, we overtook Malone and we overtook Stockton, and they figured out how to destroy us,” said Karl, who has faced off 82 times with teams coached by Sloan, fourth most behind Rick Adelman, Nelson and Jackson. “He kept it simple, but what he wrote was rock solid, and his players followed his example.

“I loved fighting with Jerry. They were physical, but [the Jazz] played as a team and understood that you had to stay together in competition.

“Jerry demanded that. He demanded that his players be good teammates. “

Only three coaches have won more NBA games than Jerry Sloan. ESPN Statistics and information

Sloan retired in 2011, ranking third all-time in coach victories and is now fourth. The man who has since surpassed him for third place, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich released a statement Friday, calling Sloan “real and true.”

“And it’s rare,” said Popovich. “He was a mentor to me from afar until I got to know him. A man who suffered no fool, he had a humor, often disguised, and had a heart as big as the meadow. ”

Nelson said that behind Sloan’s gruff was a gentle, fun-loving, even mischievous man. In their later years, he said, opposing coaches were not above sneaking in for a beer or two when their teams were in the same city.

“I think Jerry was perhaps the most competitive guy I have ever coached against,” said Nelson. “But when the match was over, it was over. I remember talking to him when he was about to retire. He was anxious to return to his farm. He loved driving the fields on his tractor. “

Although Sloan never lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy, he enjoyed his basketball career, said Wilkens.

“He was not the type of guy to sit and cry about what he did and didn’t do,” said Wilkens. “He loved the game. It was enough.

“And there is no doubt that the game loved him back. “


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