If Jerry Sloan wanted to play high school basketball in McLeansboro, Ill., he had to hitchhike 16 miles each way to practice. His family didn't have a car, and they needed the tractors for farm work.
He was always a roll-up-your-sleeves, no-nonsense, no-excuses country boy who, on the basketball court, was far more likely to elbow you in the eye than shake your hand. For all these years in Utah, 23 years of sanity as head coach of the Jazz, it was Sloan's way or the highway. And Sloan's way never won a championship, but it instilled pride and satisfaction from doing things the same way -- the right way -- every time.
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To Jerry Sloan, the NBA was merely a noisier version of the precious game he'd served loyally for his entire adult life. It was always the game -- two hoops and a floor in between -- and it seemed that he would spend the rest of his days watching and coaching.
The day it became apparent that the players -- not the coach -- were going to be running his basketball team was always the day Sloan was going to walk away. That unthinkable act happened Thursday, when Sloan and his longtime sidekick, Phil Johnson, resigned from the Utah Jazz.
"My time is up," Sloan said at an emotional news conference. "And it's time for me to move on."
Amid reports of a growing rift with superstar Deron Williams that exploded in a heated halftime argument during Utah's 91-86 loss to the Bulls on Wednesday night, Sloan reached the point of no return. For years -- no, decades -- the Jazz were on an island as one of the only teams that could not and would not be infiltrated by the whims of basketball divas and their power-hungry agents. Sloan spoke about it many times as he made the rounds across the country, a curiosity from another era in an environment where somebody's always stomping his feet and trying to exert his own imagined version of authority.
To Sloan, the only authority in sports came from the coach, and that is how he was fortunate to function all those years with late owner Larry Miller at the wheel, showing his unwavering support for Sloan. That began to change two years ago this month with Miller's death, and sources say Sloan sensed the sea change. He sensed the levy holding back all those egos, agendas and destabilizing forces was beginning to break.
"Jerry had been fed up with the new-school type of player for a long time," said a person familiar with the Jazz's organizational dynamics. "When the old man was alive, Jerry knew that he would always be on his side as opposed to the player's. They were always going to have his back and he was always going to be right, and that's it. And then it began to change."
The business of writing about the NBA has changed, too. It's become more about chasing the controversies and chronicling the manipulators than watching the actual sport, which is why it's such a shame that so little ink and bandwidth have been spent on the Jazz over the years. As details emerged Thursday about a long-developing feud between Sloan and Williams, it became obvious why that game Wednesday night against Chicago -- the franchise that kept the word "champion" off Sloan's NBA resume -- became his last. If such tension had been simmering in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago -- anywhere but Salt Lake, basically -- it would've been a daily running drama to rival Carmelo Anthony's Hoopshype dominance.
But Utah? There would never be any drama in Utah, as long as Sloan was there.
And that was the point. Sloan had not hitchhiked 16 miles or served a loyal owner for years to have players make the rules or coach the team. Thursday, he spoke of not having the "energy level" to face the challenges anymore. The ultimate fighter, a guy from the country who just wanted to coach basketball, didn't have any fight left.
Not for this, anyway. The modern game, and all its annoyances, finally won.
Sloan is too classy to blame Williams or anyone else, and he'll be on the bench somewhere coaching junior high kids before he'll point fingers or leak details of what really drove him out. But this much is clear: Whatever transpired between Sloan and general manager Kevin O'Connor after the Bulls game -- a 30-minute meeting that made Sloan suspiciously late for his appointed rounds with the media -- the upshot was that Sloan must've felt resigning was hardly even necessary.
By all accounts, Jerry Sloan's coaching career ended at halftime Wednesday night. That's when his patience finally ran out.
"I want to make it clear that nobody pushed Jerry or Phil out," said owner Greg Miller, the late owner's son. "No players pushed him out. Kevin didn't push him out. An aspiring head coach didn't push him out. And I certainly didn't push him out."
Whatever the case, the NBA will never be the same. Sloan's team was always overshadowed, eclipsed in the basketball consciousness by sexier stories and more dramatic conflict -- and there is never a shortage of either in the modern NBA from which Sloan had long blissfully isolated himself. The Jazz way worked because it was Sloan's way, and his alone. It will be his legacy in Utah, if only somehow it could be duplicated.
"I think basketball has changed a lot since we've owned [the Jazz]," said Gail Miller, Larry's widow. "We've seen a lot of players come and go, but we've had the same coaches. And we need to remember that: players do come and go, but the franchise will remain here."
The Jazz chose a bright young basketball mind, Tyrone Corbin, to fill the biggest coaching shoes in the sport Thursday. Corbin has the youth and the energy to fight these battles, and he has a chance to relate to the modern player the way a man of Sloan's seasoning and stubbornness couldn't. True to form, the Miller family -- and O'Connor, who had been with Sloan for a decade -- didn't saddle Corbin with an "interim" title, introducing him as the "head basketball coach of the Utah Jazz."
It's a prestigious title, one of the last bastions of permanence in sports. Let's hope somehow, it can stay that way -- and that everything Sloan stood for isn't hitting the highway with him.