In his 46 years in the National Basketball Association, Gerald Eugene “Jerry” Sloan was a representation of every adjective of an individual that left it all on the hardwood. He was tough, relentless, determined, gritty focused and tenacious to name a few. It made him a standout at McLeansboro High School in McLeansboro, IL; a great player for the Chicago Bulls for 11 seasons, a solid assistant coach for the Bulls and Utah Jazz and then a Hall of Fame head coach for the Jazz. That toughness and grit are tools that are going to be very necessary in a new battle that he is facing.
This past Wednesday, a report from the Salt Lake City Tribune revealed that Sloan has diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia last fall.
The 74-year-old Sloan told the Tribune that his decision to make his illness public that the symptoms, consisting of tremors and a hushed voice have become more noticeable.
Lewy body dementia according to the Tribune story is a neurological whose symptoms include difficulty with memory and problem solving.
The Jazz organization, where Sloan went from being an assistant to head coach from 1985-2011 said in a statement last week when the news broke, “On behalf of the Miller family, the Jazz organization and Jazz fans everywhere, we send Jerry and his wife Tammy our love, support and best wishes.”
“Now that Coach Sloan has shared the news on his health, I will join the many others in expressing support,” Jazz team president Steve Starks tweeted a week ago. “Simply put, a living legend.”
Sloan began his playing career with the then Baltimore Bullets, who selected him No. 4 overall in the 1965. He was traded after one season to the Bulls, where his trademark tenacity at the defensive end help the Bulls reach the postseason and the Central Division title in their first season. It would be their only division crown before eventual Hall of Famer Michael Jordan came to town and the rest was history.
Sloan played 10 of his 11 NBA seasons with the Bulls; made the All-Star team on two occasions and was selected to the NBA First-Team All-Defensive team four times and the Second-Team two other times.
A series of knee injuries forced Sloan to retire in 1976 and two years later, he No. 4 jersey was retired by the Bulls.
In that same period, he was hired as a scout by the Bulls and the next year he became an assistant coach for Larry Costello and then Scotty Robertson.
In 1979, Sloan became the team’s head coach, where he went 94-121 in a little over 2 ½ seasons. He was relieved of his duties in the “Windy City” after a poor start in season three, on the heels of making the playoffs in his second season.
Sloan then became a scout for the Jazz for one season. He then became the coach of the Evansville Thunder of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) for the 1984 season before returning to the Jazz to be an assistant coach on then head coach Frank Layden staff.
When Layden stepped down as head coach to become became president of the Jazz in December 1988, the organization chose Sloan to be the team’s new head coach and he turned the Jazz into a perennial postseason participant and championship contender.
Under his guidance on the Jazz sideline for 23 seasons, they would would make the playoffs for 15 straight seasons and 20 straight seasons dating back to 1983. Only the Philadelphia 76ers (1949-1971) and the Portland Trail Blazers (1982-2003) have longer consecutive appearances in the NBA playoffs at 22 and 21 respectably.
That streak is a testament to Sloan and the greatness of the players he coached like Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone along with key role players like Jeff Hornacek, Antoine Carr, Tom Chambers, Mark Eaton, Jeff Malone, Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko to name a few.
Sloan amassed a 1,221-803 record in 32 seasons as a coach of the Bulls and Jazz. The 1,221 wins are the 3rd most in NBA history and his .603 winning percentage is the sixth best in NBA history.
Sloan along with Don Nelson (1,335 wins-Most All-Time), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), current Miami Heat president Pat Riley (1,210), New York Knicks president Phil Jackson (1,155), head coach of the Sacramento Kings George Karl (1,131), Southern Methodist University head coach Larry Brown (1,098) and Rick Adelman are the only head coaches in NBA history with 1,000 wins.
Utah made to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, but lost both times to Jordan and the Bulls in six games.
The Jazz under Sloan’s guidance also won six division crowns and had 10 seasons of 50-plus regular season wins, including a 60-win season in 1994-95 and a franchise record 64 wins in 1996-97. The made the Western Conference Finals on six occasions.
After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons from 2004-06, which snapped a streak of 20 seasons of making it to the postseason, the Jazz went 51-31 capturing the Northwest Division crown and making it to the West Finals, where they fell to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs 4-1.
In April 2009, Sloan was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and he was joined in the same class as his longtime lead guard Stockton. At his introduction ceremony, he chose Class of 2006 Hall of Famer and NBA on TNT analyst Charles Barkley to introduce him.
On Feb. 10, 2011, Sloan and his longtime right hand on the sideline Phil Johnson resigned their respective positions.
Sloan downplayed reports of conflicts with players like Williams as the reason for his resignation.
“I’ve had confrontations with players since I’ve been in the league,” Sloan had said. ‘There’s only so much energy left and my energy has dropped.”
The NBC affiliate KSL-TV in Salt Lake City, UT later asked Sloan that if the reports of conflicts with lead guard Williams forced him to resign. Sloan responded, “I forced myself out.
Williams stated that he did had a disagreement with Sloan in Jazz’s prior contest, but he did say, “I would never force Coach Sloan out of Utah. He’s meant more to this town, more to this organization than I have by far. I would have asked out of Utah first.”
In an ironic twist of fate, the last game Sloan ever coached was against the Bulls, who the Jazz lost to 91-86 on Feb. 9, 2011. On top of that, Bulls’ forward Carlos Boozer was playing against his former team the Jazz.
What followed was Williams being traded to the then New Jersey Nets two weeks later and in the blink of an eye, the Jazz identity was gone.
Longtime NBA writer Ian Thomsen put it best by writing, “First Jerry Sloan leaves, now Williams is sent away. For two decades we knew who the Utah Jazz were and what they stood for as a franchise. Now we, and they, have no idea.”
On Jan. 31, 2014, the Jazz honored Sloan by raising a banner which featured the number “1223,” which represented the number of victories with the Jazz in his 23 seasons. Sloan also had his No. 4 retired by the Bulls.
To many this new battle that Sloan is going to face may seem like his toughest, it pales in comparison to what he went through 12 years ago and what his might have been about three decades earlier.
Sloan’s first wife Bobbye, who was his high-school sweetheart passed away back in 2004 after a brave and well-publicized six-year battle with pancreatic cancer. They were married for 41 years and had three children together.
In 2006, Sloan married Tammy Jessop in Salt Lake City and gained a stepson, Rhett.
After retiring from playing basketball, Sloan took the job as the men’s basketball coach at his alma mater Evansville. He withdrew his position five days later. In that same season, the team as well as its coaches were killed in a plane crash at Evansville Airport.
Sloan was that close to never being on the sidelines in the game that he played with all-out effort.
From an early age as the youngest of 10 kids waking up at 4:30 a.m. to do chores on the farm and then walking nearly two miles to go to school and be on time for basketball practice at 7 a.m., Sloan learned that hard work is how you got ahead. That when you faced adversity, you faced it head on. To be respected in what you do, you have be all in and give it your all each day. It made him a great player on the hardwood and a focused person in other areas off the court. It made him a Hall of Fame head coach and a revered figure in sports. It also made him tough and undeterred when facing challenges. Which is why in the eyes of many this disease chose the wrong person because Sloan will fight this and continue to live life on his own terms.
“Jerry Sloan is and always will be a beloved member of the Utah Jazz family and we know he will approach this fight with the same grit and determination he displayed as a Hall of Fame coach and All-Star player in the NBA for 40-plus years,” The Jazz organization said in a statement.
Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 4/6/16, 11:30 p.m. ESPN news crawl; 4/6/16 11:30 p.m. news crawl on NBATV; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Sloan; http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Utah_Jazz_seasons; www.stats.nba.com/featured/popvich_joins_1000win_club_2015_02_09.html; 4/7/16 nba.com article, “Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan has Parkinson’s Disease;” Sporting News 2006-07 Official NBA Guide.