It’s a sad day, peons.
Now, I’m not a Jazz fan, nor have I ever been spotted boppin’ around a music festival sporting a Jeff Hornacek jersey. But that doesn’t really matter here. The fact remains: the best coach in the NBA has resigned.
Sure, Jerry Sloan, who has been the stalwart coach of the Utah Jazz for 23 seasons and has accrued 1,221 wins, never won the elusive title, or even a “Coach of the Year” nod. Yes, it’s true: Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich have more rings than the bevy of Terry Bradshaw’s wives since 1979. Hell, in that measure of success, even freaking Doc Rivers is even a more successful coach.
Look, I know my clout as a sportswriter is on par with the back of your cereal box. But I’m old enough to know that Jerry Sloan is a man’s coach. In a league brimming with divas, however, a “successful” coach must be able to cater to his players’ every demand, lest the pout and tweet something whiney and borderline illegible.
“Now, that’s how yeh win championships!”
Somewhere, John Havlicek shakes his head.
Sloan was a consummate hard-ass and wouldn’t take any tomfoolery from his overpaid and underperforming players. That often meant rough relationships with his stars (see: Deron Williams). But that was Sloan’s style, from which he never wavered.
“He had one style, and it was hard,” DeShawn Stevenson said in a report from the Kansas City Star. “He was real hard. But either he was going to break you or he was going to make you. He made a lot of people in the league who, if they didn’t know him, would have been out of the league. A lot of guys feel like, if you can make it with him, you can make it with anybody.”
Though Stevenson has perhaps the most ridiculous tattoo in the league (which is quite a statement), he speaks the truth. Sloan would, in fact, make you into a hardened player, hellbent on winning and agonizing over losses. Deron Williams is a competitive son of a gun and is generally thought of as one of the league’s top guards; Sloan probably had something to do with that. If Sloan and his players butt heads, so what: competitive people butt heads. To borrow the expression, s*** happens. Shake it off and get your rear-end on the court. That’s just the way it was going to be.
“He taught the same system to Karl Malone (who played four years in college) and to C.J. Miles (who turned pro from Skyline High School in Dallas) and to Kyrylo Fesenko (who arrived as an 18-year-old from Ukraine),” writes Ian Thomsen of SportsIllustrated.com. In a league full of rags-to-riches stories, perhaps more than any other sport, the exorbitant money and fame are enough to transform a man, no matter how humble his origin. Not Sloan, though. The farm boy from Gobbler’s Knob, Illinois (giggle if you want; I mean, I did) has always stayed true to his whiskey, cigarettes, and basketball beginning.
“Sloan changed less than anyone I knew in the game,” Jack McCallum wrote in his fantastic tribute to Sloan on SportsIllutrated.com. “Phil Jackson, after all, went from full-blown hippie to an Armani model, not to mention a one-time lefty who had some good things to say about John McCain during the 2008 election.”
True, the league has changed since the days when a startling amount of a man’s upper thigh was a regular sighting on the court. Players have become wealthier and more distracted in enjoying their affluence than winning games. That’s just how it goes. The modern coach is illustrated perfectly by Eric Spoelstra, the 40 year old head coach of the media-revered Miami Heat, who was considered by many to be the best coach of the first half for merely managing his slew of stars while the Heat won. Not saying Spoelstra’s a bad coach; I’m sure he’s quite competent. But he’s essentially acclaimed for avoiding LeBron James’s patented shoulder bump. Dear me, I think I would go bald to see James try that on Sloan.
That’s exactly why coaches like Sloan find themselves sapped of energy in today’s game. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is. So, Jerry, I’ll raise my glass of apple juice and move on. Just remember, peons: we may very well have seen the last true coach of our generation.
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