For Jerry Sloan, basketball wasn’t a meritocracy. In fact, he didn’t even believe that you were only as good as the last great you thing you did. For Sloan, you aren’t what you were, and you aren’t yet what you could be. You are who you are, and what you’re doing, right this minute.
Even while he was getting challenged by an angry young man -- whose biggest achievements are two All-Star Game selections and one trip to the Western Conference Finals (that, if we’re being honest, wouldn’t have happened had the Warriors not been hot at the perfect time and the Mavericks not gone cold at the absolute worst time) -- Sloan did not call for a comparison of resumes.
Sloan didn’t bring up his 23 years of exemplary service, six appearances in the conference finals, two trips to the NBA Finals, 1221 wins, or his 2009 induction into basketball's Hall of Fame.
He didn’t pull out the list with the contact information of impressive references, like the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals; the best power forward ever -- who was so good he could play and own in L.A. Gear shoes, and possibly even Sketchers; the two coach of the year recipients he worked with, including the one who had no problem being under Sloan’s stewardship for many of Sloan’s 23 years as the Utah Jazz’s head coach; or the man, now a ghost, who was business savvy enough to keep a team thriving in small-market Salt Lake City for 25 years, and who backed Sloan for over two decades.
Sloan didn’t do these things because he knew there was no point. He would have won the credibility war with the angry boy, but what good would it do?
Every athlete talks about being a competitor. They all claim it, but what do they actually mean? That they don’t like to lose? That they like to be challenged, then overcome? Or that they like to get paid a lot of money to play a fun game in front of thousands of people and a television audience a few nights a week?
Sloan was a true competitor, and to him competing meant trying his hardest to win. He could lose because he or his team weren’t good enough, but it was unacceptable to lose because somebody let up, even a little bit.
And he only sought victories on the court, he only wanted to beat opposing teams. It might be the easiest victory of his life, but defeating a disgruntled point guard, his disgruntled point guard, would do nothing to help his team win.
Sloan knows how to make in-game adjustments. His farmboy speech belied his superior basketball intellect. Letting the irascible star win was an adjustment that Sloan feels will give his (former) team its best chance of winning.
So Jerry Sloan is walking away from the Utah Jazz, and barring something unforeseeable, the National Basketball Association.
He leaves without a title, but with no regrets for the two times he was just games away from winning one. The happiness a championship could have brought would be long gone by now, anyway, having left as soon as the following season began, when there were more games that needed to be won.
Sloan leaves without many other things, like a coach of the year trophy, that he couldn’t care less about. While Woody Allen didn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member, maybe Sloan didn’t care much about a club that would have Mike Dunleavy as a member. That’s not fair to Dunleavy, though; it wasn’t because of him, or Sam Mitchell, Don Chaney, or Doug Moe, that Sloan didn’t care about the award. It is because it had little to do with what happened on the court.
Many say the game has passed Coach Sloan by. How could this be when he still runs one of the most intricate offenses in basketball? In football, an offense that has been that effective for such a long stretch of time would garner Sloan the label of “genius.”
Some insist Sloan doesn’t know how to coach today’s young players. What about Bryon Russell, Shandon Anderson, Paul Millsap, Wesley Matthews, and even Deron Williams? What about the all of the players whose play dropped off significantly after they left the Jazz and Sloan? What about the unearned, unwavering patience with Andrei Kirilenko?
The game didn’t pass Sloan by, and young players weren’t impossible for him to work with and help improve. Jerry Sloan’s system has yet to stop working. No, the players stopped working for Sloan’s system, and he has chosen to accept it. He can’t change his expectations for them, and it seems they either can’t or won’t tweak their unproven games to fit into his proven style of play.
Sure, the NBA has changed. Actually, it changed a long time ago, and it will continue to change. Before they even sign their first pro contract, players have non-hoops dreams they plan to pursue. Many fancy themselves rappers. LeBron James thinks he is an adept business man, not realizing his entire net worth is attributed to the way his body grew, and not any kind of boardroom decision he has made.
Sloan wanted no part of this cocktail generation, but he never tried to control what players did in their free time. All he asked (and by “asked,” I mean “demanded”) was they be ready to commit themselves to seeking excellence whenever they were on the clock.
When he realized that commitment was lost and not coming back, Sloan knew the only possible way to salvage this team was for him to step aside and not let his high standards get in the way.
So, here we are.
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