Jerry Sloan wanted to be a full-time farmer not so long ago. Fired by his old ball club, he retreated to the small Illinois town of his youth, purchased a 100-year-old Victorian house with four floors and seven fireplaces, and started a new life.
He bought new tractors and combines and other farming equipment and worked the land. He plowed, he planted, he fertilized, he harvested, leaving far behind the world of Armani suits, big cities and crowded arenas. He thought that maybe he had finally gotten the game out of his system after all those years, and anyway he needed time to clear his head while he cleared the land.That was 13 years ago, and Sloan has long since returned to basketball in a big way. He claimed his 513th victory this season to rank 17th on the NBA's list of all-time winningest coaches. This week he will take the Utah Jazz to the playoffs for the eighth time in as many years. In many ways, the Jazz reflect their coach - nothing fancy or spectacular, just steady and methodical.
"He's a farmer," says team president Frank Layden of Sloan, as if that says it all. "He gets up in the morning and says let's get the job done."
Is it any wonder that Sloan couldn't understand all those late-season pleas to rest his players for the playoffs? Could anything be more foreign to a man so steeped in work ethic, routine and stability? Could anything be more ridiculous to a farmer, to a man as steady and reliable (and battered) as that old International he drives every summer.
He works even when he doesn't need to work. He no longer farms full time, but it remains his off-season vocation and hobby. After each basketball season is finished, he returns to McLeansboro, Ill., (population 3,000), and, while his NBA peers golf, he farms. Up before dawn every morning, he leaves the house in the dark and returns in the dark after a day in the fields.
"Want to go chunking today?" he asked his wife Bobbye one morning last summer as he dressed in the dark.
Chunking, he explained to her, is picking up the tree stumps that have been bulldozed off the land.
Sloan chunks, he mows, he clears land, the only farmer in Hamilton County who drives a tractor in old Polo shirts and khaki pants (with Jazz emblems).
"Nobody does this unless they have to," Bobbye tells her husband.
"It's cheaper than a psychiatrist," he tells his wife.
He migrates to McLeansboro every spring, weary from another NBA season, and regroups, letting the rigors of physical labor and farming soothe him. By fall, he is ready to return again to the job of coaching the Jazz in the cosmopolitan, intense world of the NBA.
"It's so opposite of what he does all year," says Bobbye. "It is very cleansing. He's always eager to come back. He's never not believed that (a championship) can't happen. But he knows he doesn't want to be a farmer full time - which I'm glad to hear."
He tried that once, of course. Fired by the Chicago Bulls 51 games into the '81-82 season, he returned to McLeansboro. "I had my feelings hurt," he says. "I thought I had done a good job considering the problems we had."
The firing seemed unfair - he had done well to win 30, 45 and 19 (of 51) games in three seasons with an undermanned team, as subsequent years proved (they didn't win more than 28 games until Michael Jordan arrived three years later). But the Bulls had to blame somebody, even if was a guy whose jersey they had retired (years later, Rod Thorn, who was Chicago's general manager at the time, apologized to Sloan for firing him).
Sloan went home to try the other thing he had always known since his youth: farming. He wanted to be home more with his three kids anyway. He got to watch one of his two daughters play for the University of Evansville - his alma mater - and his son play for the local high school. He got to sit in the stands with the other parents, like a fan.
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