"I was able to watch games from a different perspective," says Sloan. "It made me realize I missed it. After I watched my son play the first year, I told Bobbye I'd take the first job (in basketball) I was offered after he got out of high school. I missed the challenge. I could always farm."
After 2 1/2 years of full-time farming, Sloan sold most of his farm equipment and took a coaching job with a CBA team in Evansville. A month later, Jazz head coach Frank Layden hired Sloan as his assistant. Four years later Layden stepped aside and Sloan replaced him 17 games into the '88-89 season. Layden had tired of the grind of NBA coaching and thought that he had done all he could for the Jazz. He had made a career of turning bad teams into winners, and he'd already done that in Utah.
"I took them as far as I could take them," says Layden. "(Sloan) took them to the next level. He built on the foundation. My philosophy is, if you can't make the sale, turn it over to another salesman to close the deal."
Since then, Sloan has overseen the best years in the history of the club. The pre-Sloan Jazz had never won more than 47 games in a season; Sloan has never won fewer than 47 games and has averaged 54 victories. Last year he had the second best record in the NBA; this year he won 55 games with five new players.
But for some reason he has gone relatively unnoticed in the NBA. He has never been named Coach of the Year and rarely been among the top candidates for the award. Maybe it's the presence of John Stockton and Karl Malone (who couldn't win with them?), although Phil Jackson has Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Maybe the victories have become too routine. Maybe Sloan, the farmer, simply blends into the background, like furniture.
"People say we have good players," says Layden. "Lombardi said good coaches win with good players. In my opinion we're not that good. (Sloan) brings us to another level."
At least some important peers have noticed Sloan. He has been selected as assistant coach of this summer's U.S. Olympic basketball team.
Sloan never expected to go so far or last so long as a coach or player. "I didn't think I'd make it," he recalls. "My college coach told me when I was a sophomore that he wanted me to come back and take his place after I'd played 10 years in the NBA. I thought, the guy's half crazy. I was still wondering if I could play in college. As it turns out, that's what happened. I did replace him."
Five days after replacing him, Sloan quit, deciding he wasn't cut out for the college game, a decision that probably saved his life. A year later the Evansville team was killed in a plane crash. Three years later, Sloan landed the head coaching job with the Bulls, and his coaching career began. He has endured 11 seasons as an NBA head coach.
"You always wonder how long you're going to last," says Sloan. "That's one of the things you're always concerned about."
Sloan draws his strength and steadiness from his roots and his hardscrabble youth, which in essence is what he returns to every off-season. Over the years he has bought parcels of land around McLeansboro totaling 900 acres. Because of the basketball season, he misses the planting and harvesting seasons, so he sharecrops it. Last summer he cleared 80 acres his father once owned (hence, the chunking). The land will be farmed this year for the first time since his father died nearly 50 years ago.
Sloan spends his summer days doing real get-dirty labor on the farm, although Bobbye teases that he spends more time repairing the 23-year-old International Harvester tractor he rides than he does on actual farming. On weekends, Jerry and Bobbye hunt for antiques, his No. 2 passion after his three children. They attend auctions, where Jerry shops for another addition to his collection of antique tractors.
It's a time of winding down and renewal, these summers in Mc-Leans-boro. He fishes and takes long walks around a nearby lake, past wild turkeys, possums and racoons. He visits with neighbors. Everyone knows that when Sloan is sitting in his back yard, it's OK to stop and talk. Otherwise, they leave him alone. Sloan likes to shoot the breeze with old buddies like Danny, Snookie and Spud.
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