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.
"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.
"I don't think there's a full set of teeth between them," says Bobbye. "They all have nicknames, except Danny. Jerry won't let me tell you his."
McLeansboro is a sort of touchstone for Sloan. Each summer he walks the same streets he used to walk when he didn't have a quarter in his pocket. He sees the farm where he grew up, the youngest of 10 children in a fatherless and impoverished home. He sees the fields where he used to hunt for berries and quail to put on his mother's table. He drives the 16 miles of road he used to walk or hitchhike before dawn en route to morning basketball practice. He finds everywhere the source of his tenacity and work ethic.
"No one in southern Illinois outworks a Sloan," says Bobbye, who met Jerry in high school. "They've all prided themselves in that. It was physical labor, but he has been able to adapt to the mental."
The NBA hasn't changed Sloan much. Is there another NBA coach who wears a John Deere cap to practice? Like most farmers, he is direct, plain-speaking, no-nonsense and not particularly complex. There is Dennis Rodman at one end of the spectrum, and Sloan at the other end. First impressions are intimidating - his gaze could stop a charging pitbull on the other side of the street - but they eventually give way to a friendlier, warmer man.
"People have always said I'm intimidating," he says with a shrug.
He is a creature of habit. He rises early, at 6 a.m, and walks a treadmill. He leaves the house at 8:30 and drives to practice, returning home before noon. He has chicken noodle soup for lunch every day. He naps for an hour and then joins Bobbye for a brisk walk around a track at a high school near their home. Actually, he walks and she runs.
He can no longer run because of bad knees. For a man used to physical labor and strenuous exercise, this is a difficult concession. "The toughest thing for me is I can't run," he says. "Going for a run was a great feeling for me."
This was probably to be expected. Maybe no one has played the game harder than Sloan. Says Bobbye, "The team physician (of the Bulls) used to tell him, `You know you're going to pay for this.' He's paying for it."
The head of one femur has been resculpted so that it fits the socket. His nose was broken so frequently that he stopped getting it fixed. An elbow required surgery after years of slamming into the court. He can't straighten either arm - both are locked at an angle - so he probably couldn't play golf even if he wanted to.
"He's falling apart," says Bobbye. "He's got arthritis in everything. He used to have to have (Jazz assistant) Gordon Chiesa help him up out of the huddle because his knees were so bad."
Sloan has found considerable relief since he took up strenuous walking. Climbing stairs isn't nearly so painful anymore, and he can get up and down in the huddle easier. The walking played a big part in losing 30 pounds last summer and undoubtedly helps him cope with the stress of coaching.
"The last two years he's enjoyed (coaching) a whole lot," says Bobbye. "He put so much pressure on himself years before. He finally realized there is only so much he can do. The pressure is on the players. But that's hard for him. He says, `When I was a player I could physically do something to change things. Now all I can do is talk.' He's always frustrated when players don't play as hard as he did. Especially if they have more talent than he had."Comment on this story
As another season winds to a close, Sloan nears the time of his summer migration to the Midwest, back to the farm. He's already making plans, such as using a giant Caterpillar to clear more land.
"I've always enjoyed doing things," he says. "I don't really call it work. Some people enjoy golf. That's relaxing for them. This is relaxing to me."
This summer will be different. The Olympics will call him away early from his farming. Once again, basketball calls. No big deal, he says. He can always farm.