SALT LAKE CITY —
Jerry Sloan wasn't giving an inch.
Several sports writers had cornered him before Game 4, Monday night, each question carrying the same undertone.
It was basically over, right?
His answer was the same as it was all through the playoffs — and throughout his career, for that matter.
"It's a go-home game in a lot of peoples' opinions," he said. "But, you know, how you going to approach it?"
Same way he approaches every game, preseason included: Like he's in a knife fight.
It didn't turn out a win, but not an embarrassment, either. The Jazz cut a 22-point lead to five before losing.
Must have been a decent pre-game speech.
"I'm not into that high school stuff," Sloan deferred. "They're getting paid to play. It's their job to play as hard as they can."
Same stuff he said a few days earlier, and a few days before that, and the series before that against Denver, and in 1988 when he became head coach, too.
The end came for the Jazz, Monday night at ESA in a 111-96 defeat. Unlike Saturday, when the game went down to the last palpitating half-second, this time there was no such drama. The Lakers took a lead in the first half and never gave it up.
Say goodnight, Gracie, or Johnny, or whoever you want to address.
So now Sloan will take a week or two to think things over, after which he'll announce whether he's coming back. He doesn't look far into the future and he tries not to look back. But the losses haunt him. Ask what games are most memorable in his long career, and he always says the failures. They come welling up in his memory like a cold wind.
It's the pain that drives him, not the parties.
Sloan and the Jazz have had better years than this. The two times he took his team to the NBA Finals, they were close to the best teams in the league — or at least as close as Michael Jordan would let them get. Nobody would accuse this year's Jazz of being the best. It was a two-part season, one in which they floundered the first half and soared the second.
They won a first-round playoff series against Denver, a considerably more talented but more distracted team. Then came the Lakers and, as always, the Jazz didn't have enough.
Yet even though it was a four-game sweep, the Jazz looked dangerous through most of it. They were in the game in the last few minutes in all games except the last. Sweeps aren't supposed to be like that. They're supposed to be as one-sided as a tsunami.
When you toss in the fact the Jazz played most of the playoffs without starters Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur, it's hard to imagine they were still playing in May. They should have been out two weeks ago.
Even during the regular season, Sloan seldom had a full complement of players. They missed 149 player-games due to injury, illness and personal leave. Yet there they were on the final days of the regular season, fighting for second place in the conference.
This year, as usual, Sloan's name came up for Coach of the Year. As per tradition, he wasn't elected. Yet along with his hodge-podge 2003-04 team that some said would become the NBA's worst-ever team — but ended up winning 42 games — this was among his finest seasons.
He approached games sounding like the line by the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz." As Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Woodsman and the Scarecrow come skipping down the yellow brick road, the lion jumps out and scares them.23 comments on this story
"Put 'em up,! Put 'em up!" the lion growls. "Which one of you foist? I'll fight you both together if you want. I'll fight you with one paw tied behind my back. I'll fight you standing on one foot. I'll fight you with my eyes closed."
Thus, as the curtain fell on the season, the Jazz finished still fighting — at least for all but the final minutes. Sloan hit the playoffs intending to get by on guts and execution, even if he'd had to finish the year with the cleaning crew.
An upset didn't happen against the Lakers; not even a win.
But more happened than should have.
Sometimes the best moments come when you're not even close to finishing first.