So there it is — the Old Guard is gone. Jerry Sloan was the last one to leave the building, along with his faithful assistant, Phil Johnson.
Larry Miller is buried a couple of miles away in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. John Stockton is retired and back home in Washington state. Karl Malone has gone home, as well. Jeff Hornacek, too.
The run that started in the '80s finally came to an abrupt end Thursday with the resignation of Sloan, the most enduring and persistent of them all. It was a fabulous run, but the Old Guard — Sloan and the rest of them — ended without the ultimate prize: an NBA title.
Did anyone or any team ever deserve a championship more?
I have recalled this story previously, but it seems pertinent now to mention it again. Many years ago, I ran into the late Bobbye Sloan in the hallways of the Delta Center. As she waited for her husband and high school sweetheart to emerge from the locker room, she told me something I have never forgotten.
"We were talking about his career," she said, "and he said, 'I can never consider my career a success if I retire without winning a championship. I can never consider myself a success because I didn't win it as a player and now as a coach,' " Bobbye shook her head sadly. "I tell him, 'You can't do that. You've got to look at all the things you've done.' ... I tell him, 'Look at the number of people who have played and coached in the league who didn't win a championship.' But he just says, 'I can't do that. If I don't win it, I'll consider myself a failure because that's the goal I set for myself when I started playing.' He has said this time and time again."
I asked Jerry about this later, and he explained, "Why else would you play? How else do you judge my record?"
So Sloan, a famously tough man, is tough on himself. He retires having failed to win a championship, but what a career he had. The third winningest coach in NBA history. Nineteen playoff appearances. Two NBA Finals appearances. Twenty-three years as the head coach of one team. The only coach to collect 1,000 wins with one team. Sixteen consecutive winning seasons, 1,221 wins, etc.
Sloan was the longest tenured coach in professional sports, ranking well ahead of the next two behind him, baseball's Bobby Cox and football's Jeff Fisher. All three of them stepped down in the last few months — the end of another era. During Sloan's coaching run in Utah, there were 245 coaching changes in the NBA.
Think about it: Sloan has spent 45 of his 68 years in the NBA, first as a player, then as a scout, an assistant coach, and a head coach. What is that, 4,000 to 4,500 games, counting playoffs, exhibition and regular season?
No one loves or respects the NBA game more than Jerry Sloan, at least partly because of what it allowed him to do, which was escape his hardscrabble upbringing — the youngest of 10 poor Illinois farm kids who ate what they grew or killed — to live a life of ease.
It rankled him that he never won the prize — he hasn't won a championship since claiming two Division II titles some 45 years ago with his collegiate team, Evansville. But was it his fault that he happened to play in the era of Wilt Chamberlain and the great Celtic teams, or coach in the era of Michael Jordan just when Stockton and Malone reached their prime? Talk about painful irony. After being unable to win a championship during his 16 years as a player, scout and coach with the Bulls, he lost to those Bulls twice in the NBA Finals as head coach of the Jazz.
He always marveled that he was allowed to do his job for as long as he did. Wounded by his premature firing after three seasons as head coach of his old Bulls, he returned home to Illinois try his hand at full-time farming. That lasted 2½ years before he discovered how much he missed the game. He was given another chance by the Jazz.
In Miller's autobiography, "Driven," he says this about the coach: "One of the best things we did was hire Jerry Sloan as coach. At the time, he said, 'I am only going to ask you for one thing — if I get fired, let me get fired for my own decisions.' I've always honored that. Too often management makes decisions that affect the team and the coach, and the coach takes the fall for it."14 comments on this story
Miller, who looked askance at the pro game's habit of dismissing coaches at the first hint of trouble, believed in hiring good people and then standing by them and letting them do their jobs. Many of the Jazz coaches and staff have been there for decades. It engendered stability and consistency. The Jazz set an NBA league record for most consecutive winning seasons and rank third in most consecutive playoff appearances.
Miller never believed in letting players control teams with their million-dollar contracts and star power. He gave Sloan control of his destiny, just as he requested on the day he was hired. He did things his way. He dictated discipline right down to how players wore their socks, the color of their shoes, how they wore their jerseys (always tucked) and where they sat on the bench. Karl Malone once announced that he was going to wear black shoes in an upcoming game. Sloan told him, "You're not going to be on my team if you wear black shoes." Malone wore white shoes.
Now Miller is gone and you wonder if all that will change. As Sloan made his exit Thursday, he noted that his replacement, Ty Corbin, will have to coach until 2034 to match him.