Jerry Sloan, Phil Johnson inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame together
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — As the Utah Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2011 posed for photos Wednesday night, Phil Johnson voiced a concern about the arrangement.
Johnson was at one end, Natalie Williams and Annette Ausseresses were in the middle, and ex-NFL referee Doug Toole stood next to the group's other bookend, Jerry Sloan.
"I hate to see him stand that close to an official," Johnson joked about his longtime coaching companion's placement.
While everyone chuckled, a smiling Sloan let the group know, "He'll be all right."
For one special night, everything seemed all right in EnergySolutions Arena.
Not only was Sloan in the building where he coached so long for the first time since February when he resigned following a heated exchange with Deron Williams.
But he was sporting a suit, smiling and sharing old stories and insight with media, recanting about how neat it was to coach John Stockton — and, yes, standing on the same floor as a ref (amicably, mind you).
Only things missing were Utah Jazz players and a 7 p.m. tipoff against an NBA opponent.
"To come in this building is a little bit strange and not have anything to do," Sloan admitted. "That's the way it is."
If there's bitterness in Sloan's heart over his still-stunning midseason departure nine months ago, it didn't show.
Sloan wishes the Jazz well, saying, "You can't spend 27 years in one spot and walk out the door and say I hope they lose."
He hopes the NBA lockout ends for the fans' sake. He even plans on attending a home game, whenever that happens again.
Sloan was also genuinely touched to share a local honor with Johnson, his sidekick in Utah for 23 years, and the three other Beehive State sports legends — Taylorsville's Williams, the ex-Utah Starzz two-sport phenom and Olympian; Ausseresses, a University of Utah softball star; and Toole, a well-respected former football official.
"I'm really honored to be involved in this," Sloan said. "When you look back on your career, you wonder what it's all about and why. … I'm sure there are other people more deserving than myself."
Being inducted into this hall of fame with his old friend made this moment all the more meaningful for Sloan, much like it was his honor to go into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with Stockton in 2009.
Sloan hired Johnson, whom he played for with the Chicago Bulls four decades ago, as his assistant coach shortly after taking over for Frank Layden in Utah in 1988. With similar small-town farming backgrounds and old-school approaches to basketball, the hard-working pair didn't leave each other's sides (during the season, at least) until they fittingly called it quits together in February.
"I was just thrilled to death to be able to have him with me all the time that I coached," Sloan said.
"It's actually surprising to me I'm going in at all. It's nice to go in with anybody," said a smiling Johnson, a former NBA coach of the year who played at Utah State and coached for the Aggies, Weber State and the Jazz in two stints. "It's a special honor, and it's great to go with him."
Though Sloan is the third-winningest coach in NBA history, Johnson has often joked that he finished more games than the Jazz's longtime bench boss whose salty words with refs occasionally earned him early showers.
Sloan brought that up when asked to share a memory of coaching with Johnson.
"He won a lot of games after I was in the locker room," Sloan admitted.
Sloan then recalled being tossed when the Jazz were trailing the Clippers by 15. As he left the court, Sloan looked at Johnson and sarcastically said, "Win this one."
The Jazz lost that one.
"I didn't give him much of a rope," Sloan said. "I didn't want him to get too cocky."
Sloan again hinted that his coaching career might not be over.
"Yeah, I miss coaching," he said.
The 69-year-old remains in good shape and feels re-energized. He's been approached by NBA teams, but the situation hasn't been right to return.
"I'll just see what happens," Sloan said. "If there's interest, there is. If there's no interest, that's fine too."
As for Johnson, he misses the people he dealt with in his basketball career, and teaching. But could he see himself returning, with or without Sloan?
"I don't think you can ever say never," he said, "but I'm saying probably not."
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