SALT LAKE CITY — For a man who lost track of how many times he broke his nose; who once frustrated Wilt Chamberlain into saying he would trample him; who went into the stands after a beer-throwing fan, life has become pretty tame for Jerry Sloan.
Nearly two years ago I asked him about retirement. It had been only six months since he left the Jazz in mid-season. He wryly noted that the high point of his day was taking a morning walk.
It seemed like a throwaway line at the time, but since then it has taken on added significance. To me, morning walks seem mundane for the fiery Sloan, unless you count the time in San Antonio he cracked his forehead on a low hanging branch (a witness said you could hear him cursing in Austin).
In a way, life without basketball — after coaching 2,024 NBA games — must feel like a sentence. Is it just coincidence that the state prison is a skip pass from his house in Riverton?
One year after writing that Sloan would be better staying home, and that today’s players wouldn’t listen to him, I’m reversing my dribble. I’ve seen him hanging around the Jazz games, bored out of his wingtips. Now I’m saying he should return to the game. What’s the worst that can happen? He’ll be back next year, taking his morning walk, with some extra cash in his pocket.
In his glory days, Sloan was daring Dennis Rodman to fight him. He came to the games ready to go a-warring. But before he retired abruptly in the middle of the 2010-11 season, over continued friction with Deron Williams, he seemed tired.
So he’s had a rest.
He’s earned the right to a re-do, hasn’t he?
Nowadays he’s listening to anyone who can reach him. He told me last winter he felt healthy, invigorated. He showed up at just a few Jazz games in that first 15 months after retirement. This season you couldn’t buy a soda without bumping into him. He was there almost every night, trying to look inconspicuous.
People would shake hands and tell him they missed him, and you could see he wanted to be nice, but he certainly didn’t want their sympathy. So he never said never. In the last year, when asked, he made it clear he was a free agent. This spring he has been connected with Brooklyn and Milwaukee.
Brooklyn seems far-fetched, considering it was Williams’ insubordination that convinced Sloan to retire in the first place. Milwaukee, though, is a different story. He has already interviewed and the Brew City is just a six-hour drive from his native home of McLeansboro, Ill. The drive goes from Lake Michigan and down through Sloan Country. Chicago is where he played and began his NBA coaching career. McLeansboro is just 66 miles from Evansville, Ind., where he attended college.
In other words, the Milwaukee job is practically down on the farm for him.
There, he could coach the young but promising Bucks and maybe start rebuilding the tractor collection he sold. (There’s no shortage of tractors in the Midwest.)
If this sounds crazy, since he is 71, consider this: The league needs strong coaches and Sloan is that. Yet he was his most flexible just before retiring. After holding back Williams for part of his rookie season, Sloan quickly realized the talent and gave in. He put Williams in charge, and for several years it worked nicely, though not spectacularly.
There even seems a slight resurgence of coach-respecting players around the league, ones that might be willing to learn from a Hall of Fame mentor. Players such as Williams and DeShawn Stevenson have said after they left the Jazz that they learned much from the Hall of Fame coach.
Young players such as Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings and Larry Sanders would be silly not to listen.
Interestingly, after all these years of being cast as the unimaginative, set-in-his-ways, old-school coach, Sloan has become an intriguing choice. So what if he’s been away a couple of years? Doug Collins took the Sixers to the playoffs two straight years after a 7-year layoff.
One year ago next week, I wrote that Sloan would be better off staying home; that he didn’t need the aggravation. But Sloan changed his mind from when he quit, and so have I.
Seeing him wistfully looking on at the Jazz games has made it obvious he still wants to be a coach. He has said as much, if circumstances are right.
With that in mind, I figure the Bucks should stop looking.
Milwaukee isn’t the most glamorous place, but Sloan isn’t the most glamorous coach. It’s certainly a place he can wear his John Deere cap with pride. That alone makes it a fit.
It might end badly, but one thing I’ve learned about Sloan: The only thing worse than losing is going down without taking his best swing.
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