SALT LAKE CITY — For a day — a wonderfully nostalgic, smile-evoking, heartwarming, eardrum-pounding, misty-eyed day — the gang was together again.
Jerry Sloan. John Stockton. Karl Malone.
There were standing ovations, raucous cheering, some boos at referees, exciting moments on the court.
On this night, the arena felt like the Delta Center again.
Fittingly, it now has another name from that era in the rafters.
Almost three years after his surprising resignation, a banner with Sloan’s name was elevated into the vicinity of signs that honor legendary Jazz figures Pete Maravich, Frank Layden, Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek, Larry H. Miller, Hot Rod Hundley, Adrian Dantley, Stockton and Malone.
“It’s a real honor,” Sloan said, “to be just mentioned in the same breath with all of those guys.”
Once the Jazz finally convinced Sloan to let them honor him — and it took some serious convincing — the organization brainstormed putting “1223” on the banner that was raised to the rafters during Friday night’s touching ceremony.
Sloan, often as witty as he is tough and gruff, explained his interpretation of that number’s significance at a pregame press conference.
“I thought,” he said, “that’s how many technical fouls I had.”
The NBA doesn’t have an accurate figure for just how many times Sloan was T’d up in his long coaching career, but, fortunately for his bank account, it wasn’t nearly that high.
The number on the banner was the Jazz franchise’s way of thanking the Hall of Fame coach for his 23 years as head coach, for his significant role in team history and for the 1,223 victories he racked up with Utah from Dec. 9, 1998 through Feb. 9, 2011.
“I’ve been blessed,” Sloan said.
That’s how so many in the Utah community, the Jazz organization, the NBA and around the sports world feel about Sloan’s career.
That grateful group included a packed arena of loud and energetic fans, Stockton, Malone, Mehmet Okur, Bryon Russell, Howard Eisley, John Crotty, Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton, and even President Barack Obama.
That’s right. The world’s most powerful Chicago sports fan sent a handwritten letter to “The Original Bull” on stationery from the White House.
“Dear Coach —
Congratulations on your long and remarkable career with the Jazz. Utah justly honors you for the standards of excellence you set with the Mailman and Stockton. But, us Bulls fans still claim you for your grit and work ethic.
Best of luck in the future. With great admiration,
Throughout the Jazz’s game against the Warriors, pre-recorded congratulatory wishes were shared from the likes of coaches Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Adelman and Lenny Wilkens to former (friendly) foes Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, Sloan’s personally selected Hall of Fame presenter.
“My only regret,” Barkley said, “is you know how good you would've been if you'd only had a real power forward like me?"
ESA erupted in laughter as that played during a break in action. One of many standing ovations ensued when The Mailman, with a big smile, was shown on the video screens.
Moments before that and hours after luncheon attendees wore John Deere caps as a tip of the hat to Sloan, Malone told his mentor how “honored” he was to be here on this special night. During the press conference, the unreal power forward credited his old bench boss for being fair.
“Just being around Coach Sloan,” he said, “if you played hard and handled your business, you had an opportunity to play.”
The Mailman, who took full advantage of that, also recalled how Sloan and longtime assistant Phil Johnson used to tell him, “Don’t get satisfied.”
Malone turned to Sloan and shared something that helped drive his own Hall of Fame playing career, which included those two NBA Finals trips, “I didn’t want to disappoint you. I really didn’t.”
As far as his old coach was concerned, he really didn’t disappoint. Neither did Stockton. Nor did other teammates who helped Sloan become the third-winningest coach in NBA history and the longest-tenured coach with one franchise.
“I thought I was a great coach until we lost these guys,” Sloan said. “I was the most lucky guy in the world. I had the opportunity to coach two guys that’s willing to pay the price of being good every day.”
That said, Sloan’s answer to a question about “how cool” this day was for him was telling.
“I didn’t think I’d make it through the day,” he said, only half-jokingly.
His workmanlike nature then shined through as he shared a thought about seeing a former Jazz player earlier in the day. John Crotty. He wasn’t the most glamorous of players in the franchise’s 40-year history, and that’s what Sloan appreciated.
“He always worked hard,” Sloan said. “He worked over and above who he was. I respect that about players if you’re willing to do that. He’s had a nice career away from basketball (as a broadcaster and businessman). That’s what you hope happens with all of your players, that things go well after they’re no longer able to play.”
Stockton, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame alongside Sloan in 2009, said he still “just can’t believe my good fortune” that led him to Utah.
“It,” Stockton said, “just kind of rekindles that sense of ‘Wow, I can’t believe this has happened to me.’”
One of the things the legendary point guard cherishes most is his relationship with Sloan, whom he said he continues to admire and respect even all these years after they went to 16 consecutive postseasons.
“It’s like a father-son relationship. It’s like a big brother relationship. It’s like a friends relationship,” Stockton said. “I don’t know if you get to go through life with many of those opportunities to have that and I have it right there with one man.”
Asked to recall a memory of Sloan, Stockton didn’t mention The Shot in Houston or any of the other iconic moments on the court. This relationship is even more personal than just a basketball one.
“He invited my whole family out to his place in McLeansboro (Ill.),” Stockton said. “We enjoyed maybe the best family vacation of our lives.”
Stockton admitted his family of eight didn’t even mind that there wasn’t a Disneyland or “wild rides” there.
Stockton wouldn’t have missed this magical moment, either.
“I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of this organization for twisting this arm, as Karl said, and getting him to come up and here and accept this,” he said. “It gives us a chance to get together, for one, but also to say some of the things that we feel, the heartfelt things that we feel. I’m a very fortunate man. Jerry, I can’t thank you enough.”
Sloan turned almost every answer into a thank you of some sort. He thanked Johnson, who coached him during his playing days and first recommended him for a job to Frank Layden in Utah back in 1983 when he joined the Jazz as a scout.
Sloan thanked Layden, his old coach Dick Motta, his former assistants, players who worked hard during his long career, the Millers and Jazz fans, who received miniature replicas of his immortalized banner.
“I think,” he told the sellout crowd, “I’m the most blessed coach in basketball.”
Before pulling down on a basketball tethered to his banner with a long rope, Sloan added one last message of gratitude to anybody listening, “Thank you very much.”
With that, the banner slowly rose to the rafters as fans returned their vocal roar of gratitude in an arena filled with an air of excitement.
Just like the good old days when Sloan, Stockton and Malone had different type of banner nights.