SALT LAKE CITY — The elephant in the room actually wasn't in the room. He was somewhere other than the Jazz press conference on Thursday afternoon.
Deron Williams had a team to rally. Or maybe a wrist to ice. Or a mutiny to lead, depending on your trusted source. When a Hall of Fame coach quits on the spot, rumors happen.
Did Williams fire Jerry Sloan? No. Even bigger stars than Williams have had it out with Sloan. Management changed when Larry H. Miller died, but not so much that players fire coaches.
Still, there were reasons the coach retired mid-season. So go ahead and pick your story. Maybe the town wasn't big enough for the both of them. As Sloan said, it was probably time to move on. This much was clear at his hastily assembled press conference: The train has skipped the tracks. It may or may not be on a different route from here on, but it will have a new engineer. Whether that's Sloan's replacement, Tyrone Corbin, or Williams remains to be seen.
"If I have anything to say, it's that the coach of the Jazz has my full support," CEO Greg Miller emphasized.
The news that Sloan was retiring broke like a cloudburst. Sloan always said he wouldn't retire as long as he enjoyed what he was doing and the players would listen. Following a disagreement with Williams in the halftime locker room on Wednesday night, he decided that was it. He slept on the decision overnight but awoke with the same plan.
Sloan can now retire to a life of luxury, which might also involve driving a tractor and his favorite past time, pulling tree stumps. At his age, with his income, he didn't need more grief.
It was, yet wasn't, a snap decision. On one hand, he had 23 years as a head coach to think about retirement. He said he had been thinking about it for a few days. Asked if he entered every season thinking it might be his last, Sloan said, "I entered every day thinking this was going to be my last year."
On the other hand, Sloan isn't one to quit anything so abruptly. Which is what made Thursday all the more surreal. But if there's one thing that outranks consistency in Sloan's book, it's standing up for what you believe. If a player or players isn't buying your plan, something has to give.
Some reports said Sloan had become increasingly tired of battling the headstrong Williams. That is almost certainly true. Sloan said he didn't have the energy to continue his job. In part, that had to be exacerbated by disagreements with his star player and/or others. Otherwise, why quit mid-season?
Sloan characterized their differences as business as usual in the NBA.
But rumors that Williams demanded a him-or-me choice are false, according to Jazz management, and according to Williams himself. He told 1320-KFAN that there were arguments over the years, but called rumors of an ultimatum "not true." He said he would ask to be traded before that happened.
If he didn't like playing for Sloan, he's a free agent in 2012, which is easier than trying to fire the coach.
Then there's the lack-of-management-support theory. If the management didn't back Sloan, why offer him a contract through next season?
That's not to say there wasn't a problem. The change was so abrupt, Corbin didn't know until mid-morning that Sloan was leaving. Now the Jazz must move ahead, minus one fairly irritable coaching legend. How that works is up to conjecture.
Asked about team unity, Corbin said, "To be honest, I haven't had the chance to get everybody in one room and talk. Guys have been hearing different things and we just want get on same page and continue."
He added that though Sloan has "an opportunity do something else in life," the players "are not happy to see him go."
Regardless, the Jazz have issues of, well, elephantine proportions. The team is unable to execute down the stretch. Injuries are mounting and the trade deadline looms. The Jazz are still trying to blend in Al Jefferson, while Andrei Kirilenko is approaching free agency. Meanwhile, the organization must to sell a different product to Jazz fans who watched Sloan coach for a generation.
If Miller is serious about his promise, this will be Corbin's team, not Williams'. At the same time, it's no secret that Corbin must learn how to get along with the moody star.
After he threw away a pass at the end of the game against the Bulls on Wednesday night, Williams blamed himself, saying, "It's on me."
Maybe more than he knew.
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