SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Sloan is still all sharp angles and heavy knuckles, but the emotion comes easier these days. That was clear when the Jazz raised the banner with Sloan’s name at halftime of Friday’s game against Golden State.
The coach got teary-eyed, both before and during the ceremony. But he wasn’t alone. The sellout crowd gave him a series of standing ovations. Quite a few people in the stands appeared emotional, too.
Particularly those hoping the Jazz will get back to the NBA Finals sometime soon.
It could be a long time before a Hall of Fame coach and two Hall of Fame players play again at ESA.
Beforehand in the interview room, Sloan choked up when speaking of Karl Malone and John Stockton, who flanked him — just as they did in the old days. It was a draining day for the coach who won 1,223 games.
“I thought that was the number of technicals I got,” Sloan deadpanned.
The day began with a luncheon that included former players and colleagues such as Bryon Russell, Mehmet Okur, Howard Eisley, Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton. Then there was the handwritten letter of congratulations from Barack Obama that applauded his “standard of excellence” and added that Bulls fans such as him still claim Sloan “for your grit and work ethic.”
It’s true. Beneath the hand-woven silk ties, Sloan was usually sweating like a dockworker.
On nights when the Jazz weren’t tough enough, he complained his guys were playing like they were wearing tuxedos.
But on Friday the focus wasn’t on the game for much of the night. Friends and family were given John Deere ball caps at the luncheon, which they tipped in unison to Sloan.
By game time, the crowd was primed. TV analyst Bailey started things off with a smooth rendition of the national anthem. The first tribute video came with 5:56 left in the first quarter, featuring remarks by Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Charles Barkley. That launched the first standing ovation.
In subsequent segments, Jeff Hornacek and former foes Pat Riley, Rick Adelman, Doc Rivers, Shaquille O’Neal, Gregg Popovich, Doug Collins and Lenny Wilkens chimed in.
“There will never be another one like you,” Riley said.
Not everyone can ride a tractor into the Hall of Fame.
The second standing ovation came just before half. O’Neal chimed in by saying to Sloan, “Come back! We need you!”
Then the cameras cut to Stockton, sitting across from the scorer’s table.
People couldn’t have leaped up faster if someone had shouted “Fire!”
A similar reception was accorded Malone, whenever he was shown on the message screen.
As the halftime horn sounded, the chant began: “Jerry! Jerry!”
Sloan dutifully thanked the fans, the Larry H. Miller family and his players, and deflected his own credit.
“It’s been a great day, although we tried to get away from it,” Sloan said.
He thanked everyone he could think of, then pulled the ceremonial rope. A banner rose to where it nestled beside the 10 others in the ESA rafters.
“This man is everything good about basketball,” Collins said in his remarks. “There was not a better man, ever in the NBA, than Jerry Sloan.”
Sloan’s response was brief though heartfelt. But it was obvious he never much cared for applause, at least not when it was directed his way. One season during the playoffs, a luxury sports car was parked in the lower concourse, where media were interviewing him. Someone began teasing him about the expensive car being his.
Sloan’s reply: “I couldn’t even afford the tires.”
All his country appeal, as well as his Hall of Fame credentials, were on display on Friday.
“I didn’t think I would make it through the day,” Sloan said before the game.
Said Malone: “Twenty-four-seven, 365, give me a call."
Stockton concurred, adding, “I love you as a coach and as a man.”
Not coincidentally, the Jazz played hard, long a trademark of Sloan teams.
Current coach Tyrone Corbin was up and sweating and pacing from the start, not unlike Sloan did, back in the day.
Which was a good thing. Last thing anyone wanted was to be accused of playing like they were wearing tuxedos.
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