Twenty-four years ago, an unusual picture of Jerry Sloan appeared on the front sports page of The Baltimore Sun. Well, almost a picture.
Buddy Jeannette, then head coach of the Bullets, was seen pointing to an empty chair that was supposed to have been occupied by Sloan, an aggressive, rawboned guard from Evansville University who was picked in the second round of the 1964 National Basketball Association draft.With another year of eligibility at Evansville, Sloan opted to return to school and the following year became the Bullets' first-round selection. But the Bullets failed to protect him in the 1966 expansion draft, and Sloan was plucked by Chicago, where he later teamed with Norm Van Lier to form one of the league's best backcourts for seven seasons.
"I know all about empty chairs," laughed Sloan, now head coach of the Utah Jazz. "Only this time, I got to fill one."
Indeed. On Dec. 8, the day after the Jazz riddled the Bullets, 111-94, in Salt Lake City, Frank Layden suddenly resigned as head coach, turning the job over to Sloan, his top assistant and defensive specialist since 1984.
Because the Jazz were rated one of the principal threats to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference and sported an 11-8 record at the time, Layden's decision caught everyone by surprise.
"I know it surprised me," said Sloan. "Frank had told me that there was a possibility he might step down next season, and he had delegated a lot more authority this year to (General Manager) Dave Checketts and his son (Scott Layden, personnel director). But leaving like this shocked me and the players." Although the main reasons given for Layden's impromptu departure was the mounting pressure of the job and the expectations of the fans and media, Sloan said that Layden taught him valuable lessons on how to approach the job.
"When I coached in Chicago for almost three years (1979-1982)," said Sloan, "I couldn't deal with the losing. I was inexperienced at coaching when I first took over. I was coaching the way I played, agonizing long into the night after we lost a game.
"We won 47 games and made the playoffs my second year (1980-1981), but it became real tough when we started losing regularly the next season. We had players like David Greenwood, Reggie Theus, Ricky Sobers, Dwight Jones and Larry Kenon, and a lot of them followed me out the door after I got fired in 1982.
"But working with Layden has given me a different perspective," Sloan added. "I still don't like to lose, but now I'm a lot more patient. I can deal with myself. I weigh the good and bad of each game, but try to accentuate the positive and look ahead to the next one."
Perhaps one of Sloan's main hang-ups in his first NBA coaching tour was that he found the players to be less dedicated to the work ethic than he was in his 11 years in the league, six in which he made the "All-Defensive" team.
Never a gifted offensive player, Sloan learned to overcome obstacles when he was the youngest of 10 children of a widowed mother growing up on a farm near McLeansboro in southern Illinois. He was already earning money as a second-grader and, in high school, worked on both the farm and in oil fields.
"I used to get $2 a day during school break for yanking out tree stumps," he remembered. "During school year, I'd get up at 5 a.m. to work in our barn, feed the cows and hogs before going to class. Then I'd hitch a ride into town for basketball practice at 7 a.m. After school, I'd work on an oil rig for $1.25 an hour and give the money to my mother.
"I wasn't a basketball fanatic. I played the game because there wasn't much else to do in a small town. Now I realize without basketball I'd still probably back on the farm."
Although he spent only one season with the Bullets, Sloan has fond memories of that rookie season in Baltimore.
"I learned a lot playing with smart veterans like Kevin Loughery, Don Ohl, Johnny Kerr, Bob Ferry and John Egan," he said. "All of them, except Ohl, got into coaching. I was always a good listener, and sitting on the bench, I learned a lot about how to play this game.
"Kerr was in line for the job in Chicago the next year, and he told me, `Rook, if I get it, I'm taking you with me,' and he kept his word.
"But even Ohl helped me," Sloan said. "Don never talked much, but he was a great shooter with classic form. Just by watching him, it improved my shooting technique."
When it came time to toss names in the expansion pool, the Bullets elected to protect Egan, a fiery reserve guard, over Sloan. In retrospect, it was a bad decision for the team but a good break for Sloan.
"I'd played so sparingly that first year, I really didn't know if I could play in this league or not," he said. "But going to an expansion team gave me a great opportunity to play. Dick Motta just put me in there and stuck with me."
The hard-nosed Sloan, who grew up in the Chicago area, became a crowd favorite in Chicago as the Bulls gained a reputation as the toughest team in the league. But Sloan has learned he cannot create players in his own image.
"I never expect my players to do the same as I did on the court," he said. "They've got to do things their way. All I'm looking for is the effort."
Sloan says he does not expect to make any dramatic changes from the coaching philosophy Layden employed in Utah for the last seven years.
"There might be some subtle things, but basically we don't want to upset a winning team. The only difference might be starting rookie Jose Ortiz at forward instead of Mark Iavaronni. That way we'll get more experience off the bench."
The biggest change Sloan has made since taking over two weeks ago was naming Phil Johnson his assistant coach. Johnson was an assistant to Motta when Sloan played in Chicago and later joined Sloan's coaching staff with the Bulls in 1979.
"We've always been comfortable working together," said Sloan, finally easing into his chair.