JERRY SLOAN could barely watch. Karl Malone rolled across the lane and sank a running shot that cut the lead to, um, 20. Not bad, the way things had been going. But even that was gone in a moment. Before the ball had fallen through the net, Malone was called for an offensive foul. Sloan spun, flailing his arms and smiling bitterly.
A moment later he was coaching with his arms folded. Later, he shoved his hands in his pockets and watched with his jaw set, The Man in the Iron Mask.The Jazz were back in Chicago Sunday afternoon, the scene of three losses in last year's NBA
Finals, and found themselves throwing passes out of bounds, fumbling away rebounds, stum-bling into opponents. It could have been the Chicago defense that Sloan termed as good as he's ever seen. Then again, it could have been the sorry effort of a team that made Sloan want to impale himself on the horns of the Bulls' mascot.
"I'm somewhat embarrassed for NBA basketball, for the guys to come out and play at this level, with no more fight left in them than what we had," he said.
With three days to think about it (Sloan ought to be a sweetheart in practice this week), the Jazz can ponder the fact that in losing 96-54, they were defeated by the largest margin in Finals history. They go into Wednesday's Game 4 having scored the fewest points in NBA history - playoffs or otherwise on Sunday.
"Is this actually the score?" said Sloan, when handed a final boxscore. "Is this the final? I thought it was a hundred and ninety-six. Seemed like they scored 196."
For all the talk of Malone and John Stockton deserving a championship and all the musing over their places in history, it is Sloan who is hurting the most today. The man so competitive he nearly got in a fight with Wilt Chamberlain as a player has waited not 13 or 14 years - as have his superstars - but 33 years to claim a championship. He never won a title playing for the Bulls and hasn't won one in 19 years of coaching. Now he is in danger of another chance slipping away. The Jazz must win three of the next four games against the Bulls to avoid falling to the Bulls for the second straight year.
That fact isn't lost on Sloan, who simmered on low after Sunday's humiliating defeat. He isn't just losing in the NBA Finals; he's losing to his old team, the Bulls, where he played and coached. He's losing at home. A downstate Illinois farm boy, he is revered as one of the greatest Bulls of all time. And though he has been gone from Chicago for 16 years, he still commands immense respect. His uniform numbers hangs in the rafters at the United Center. He owns a Bulls' ring with his number on it, presented at a Jazz-Bulls game several years ago.
In many ways, Sloan remains the soul of the original Chicago Bulls - tough, hard-working, determined. He embodies the attitude of a city that goes by the title, "The City with Broad Shoulders." He's a working-class guy for a working- class town.
Consequently, each time he returns, the media heralds the return of the city's wandering son. NBC aired a feature on him and his wife during halftime of the game. The Chicago Sun-Times ran a two-page Sunday story with the headline, "Return of an original." It pointed out that he would make a good cow-boy in a Wild West movie.
But on Sunday, there was no movie ending. Though Malone got his game back, the rest of the Jazz apparently stayed at the hotel. While Malone was making his first six shots, the others were busy making just one of 19. In the final tally, Malone had made eight-of-11 shots, the rest of the team 13-of-59.
Now the Jazz have three days to think about their predicament. Three days to decide if they belong in the NBA Finals or if they should just deed the title over to the Bulls. Sloan's vote is clear on that count. When a reporter asked if he thought his team could get motivated for Game 4, he replied, "I think it would be real easy, if you're a competitor. I think it would be real easy. They were shooting 3-pointers at the end to see how they can bury you, and if that wouldn't get you ready to play, I don't know what would. I would think it would be very easy to play the next game. But I'm not sure my team will do that, though. I'm only speaking for myself."
Speaking for a man who has been embarrassed in his own town.