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It’s hard to remember a tougher time to be a sports fan than the year 2020. With a sports sized hole in all our hearts, the hits kept coming Friday, as the NBA lost a legendary coach. Jerry Sloan, best known as the head coach of the Utah Jazz for 23 seasons, passed away May 22nd at the age of 78, after a prolonged battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Sloan was the rare figure in modern professional sports, to hunker down in one place and with one team as he was in Utah with the Jazz. Though he began his coaching career in Chicago with the Bulls (where he worked from 1979-1982) it was Utah where he truly found his home. The 23 years Sloan spent as the head coach of the Jazz were the most one man had spent with one team in NBA history until recently Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs surpassed him.
To stay in one place for so long speaks to the character of Jerry Sloan, a coach beloved by his former players, and to the level of success he had roaming the NBA sidelines. The Jazz are one of the NBA’s smallest market teams, based in a city and state with no other professional sports, where the population is overwhelmingly Mormon. All of that adds up to a location that’s very unfamiliar for most NBA players, meaning Utah has never, and will never be a premiere destination to attract high end free agent talent. With those odds stacked against him and the Jazz, Jerry Sloan did the seemingly impossible, by creating a perennial winner in Salt Lake City.
I didn't get to spend a lot of time playing for Coach Sloan, but coming in as a rookie he had a major impact on my transition to the @NBA. I'm grateful for that. Prayers to his family, friends and loved ones. May he Rest In Peace. pic.twitter.com/DYJ4F4CvRw
Sloan took over the Jazz as head coach for the 1988-89 season, and from that time until his final season coaching in 2011, Utah only missed the playoffs three times, and even more impressively only finished the season with a sub .500 record once. Ultimately, his Jazz tenure featured 1,223 wins, 19 playoff appearances (including 15 straight from 1989-2003), and two NBA Finals appearances. In 2009 Sloan was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
I loved everything about Jerry Sloan, from the way he played to the way he coached. He was a tenacious competitor who represented the Bulls of the 70s so well. Jerry became one of my favorite coaches when he was on the 1996 Dream Team staff and it was an honor to learn from him. pic.twitter.com/pEhbmiFbzp
As all great coaches, Sloan will always be inextricably linked to certain players. During his over two decade tenure in Utah, no two players were linked to Sloan more than his Hall of Fame Point Guard John Stockton, and Hall of Fame Power Forward Karl Malone. Under his tutelage, the two players flourished, combining for 24 total All Star game appearances. Stockton would end his career as the NBA’s all time assists leader (a record likely to never be broken), and Malone would finish up with two MVP awards, and as the second all time leading scorer in NBA history (only behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The two legends remained close with their coach until his final days.
News of the legendary coach’s passing resulted in an outcrying of love and memories from the NBA family, including many of his former players, and rivals. Current Jazz head coach Quin Synder issued a statement saying “Before coming to Utah, I was certainly aware of Coach Sloan and what he meant to the NBA and to the coaching world. But, upon living in Utah, I became acutely aware of just how much he truly meant to the state. I was honored by the opportunity to follow in Coach Sloan’s giant footsteps, and subsequently humbled by the task of trying to uphold the standards and the success that are synonymous with his legacy. The clear identity that he established for Jazz Basketball – unselfishness, toughness and the essential importance of Team – has always left a palpable responsibility to strive for in carrying forward. He will be missed and mourned by the Jazz family, the NBA and beyond.”
Saddened to learn of the news of Jerry’s passing this morning. He was a tremendous coach and a great leader. We battled against each other throughout our careers. He will be missed.
Coach Snyder’s sentiments were echoed throughout the sports world. Jerry Sloan was a rarity in professional sports, now more so than ever, someone who valued loyalty above all else. A coach above all else is supposed to be a teacher, and Sloan truly embraced that role. They really don’t make them like Jerry Sloan anymore, and whether you rooted, played, or coached for his team or against his team, he’s someone who will be missed by all.
Jet Striar is a sports broadcaster, writer, and producer in Boston. He can and will talk to you any time about the three big S’s in life: Sports, Star Wars, and Superheroes. Twitter: @jetstriar
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