For the past two decades, Phil Johnson has been viewed by the public as being Jerry Sloan's right-hand man.

You needn't be an A student to deduce which common description people around the organization use to describe the Utah Jazz's other suit-sporting sideline guy who'll celebrate his 20th anniversary in his current position with the franchise this week.

Now, pay attention class, there will be a pop quiz.

Coach Jerry Sloan about his top adviser: "Phil's one of the best assistant coaches a guy could have, period. He's a great teacher. He has great knowledge of the game."

Forward Carlos Boozer on the one-time NBA coach of the year: "He just knows the game inside and out, whether it's offensively, defensively ... so, he is a great teacher."

Center Mehmet Okur on his mentor: "Well, he's definitely an offensive-minded coach, and he's my guy. We really having fun on the court, off the court — and he's such a great teacher. He likes to teach every day."

Frank Layden, former coach, president and humorous media darling, regarding his old assistant: "Phil is a terrific teacher, and he's great on fundamentals."

Test time: Can you name the common theme? Is Johnson ...

A. A great teacher

B. A great teacher

C. A great teacher

D. A terrific teacher

E. Worthy of receiving lots of apples from students (and bosses) because they learn so much from this pick-and-roll professor and this educator of X's and O's, who happens to be all of the above.

If you picked any combination of A through E, you now know why Sloan considers himself to be "blessed" to have Johnson in his classroom teaching pupils in the paint since 1988.

It's also why trying to get Johnson on his staff was a top priority for Sloan after he replaced Layden as the Jazz's bench boss on Dec. 9, 1988.

Sloan played under Johnson during his NBA playing days in Chicago in the early 1970s and then hired him as his sidekick for his first head coaching gig with the Bulls in the late 1970s-early 1980s. He knew exactly the type of basketball guru the former Weber State assistant and head coach and Utah State standout athlete was.

Johnson, who'd also previously been one of Layden's assistants, was coaching with the Sacramento Kings during the Layden-to-Sloan transition, so Utah's new coach had to get permission to speak to him about rejoining the Jazz. Sloan first called then-Kings coach Jerry Reynolds, who hired Johnson after replacing him in Sacramento. (Yes, this does sound like an NBA coaching soap opera.)

The Jazz and Kings worked contract stuff out, Johnson agreed to return to the Beehive State, flew back to California from an Eastern road trip with Sacramento, grabbed some clean clothes and hooked up with Utah just in time to head back East for a six-game trip after being rehired by the Jazz on Dec. 11, 1988.

The rest — including a much-less-complicated ensuing 20 years — is happy hoops history.

"This was a very good opportunity to go with a team that had a great future," said Johnson, who's 67 and has been guaranteed the head coaching job when/if Sloan ever retires. "I knew all the people involved, and I knew the philosophy. The transformation wasn't that hard."

"We were running some of the same stuff he put in before he came back. Our players all knew him. It was an automatic thing for us," Sloan added. "Things have worked out pretty well. We've had our ups and downs. We try to do the best we can with what we have."

Sloan says he wouldn't be where he is — aside from the move from the Salt Palace to EnergySolutions Arena part — without Johnson's reliable and knowledgeable assistance.

"I think he has a real understanding of what goes on in different situations in the game of basketball," Sloan said. "He's not going to pull any punches about what's going on in the game. He tells you how he feels, how he thinks.... He does a major part of what we do."

Sloan admits he's more "hard-headed" and Johnson "has a better teaching approach," but they have enough in common and their Dick Motta-based ideas mesh well enough that they remain in coaching/hog heaven.

It helps, the Illinois-born Sloan joked, that the Idaho-bred Johnson's "a farm person, too."

Johnson learned from one of the best coaches in NBA history, having played for Motta in junior high, high school and again in college. He jumped from a successful two-sport Utah State athletic career — lettering in track and basketball — on to the coaching fast track under Motta's tutelage. As a 27-year-old, Johnson replaced his mentor at Weber State and led the Wildcats to three straight Big Sky championships and NCAA tournaments.

From Ogden, Johnson rejoined Motta as an assistant with the Chicago Bulls from 1971-74 — and met a certain scrappy young player named Sloan, whom he's been linked with ever since.

Phil Johnson file

1964-71: Weber State asst./coach

1971-74: Chicago Bulls assistant

1974-78: K.C.-Omaha head coach

1979-82: Chicago Bulls assistant

1982-84: Utah Jazz assistant

1984-88: Sacramento head coach

1988-current: Utah Jazz assistant


E-mail: jody@desnews.com