SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz began asking Jerry Sloan two years ago about a jersey retirement ceremony. He always declined, mumbling about others deserving it more.
But the team finally prevailed in arranging Friday’s event at EnergySolutions Arena, though not before he made a final plea: Couldn’t they just save it for his eulogy?
Not a chance, he was told.
If anything supersedes Sloan’s underlying humility, though, it’s his loyalty. So when the ownership group of Gail, Greg and Steve Miller insisted, Sloan conceded.
“I have too much respect for what they’ve done for me over the years — like when Bobbye was sick — not to do this,” he said, referencing his late wife. “They were there to help me. I can’t forget that.”
There has always been that sense of duty with Sloan, the farmer/coach, and Jazz fans loved him for it. Sloan would give them all he had and they would give him their support. The agreement took them far. The two trips to the NBA Finals were the high points, but now that the Jazz are one of the league’s worst teams, it’s equally impressive to consider they were an elite team throughout the 1990s.
So on Friday the Jazz will unveil a banner to commemorate Sloan’s career. It will bear the number 1,223, commemorating his wins as Utah’s coach. The event might even make the iron-handed coach cry. That’s hard to picture, because farmers don’t often show emotion. Sloan, who still owns his Illinois property, often said coaching isn’t pressure; worrying about a crop is.
But after they’ve plowed the land, and planted seeds, and warded off the white-hot sun, and the rain returns, sometimes they cry with relief and gratitude, knowing that through all the backbreaking work and fears of failure, a seed has finally taken hold.
It could have been a poor fit. Sloan was still a farmer at heart, when he became the Jazz’s head coach in 1988, and no NBA city is rural. Besides, he had a vocabulary that could melt a glacier.
Things weren’t always comfortable, especially when some unsuspecting mom would take her 10-year-old to a game and sit down close to the bench. Sloan would introduce them to words neither parent nor child had heard.
But many fans didn’t mind, and the rest forgave him because they knew his intentions were good. The modesty was always there. As an assistant to Frank Layden, Sloan declined media interviews unless they were OK’d by the coach. He preferred being in the background, doing the work.
“I think people respected that, because that’s all I have to sell,” Sloan said this week.
When he became head coach, Sloan was told by Layden to “just be yourself,” which he did. The plainness of his impoverished rural upbringing, and the ensuing work ethic, resonated with Jazz fans. Though few in Utah were farmers, they knew he wouldn’t shortchange them.
Sloan didn’t bench his superstars for meaningless games; for him, none were meaningless. Also, it worried him that people coming for their first NBA experience might miss their favorite player.
“I just did what I did and let somebody else judge me,” he said.
The method and message never varied and it showed in the consistency and makeup of his teams. Sloan and Jazz president Randy Rigby were once invited to a human performance clinic to see the newest ways of assessing draft prospects. They were told that through computer wizardry, analysts could spot tendencies and even project a player’s chances of a long-term injury.
As they walked out of the building, Sloan said, “They can tell me everything but this.” He pointed to his heart. “What’s in there.”
So when the Jazz failed twice to take down Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Sloan kept trying for 13 more years. It was the only way he knew. He finally walked away when his players stopped listening. Until then, he dutifully tended his crops for 23 seasons, in the Illinois fields and on the basketball court in Utah, doing all he could to make them grow.
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