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JIM BURTON: Jerry Sloan should have left on happier terms

Jerry Sloan deserved better. 

May he rest in peace, the late Utah Jazz coach and hard-nosed Basketball Hall of Fame member deserved better than he got a decade ago when he ultimately resigned his post after more than 22 years and 1,800 games. 

First of all, it’s hard to believe it has already been 10 years since that fateful 24-hour span in which Sloan got into an argument with star point guard Deron Williams at halftime of a 91-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 9, 2011; had an intense postgame meeting with then-CEO Greg Miller and GM Kevin O’Connor, then resigned the following day saying it was simply his time to move on. 

Sloan wasn’t wrong about that, actually. That’s not to say he couldn’t have continued to do the job, nor is it and indictment of his old-school coaching style. But the truth was, even despite that famed run-in with Williams, the game — and by that I mean the NBA and its changing style of play — was passing him by. 

Sloan, who died last May after a battle with Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, was 68 when he stepped down. He was a the NBA’s fourth-winningest coach of all time with 1,221 victories. 

I was covering the Jazz for the Standard-Examiner back then, and was on hand that fateful night against the Bulls, Jerry’s old team. After the game I stood around with other members of the media waiting for Sloan to come out of the locker room. Normally he was very prompt about meeting with us following games. He’d talk to his team first, usually only for a few minutes, then come out to answer questions from reporters. 

It was a strange experience, no doubt. Looking back on it, those of us who covered the team on a regular basis instinctively knew something was up. We waited and waited for Sloan to come out and when he finally did, he suddenly looked much older than his 68 years. The man looked so haggard when he finally came out and said he, Miller and O’Connor, “just had some things to discuss.”

We found out later that Sloan essentially tendered his resignation that night, but the Jazz’s braintrust begged him to reconsider. He agreed to sleep on it, then made it official the following day. 

I was there for that press conference, which was almost surreal. It was monumental, really. A coach with Sloan’s history in the league, and his 26-year tenure with the Jazz, suddenly stepping away from the team in the middle of the season? 

It was crazy. It was historic. 

It left you with goosebumps when he got emotional saying, “This is a little bit tougher than I thought it would be.”

And it was tough. Brutally tough seeing such a strong, stoic and self-confident man looking so humble in the wake of that run-in with Williams. 

Jerry said it wasn’t about the argument with D-Will, that he was simply losing his energy and passion to coach, but the fact remained that a guy like Sloan would never just quit. 

And yet there he was, resigning along with longtime friend and assistant coach Phil Johnson, with 28 games left in the regular season. 

The issue with D-Will at halftime that night with the Bulls isn’t all that complicated. Williams wasn’t running plays the way Sloan expected them to be run. The point guard changed them in defiance of the coach. 

It was no secret Williams had some issues with Sloan’s authoritarian way of coaching. Having covered the team for D-Will’s entire time with the Jazz, I knew he struggled with how Sloan did things. He didn’t like the way Jerry wouldn’t allow headbands, or how he wouldn’t let his players gamble in card games on Jazz charter flights. 

He struggled with Jerry’s authority almost immediately upon joining the team. Remember, Sloan wouldn’t let him start games until later in his rookie season. Williams felt he should be the starter at point guard, and frankly it’s hard to blame him for that. After all, he was feisty and competitive, two of the traits Jerry possessed as a player and a coach. But, personally speaking, I got the feeling D-Will never really appreciated Sloan’s history in the NBA. Not that he didn’t respect his coach, but that he simply didn’t see the need to blindly acquiesce to all Sloan’s decisions. 

To me, it felt like a generational thing. That’s why I think Jerry wasn’t wrong when he said it was time for him to step away. 

And that’s why I say he deserved better than having to go out like that. 

All my professional dealing with Jerry were good. He treated me well each time I needed to talk to him. I liked him as a person, which I suppose is why it hurt to see such a proud coach forced to essentially throw up his hands and say, “That’s it, I’m done. I can’t keep doing this.”

It seemed quite obvious he’d had enough of the changing NBA. The players were different in their attitudes, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a different thing. Players like Karl Malone and John Stockton thrived in Sloan’s structured, authoritarian system. It was as though guys from that era didn’t ask why, they just went out ran the plays because that’s the way it was always done. 

A lot of the guys in D-Will’s era thought differently. They asked why. That generation seemed to require more input into the decision making. 

“When it’s all said and done, it’s just a matter of me deciding it’s time to leave and not make a big deal about it,” Sloan said on Feb. 11, 2011. “I try not to make a big deal about things anyway.”

But the truth is, Sloan himself was a big deal. And now, a decade later, it’s still heartbreaking that he wasn’t able to go out on his own terms. 

He deserved better.

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