Sloan was a rare combination of fire and calm
I remember Jerry Sloan as a player, knew him as a coach.
Obviously, he was one of the greatest Bulls ever, one of just four players to have his jersey retired. Plucked off the expansion draft list from Baltimore in 1966, Sloan was a two-time all-star and six-time all-defensive team selection.
Sloan, who passed away Friday at 78, was a regular guy who just happened to possess an intense competitive fire. His health had been deteriorating in recent years.
Among all-time Bulls' leaders, Sloan ranks third in minutes played, fourth in games, fifth in points and rebounds. He was the ultimate grinder, a career 43-percent shooter whose success was predicated on playing harder than everyone else.
As a coach, he was an anomaly. First, because he lasted 23 seasons on the bench in Utah. San Antonio's Gregg Popovich has followed in those footsteps by posting an abnormally long tenure. But in an age when few professional coaches last even four seasons, Sloan's survival rate was almost incomprehensible.
Of course, his first stint as a head coach was with the Bulls from 1979-82. He didn't last long in a dysfunctional organization, but produced a memorable playoff series victory.
During his long run with the Jazz, Sloan's personality couldn't have strayed much farther from the typical NBA coach. He strolled through NBA arenas like he was wearing a John Deere hat and greeting old friends in his hometown of McLeansboro, Ill.
He almost always ate dinner in the press room before games, surrounded by the scribes and arena employees. He would chat amiably with reporters and never stop until he had to.
An NBA Finals media session is an intense circus, and the two Bulls-Jazz series took it to another level with the amount of interest. During one such session at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, the two teams finished their interviews and out in the hallway, Sloan was still talking, a good half-hour after his allotted time had expired, even as the crowd surrounding him dwindled to just a few reporters.
One night at the United Center, Sloan casually told reporters about the end of his NBA career, about how he never would have stopped playing voluntarily. He was finally forced to retire by a bad knee at age 33, a few games into the 1975-76 season.
Sloan endured some crushing losses in his career -- those two Finals against the Bulls, and the '75 Western Conference finals with the Bulls, when they couldn't finish off a 3-2 lead against Golden State. The circumstances were very similar. Two evenly-matched teams, but when it came down to crunchtime, Michael Jordan was the best player on the floor in 1997 and '98, just as Rick Barry wouldn't let the Warriors lose in '75.
Sloan would acknowledge the tough losses with a shrug and a simple philosophy. You just keep going, because what other choice is there?
The last game Sloan coached was against the Bulls, a 91-86 loss to Derrick Rose and company on Feb. 9, 2011. The Bulls had signed Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver away from the Jazz before that season, and with the team slipping, Deron Williams clashed with Sloan and the coach abruptly resigned the next day.
The day before playing the Bulls, though, Sloan was his usual self, standing in the tunnel and chatting away with anyone who had a question.
I asked about his 1981 playoff run as coach of the Bulls, when they upset New York in a best-of-three first round series before losing to Larry Bird's Celtics in the second round.
Sloan casually dropped some insight from that season, when he decided to bench Larry Kenon in favor of Dwight Jones. Sloan said there was a meeting, Kenon got angry, they told each other to "go (bleep) yourself." Then the Bulls went out and beat the Knicks.
It's hard to believe anyone could be such a fierce competitor and incredibly laid back, but Sloan taught the master class on that combination every day.