Say it ain’t so, Jerry.
It has been nearly three months since I (Ben) last posted about the Jazz. I was gearing up to write a somewhat somber pre-All Star Break post (somber because Utah has clearly regressed since tearing out of the gate with a 15-5 start, and Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap still haven’t figured out how to coexist, and Mehmet Okur is still a year away from anything resembling his old self, and Utah hasn’t won two straight games in almost a month, and there is absolutely no reason to think the Jazz pose a serious threat in the playoffs, and maybe it’ll never make the playoffs again if Deron Williams doesn’t re-sign) when this shocker greeted me on ESPN.com this afternoon:
SALT LAKE CITY — Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan stepped down Thursday after 23 seasons and 1,127 wins at the helm of the Utah Jazz, saying he simply ran out of energy to coach anymore.
“I had a feeling this time was the time to move on,” an emotional Sloan said during a Thursday afternoon news conference. “[That’s] a long time to be in one organization. Again, I’ve been blessed. Today is a new day. When I get this over with, I’ll feel better. My time is up and it’s time to move on.”
Longtime assistant Phil Johnson also resigned, surprising even Sloan during their postgame chat Wednesday night with general manager Kevin O’Connor.
“I came with him and I’ll leave with him,” the 69-year-old Johnson said Thursday.
The two men agreed to sleep on their decisions Wednesday night at the request of team owners and O’Connor.
Nothing changed in the morning and Sloan reported sleeping better than he has in weeks. Asked what he’ll do now, he didn’t know, and said he expected to be a “dizzy duck” for a while.
This is vintage Sloan. The guy coached a professional sports team for 23 seasons — he’s the only NBA coach to win 1000 games with one team; the NBA saw 245 coaches come and go during Sloan’s tenure; when he began coaching the Jazz on December 9, 1988, forty current NBA players hadn’t even been born yet — and on the day he decided it was time to hang it up, he uses the words “dizzy duck.”
This probably gives a snapshot into the rumored tension between Sloan and All-Star Deron Williams — or, for that matter, any of today’s modern superstars, even the ones who are content playing in Salt Lake City. Who listens to the guy who’s so stubbornly outdated and uncool that he uses a phrase like “dizzy duck”?
This is not meant as a slight to Williams, who is by all accounts a respected team captain and hardly a prima donna. He gave KFAN an interview this afternoon and said this:
I don’t want to say we’ve had a rocky relationship, but we’ve had our disagreements over the years, probably no more than any other coach and player have arguments. … We’re both very stubborn and I think that’s where we clashed. But one thing we always agreed on is that we wanted to win.
As J.A. Adande notes, Williams had a long way to go to earn Sloan’s approval when Sloan coached John Stockton for nineteen years. Sloan never had any interest in coddling his players or catering to their vanities. He’s a throwback. What he always insisted on was that he was the coach. And really, it’s a miracle he made it 23 years. Will we ever see a professional sports coach last that long again? (And will SLCDunk.com ever see as much web traffic as the past twelve hours? I’m going to bet no and no.)
What’s baffling is the timing. Sloan is not a quitter. Utah is on the slide, but it’s hardly a lost season. Something was beyond fixing if Sloan didn’t have it in him to finish out the season.
Sloan never won a title, though he took the Jazz to the Finals twice. He never won Coach of the Year, though you get the feeling if he did he’d have gladly composted the trophy if he thought it’d benefit his farm back in Illinois, where he’ll spend his retirement in perfect quiet and contentment. “Size doesn’t make any difference; heart is what makes a difference,” Sloan once said, the kind of aphorism that he embodied as a player and a coach. (Also the kind of aphorism that made it sadly ironic Sloan had to coach Greg Ostertag.) I’ll keep rooting for the Jazz, no question — perhaps change is exactly what it needs right now (assistant Tyrone Corbin was named Sloan’s replacement). But I’m not sure how much my heart will still be in it without Sloan on the bench.