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Jerry Sloan — humble, honest, a winner — earned universal respect the old-fashioned way

Jerry Sloan — humble, honest, a winner — earned universal respect the old-fashioned way
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It was a mundane morning in the 2004-05 NBA season, the Raptors were paying their lone visit to Salt Lake City and the crowds had gathered as they do for morning shootarounds and early stories.

Sloan was holding court — John Deere cap pulled low on his head, I’m sure — when the conversation got around to the Raptors and their rookie centre, Rafael Araujo, somewhat of a local star around Utah for his career at Brigham Young. Jazz owner Larry Miller had said that week that Utah would have taken Araujo with their first-round pick in the 2004 draft had the Raptors not lost their collective minds and selected him eighth overall.

“It’ll be interesting to see how Hoffa plays, won’t it?” a local reporter asked.

“Who?” replied Sloan, not missing a beat.

That was Sloan in a nutshell: brutally honest, totally without pretense or airs. Rafael Araujo wasn’t on his team; the coach had no interest in a player who might have been.

He told you what he thought rather than what you wanted to hear, and if some people bristled at his honesty, well, who cares?

after suffering from dementia for years and with him a great measure of NBA history died as well.

He was a lifer, no question about it. And universally respected.

“Coach Sloan is what the NBA should be about,” Utah legend John Stockton said in a tribute published on the team’s website. “Committed to your teammates, your coaches, your organization and the game of basketball, he’s never asked for credit. In fact, he avoids it. His record speaks for itself, and he created an environment for his teams to win —and they do. I’m fortunate to have played for him.”

Sloan finished his career fourth among the winningest coaches in NBA history, amassing a 1,221-803 record in 26 years: 23 in Utah after three with the Chicago Bulls.

That he lasted so long and remained so true to his principles — respect the game, play hard every minute, fight for yourself and each other, with fists if necessary — was his legacy. He changed strategic outlooks on the game as the game itself changed, but his underlying traits never wavered.

He played his rookie season with Chicago in 1965 and coached his last game with the Jazz in 2011. He was a no-nonsense competitor who’d fight you if he had to — quite willingly — and coached the way he played.

“No pretense,” former NBA coach, star player and broadcaster Doug Collins told NBA.com. “Day’s work for a day’s pay. Do things the right way. Compete. Play to win. Be a team.”

Or, as Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle put it when Sloan was named winner of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Basketball Coaches Association in 2016: “One of the all-time ass-kickers in this league.”

Perhaps Sloan’s greatest attribute — at least the one that endeared him to so many reporters who got to deal with him — was his true humility. He never wanted to be “the” story, a truly appreciated trait. Before every game, road or home, he’d be found having dinner in the media dining room with all the regular people: unassuming, approachable, just one of the guys.

He never seemed to particularly love the media, but he never blew off his obligations. For the duration of both the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals — the same ones everyone is familiar with now thanks to “The Last Dance” — Sloan would stand and answer every last question, when you could tell he’d be much more comfortable riding a tractor on his Illinois farm.

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That’s a large part of why the Professional Basketball Writers Association inaugurated the Rudy Tomjanovich Award in 2011, handed out annually to an NBA head coach “for his co-operation with the media and fans, as well as his excellence on the court.” Sloan — who was somehow never voted NBA coach of the year — was the unanimous choice as the first recipient.

As the PBWA president at the time, it was my pleasure to call and give him the news. I found him at his off-season farm, and his reaction was typically Sloan: “I don’t know why the hell you’re doing this, but thank you, I’m honoured.”
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