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Jerry Sloan has walked away from the game.
After hinting since the season started that he might wake up one day and suddenly decide to leave a sport behind that he made his name in and put the majority of his life into, the legendary Jazz coach did just that Thursday.
The highly unexpected news about the resignation of Sloan and longtime friend and assistant Phil Johnson broke midday. Sloan, a 68-year-old native of small-town McLeansboro, Ill., then made the announcement official during an afternoon press conference at the Jazz practice facility.
Fighting back tears and choking up several times, the Hall of Fame coach who ranks No. 3 on the NBA all-time wins list with 1,221 career victories acknowledged that publicly giving basketball up was much more difficult than he imagined.
But after contemplating the idea during the days leading up to his decision, the only head coach Utah that has known since 1988 knew that his 28-year run with the family-run, small-market organization had finally come to an end.
"I've been blessed," said Sloan, who served as a head coach, assistant and scout with the Jazz. "Today's a new day. I'll get this over with, and I know I'm going to feel much better."
Sloan ended his 45 years in the NBA as the longest-tenured coach in professional sports. He guided Utah to 17 consecutive winning seasons (1988-2004), captured 13 50-win campaigns, 20 playoff appearances and seven division titles.
Sloan leaves the game having never won an NBA title or coach of the year. But he also walks away with no regrets.
"When it was all said and done, it was just a matter of me deciding it was time for me to leave," Sloan said. "Not make a big deal out of that. I try not to make a big deal out of most things, anyway."
Johnson's career has long been tied to Sloan's. He served 23 years as Sloan's assistant, and also coached Sloan with the Chicago Bulls.
Johnson acknowledged the obvious Thursday: Once Sloan left, he was gone, too.
"It's an experience that not many people have, because we have been here for such a long time," Johnson said. "So many relationships get built over that time. In this business, you can be some place for two years and be gone. Very few relationships are built through the press, the fans, the ownership and the people you work with. … Most of all, I'm thankful for Jerry Sloan."
Seventh-year assistant Tyrone Corbin was immediately named as Sloan's replacement. He has yet sign a contract with the team, and his ability to move an inconsistent 31-23 team forward - one that has gone from exceeding initial expectations to suddenly fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot - is expected to be evaluated at the end of the season. But the former Jazzman and 16-year NBA player has a strong relationship with many of the athletes that he will now preside over, and is viewed by key members of the organization as a strong symbol of a clean, new start.
"It's a great opportunity for guys to rally around the moment of the change. It's a new slate for everybody," Corbin said. "We'll just go from where we are. There's no history with me as a head coach and them as my players. So they are players for the Utah Jazz, but I am a different guy."
An lengthy postgame discussion Wednesday involving Sloan and general manager Kevin O'Connor - one that followed Utah's tough 91-86 home loss to the Bulls - was the tipping point in Sloan's shocking decision. But the coach who took Utah to two NBA Finals, coached one of the league's all-time duos in John Stockton and Karl Malone, and constantly balanced an overwhelming devotion to the game with a simple love of quiet farm life, had struggled throughout the season with a lack of energy and the ability to deal with some of the built-in hassles of the modern game.
To Sloan and the Jazz, the moment had arrived to pass the torch to Corbin.
"It's time that somebody else gets a chance," Sloan said. "Ty's a wonderful guy and he'll do a great job coaching. We'd been hoping that he'd get the opportunity to be a coach here at one time. Now, let's move forward."
Six-year assistant Scott Layden will remain on Corbin's staff, while current Jazz shooting coach Jeff Hornacek is expected to be promoted to an assistant. Corbin plans to add one more coach to replace Johnson. But he acknowledged that he had barely had time to process the news of Sloan's departure, let alone figure out how Utah will handle Phoenix tonight at EnergySolutions Arena.
Corbin does not plan to alter the Jazz's starting lineup. But he will likely implement small changes before conducting an overall evaluation of Utah's roster and the team's needs as it approaches the stretch run of the 2010-11 season.
"We're going to scrap it up and go back to work and try and get this thing back together," Corbin said. "Because we took a blow."
The hit was evident throughout the press conference. Everyone from Sloan and Johnson to team president Randy Rigby and owner Gail Miller fought back tears, while Corbin spent the majority of the media event blankly staring downward.
Corbin did not learn that he would become the Jazz's new head coach until noon, after which he immediately went to lunch with All-Star guard and team leader Deron Williams. Meanwhile, O'Connor said that until 10 minutes before the press conference began, the organization desperately attempted to convince Sloan and Johnson that they should remain in their highly respected positions.
But while Sloan in particular has rock-like ties to the NBA, the Jazz and the regional community, Miller asserted that the team he once coached must now move forward.
Miller does not want Corbin to attempt to simply slip into Sloan's shoes. Instead, he must stand on Sloan's shoulders.
"I think basketball has changed a lot in the time that we've owned [the team]," Miller said. "We've seen a lot of players come and go. But we've had the same coaches. And we need to remember that: Players do come and go, but the franchise will remain here, and we will put our full support behind you."
The quick-witted Sloan could not leave without giving Corbin a final piece of advice, though.
"Now they can holler at you," Sloan said smiling.
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