From 1988 until 2003, the quiet but fiery Sloan took the Jazz to the playoffs. It was 15 seasons of stunning consistency, with 50- and 60-win campaigns cemented into the calendar. By mid-April, Sloan, John Stockton and Karl Malone would again be in basketball's bonus round, with the Delta Center/EnergySolutions Arena sounding like a riot and the rest of the NBA wondering how the only game in town had done it again.
"It was, to me, like the eighth wonder of the world," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "It was sort of like the sun was going to rise and then it would set, and then the Jazz would be in the playoffs under Jerry Sloan. … I'm a great admirer."
Sloan was to Utah what Phil Jackson was to the Bulls and Lakers, Bill Walsh was to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers and Bobby Cox was to the MLB's Atlanta Braves. Without him, the rise of Jazz basketball and The System would never have existed. And while Sloan was always quick to defer credit and embrace his humble, small-town Illinois background, he was also an uncompromising maverick who rarely, if ever, backed down from a fight.
Which makes his one-year absence from Jazzland even more difficult to understand. On Feb. 9, 2011, a pale and beaten-down Sloan walked into a postgame news conference at ESA looking like he was ready to walk away from 41 combined years of NBA life as a player, head coach and assistant. He was. And he did. About 12 hours later, Utah's living legend gave up the game, abruptly resigning midseason along with longtime assistant Phil Johnson.
"It felt like somebody passed away," Jazz forward C.J. Miles said.
Unfinished legacy • Much has changed since Sloan's departure, and even Johnson has returned to ESA, serving as a television and radio analyst. But Sloan hasn't been seen. His lone post-resignation appearance inside the building he helped build had nothing to do with the franchise his name is tied to and everything to do with his legacy Sloan was inducted Nov. 16, 2011, into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.
Otherwise, Sloan has been invisible. Even the garbage can he once leaned on during post-shootaround and pregame interviews remains. But there's been no trace of the sharp-tongued, silver-haired coach who some believe should have a statue placed alongside those already honoring the accomplishments of Stockton and Malone.
"How much credit does Jerry Sloan deserve?" said Frank Layden, Utah's coach from 1982-88, who turned the reins over to Sloan. "If we don't have Jerry Sloan as our coach, we are probably no longer in Utah."
He added: "I'd have some kind of alumni dinner. Bring all the old players back. Have a big thing for Jerry. And then the next day, at a game with the fans, you put up his number or his name or whatever he wants."
At the one-year anniversary of Sloan's resignation, the Jazz have not announced any plans to honor his legacy. The team's management declined to comment for this story. Sloan, traveling back to his farm in Illinois this week, also declined comment.
Now, Tyrone Corbin coaches a star-less 13-11 team stuck between rebuilding and trying to win every game possible in the hope of returning to the playoffs. Utah failed to make the postseason last year for the first time in five seasons and set an NBA record for futility after starting 27-13 under Sloan.
Corbin has often referred to Sloan as his mentor. But asked about the anniversary of Sloan's resignation, the second-year coach became tense and cut off a reporter midsentence before walking away.
"I don't think about it. ... It's over. So we move on," Corbin said.
Divided lines • To Portland coach Nate McMillan, the cold aftermath of Sloan's resignation is simply "life." Like Corbin, McMillan said everything moves on and nothing waits. Especially not in the win-now NBA.
"It's going to happen to all of us one day, where the career's going to be over and it's going to be time to do something different. And that seems as what has happened with coach Sloan," McMillan said. "I'm sure if he wanted to get back into coaching, there would be a number of teams that would be interested in him. But [the Jazz] have moved on. … And, unfortunately, it's part of life."
But Sloan's influence is lasting. He had a huge impact on many in the Jazz organization, from team personnel such as Richard Smith, Jeff Hornacek and Scott Layden to players including Raja Bell, Paul Millsap and Earl Watson.
To Smith and Layden, what Sloan accomplished is untouchable, the consistency remarkable. Even after Stockton and Malone left, Sloan used his system to keep Utah moving forward at the same time the team gradually adapted to the modern game. Watson grew up admiring Sloan from afar. When Bell talks to his family about basketball, Sloan often comes into the conversation.
Sloan's legacy remains. The victories and instant-classic finals will never be erased. But no one knows when he'll walk inside ESA again or be honored by the franchise he gave 27 years of the best years of his life to. And one year after Sloan left the Jazz behind, neither side is talking.
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David Stern, NBA commissioner • "There's a part of me that doesn't want to have any doubts that he'll be back."
Hubie Brown, former NBA coach and ESPN analyst • "When I think of the Utah Jazz, I think of Jerry Sloan, Phil Johnson, Stockton and Malone and Frank Layden and then the owner, Larry Miller. … Jerry Sloan coached exactly like he played. He laid his heart on the line, and he competed at such a feverish pitch that it was contagious. He demanded chemistry. And when people will go back and talk about the greatest offenses ever in this league, the Utah Jazz will always be in the first sentence with whoever else they're putting in there."
Nate McMillan, Portland coach • "He consistently won. He didn't win the big one as a coach. But his teams consistently competed every single night, every single year, and they were very successful with that."
Dennis Haslam, former Jazz president • "Jerry brought to the Jazz organization, in my view, an element of consistency. The relationship that he had with and to the organization, as well as the organization's relationship with him, was always really sturdy. I believe that the philosophy of ownership and management was: Change is and can be expensive to the organization. Jerry brought his sense of stability and consistency. Larry and the management team brought stability and consistency. And everybody always knew where they stood."
Frank Layden, former Jazz coach • "We hit the heights there. We were one of the two, three, four best teams in the world, year in and year out. I think he brought a lot of credibility and a lot of stability to the franchise. He had a Hall of Fame career with us. And now he leaves. But you know what? Everybody leaves. … It's the way it is. I think he went out maybe not the way he would have wanted, but he's out now. I can't speak for him. I'm sure there's a lot of teams that would love to have Jerry Sloan as their coach. And my advice to him would be, you are one of the elites. He's Phil Jackson, Pat Riley they choose their jobs."
Richard Smith, Jazz director of basketball operations • "The run that the organization had under his leadership was unprecedented. … While the team fell short in some championship points, even in the decade of the '90s they won more games than any other franchise. More than the Bulls, more than the Lakers, more than the Celtics, whatever. … You got into a routine of knowing, this is what the expectation was and this is how we're going to do it, and you don't deviate from that."
Scott Layden, Jazz assistant • "We're all indebted to coach Sloan a great deal. I have very strong feelings for him both in the workplace, but more so outside the workplace a dear friend of mine. When you look at the history of this franchise and you look at the impact that Larry Miller had, the impact that my dad had and the impact that coach Sloan had, it certainly set the table for a very strong organization and we can never forget that."
Jeff Hornacek, Jazz assistant • "He was obviously a Hall of Fame coach. Come in day in and day out, and know what you're going to get coaching-wise. With him and Phil working together, they always seemed to do the right things and get guys to play above what they were capable of playing. And that's the big thing: He got the most out of all the players."
Paul Millsap, Jazz forward • "What stands out is his will to work every day. Come to work every day with a positive attitude, wanting to get better and wanting his players to get better. On the court, he pushed you to the limit and to be the best. But off the court, he's a gentle soul, a good person."
Raja Bell, Jazz guard • "It was unfortunate. Anytime someone is as big as part of the culture as someone like Jerry was, you'd like his last year to be more ceremonial, if you will. A tour of different cities saying goodbye, something like that. But it is what is. It happened. And only Jerry knew when it was time for him to go. If he felt that it was, I support him and I've got nothing but good memories for the guy. … When I sit around and talk to my family and I'm breaking down the game, and they say, 'You see it pretty well.' Well, I played for some Hall of Fame coaches, man. Jerry's right at the top of that list."
C.J. Miles, Jazz forward • "He was one of the guys that said he wanted me here. He pushed me every day. Every day. He was on my tail every day. [Laughs]. Especially like my first three and a half, four years, man. I hadn't even got a chance to mess up yet, and he was on me. … We'd be warming up for practice and if he didn't like the way I was warming up, he was going to let me know. … And I thank him for it. I made big strides for it. … He loved basketball. He still does, I'm sure. He loved this game. It's unfortunate the way it had to go."
Earl Watson, Jazz guard • "His will to compete and win and the love that he had for his players. I think more than anything, loyalty. I think with the organization and with Phil. … It's a great story. I don't know if you've ever seen it in sports or if you'll ever see it again in sports."
Coaching wins • 1,221 (1,127 with Jazz)
Years • 26 (23 with Jazz)
Assistant • 4 (all with Jazz)
50-win seasons • 13
Playoff appearances • 20 (19 with Jazz)
Coach of the month • 10
Best run • 1996-97 and 1997-98 NBA Finals
Playing days • 1965-76 with Baltimore, Chicago. Hall of Fame • 2009