MINNEAPOLIS - Twenty years later, Marc Iavaroni and Jim Les can remember the scene at the pregame shootaround on Dec. 9, 1988, when Frank Layden stepped down as Jazz coach 17 games into the season and turned over the team to assistant Jerry Sloan.
"I just remember that being an emotional day for a lot of people that didn't necessarily show that kind of emotion all the time," Les said. "You could tell how much it meant to them, what was going on at that time."
Layden made the announcement in front of the team, and Sloan, who had been fired as Chicago Bulls coach in February 1982 after 2 1/2 seasons, circled around the locker room, shaking the hand of every player to express his gratitude.
"By the time he got around to the last guy, there was not a dry eye in the house," Iavaroni said, "because he was very, very emotional about getting into the seat and getting to coach again. It's been an incredible ride."
With tonight's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves (4-15) at the Target Center, Sloan, 66, will celebrate his 20th anniversary of taking over for Layden, another milestone for the longest-tenured coach not just in the NBA, but also in all four major professional sports leagues.
"This is a crazy, volatile business, and I'd say it's more a reflection on [Jazz owner] Larry Miller than anything else," Sloan said Monday: adding, "I'm sure he's heard a lot of times that I should be fired and he should fire me and all the stuff. He's the one that's made the decision, not me.
"I mean, anybody could have been in this position. I just think I just happened to be lucky, the guy that came along at the right time and the right place and they hired me as a head coach. I never think of myself as better than anybody else or anything like that. I just think I've been fortunate."
The quintessential survivor
Sloan has survived in a league that has seen 223 coaching changes during his tenure, an average of more than 11 a year.
There have been four coaches fired already this season, the latest coincidentally coming Monday in Minnesota, where Randy Wittman was replaced with Kevin McHale.
"I hate to hear that," Sloan said. "It's just a constant, everyday thing. I know how volatile this business is. I just think how lucky I've been to be here for as long as I have."
Few are in a better position to appreciate Sloan's milestone than the three players from his first game as Jazz coach - a 97-89 loss to Dallas at the Salt Palace - who went on to become head coaches themselves.
Iavaroni is in his second season as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, and Les is in his seventh season coaching at Bradley.
Steve Alford, who played for the Mavericks in the game, is in his second season as New Mexico's coach.
Playing for Sloan, Iavaroni came to appreciate being as honest and direct with players as possible. Even 20 years later, Iavaroni noted the Jazz still run some of the same plays and play the same physical brand of basketball as they did when Sloan arrived.
"As a coach, he really taught me that you have to have a system, you have to believe in what you do. We're still trying to find our way with that here," said Iavaroni, who has endured a rocky tenure marked by the last season's Pau Gasol trade.
Iavaroni also said he learned what it meant to truly play hurt, particularly when he dislocated his finger so badly in one game that it bent the wrong way.
"It seemed like five minutes later I was going back in again," Iavaroni said. "He expected toughness from his players. If you wanted to play, you had to be tough. That has stayed with me as a person, as a player, and now I'm trying to get that out of players as a coach."
Les, meanwhile, remembered being surprised that Layden would resign not only with the team off to an 11-6 start, but also with John Stockton and Karl Malone still early in their careers.
He said Sloan's intensity always commanded respect from his players.
What also made an impression was that Sloan demanded the same from every player, from Malone and Stockton down to the 12th man on the roster.
"They played 40 minutes the night before, that next day at practice, there was a level of expectation in terms of the work that was going to go in," Les said. "He wanted that approach and he made that approach a habit by demanding it every day.
"I think some guys don't necessarily want that type of atmosphere. Yet that's the atmosphere that is conducive to having success, and that's why they've been so good."
When Les was up for the coaching job at his alma mater, Sloan recommended him.
The two last talked in 2006, when Les was assessing Bradley center Patrick O'Bryant's draft prospects, but Les has never stopped following Sloan and the Jazz.
"The way he is, he never wanted it to be about him," Les said. "It was always about the players. But behind the scenes, no question that he's been a huge part of the success of that organization, both as an assistant and then as the head coach."
A good marriage
Alford didn't know he had played in the game until he was contacted by a reporter, but he credited Sloan for having immediate success after taking over - the Jazz won the Midwest Division his first season - as well as winning consistently over the last 20 years.
"It's a great tribute to him and obviously to the Jazz organization that it's been such a smooth and good marriage between the two," Alford said.
As a player at Indiana, Alford was a teammate of Sloan's son, Brian, who took after his father as a "very hard-nosed kid."
Alford caught up with Sloan last season when the Jazz played an exhibition game in Albuquerque, N.M., and realized little had changed.
"That's why I think the longevity has been there is because he's been very consistent," Alford said. "You can have some minor changes in what you do year to year, but the things that you really believe in, you stay true to form regardless of who it is that you're coaching."
At practice Monday, Layden cited the words of John Wooden ("A good coach is one who wins when he has good players") and said other organizations could stand to learn from the success the Jazz have enjoyed in Sloan's tenure.
"It's not an emotional moment, it's a moment of pride, that we have done things the right way," Layden said of the 20th anniversary.
For his part, Sloan said he believed Layden was going to step down after the 1988-89 season, but had no idea he was going to take over when he did.
He has gone 1,008-605 as Jazz coach, but made clear that he wasn't about to bask in the accomplishment of tonight's milestone.
"There's a lot of great coaches. I don't consider myself that," Sloan said. "I have a very good staff that works with me every day and are terrific coaches that way. But personally, I don't look at it as I'm a great coach or anything. I've always been blessed with good players."
Longest-tenured active coaches in major pro sports:
Years Coach Team
20 Jerry Sloan Utah Jazz
19 Bobby Cox Atlanta Braves
15 Jeff Fisher Tennessee Titans
14 Mike Shanahan Denver Broncos
Most games played for Sloan:
Karl Malone 1,172
John Stockton 1,159
Greg Ostertag 700
Bryon Russell 628
Andrei Kirilenko 510
Jerry Sloan took over as head coach of the Jazz in 1988, after serving as an assistant to Frank Layden. Sloan had previously coached the Chicago Bulls, and former Jazz players say he got choked up when he became the top man in Utah.
Sloan has been Utah's head coach for 20 years, the longest tenure in the four major U.S. sports leagues. Sloan has persevered in a league that has seen 223 coaching changes during his time on the job. "I've always been blessed with good players," he says.
Most NBA coaching changes during Sloan's tenure:
T1. Denver 12
T1. New York 12
T3. L.A. Clippers 11
T3. L.A. Lakers 11
5. Washington 10
Teams not in existence when Sloan took over Jazz:
Team Inaugural season
Vancouver (Memphis) 1995-96
Charlotte (Bobcats) 2004-05
Jazz at T-wolves
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