This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Rolled down old Route 242 toward McLeansboro one morning, looking to discover Jerry Sloan. He didn't live there full-time anymore, but his essence was there. His spirit was everywhere.
It was definitely in Don's Liquor Hut, a small ramshackle structure on the outskirts of town. On the corrugated wall was a poster of the 1990-91 Jazz team, including Sloan. The proprietor back then, 19 years ago when the Jazz were playing the Bulls in the NBA Finals, was 58-year-old Don Kreher, who said: "That's my team. You know, I got to get on Jerry's ass to get me a new one. …"
"… He'll come in, get a couple of bags of peanuts and a beer, and we'll set a while and talk. Everybody around here knows Jerry. Ask John here."
John was John Prince, a milkman who had stopped by Don's place to pick up a 12-pack of Keystone Light and a six-pack of Busch: "Yeah, he's just an ordinary guy. Jerry and my father-in-law, Sam Gaines, are good friends. They go fishing together all the time. No problem with Jerry. Everybody in these parts likes Jerry."
Everybody in these parts here in Utah likes Jerry, too.
When word came on Wednesday that Sloan was suffering from Parkinson's Disease and dementia, it was easier to look back at Jerry than ahead. At 74, Sloan is still a young old guy who deserves to live for many more years. However much time is left for him hopefully, a whole lot of years there's no doubt he'll live them to the fullest. His wife, Tammy, is a wonderful person who will continue to be a great companion.
The man's a legend in Utah, in southern Illinois, all around the NBA. And stories about legends should never cease, even the old regulars. They should be told and retold forever.
That day in McLeansboro, I visited all over town Huck's Food & Fuel, the Food Park, the This and That Variety Store, a Baptist church, a fertilizer plant, and, of course, a hardware store, driving down Jerry Sloan Avenue, the street his old high school is on and talked with the people, folks named Snook and Beezer and Scooter and Dizzy. Nothing but respect, all around.
"Jerry's one of us," said Mark Scott, who then was the athletic director at McLeansboro High School. "If he were here right now, he'd be the worst-dressed person around in bib overalls and an old hat. He was dirt-poor growing up and even though he's been successful, put us on the map, he never has changed."
Never has, even as he was winning 1,127 games with the Jazz, against a mere 682 losses. In his mind, no big deal. He was just a man doing his job, always crediting a couple of fellows named Malone and Stockton.
I traveled 15 miles out of town, past fields of crops and rusted-out shacks on dirt roads to the foundation, all that remains, of the house where Sloan was born, where he was raised, learning to work, growing corn and soybeans, tending cattle, pulling rods and tubing on oil rigs. And playing basketball, too, on dirt courts and bent rims.
At the time, Sloan's late wife, Bobbye, said of him: "He's the youngest of 10 kids in a family that had a definite pecking order. By the time it came his turn, it was like, 'Shut up.' Even if he did good, he didn't know it. So, he's not on a pedestal. He's never been full of himself."
Bobbye also revealed something else about Sloan: "At home, he's soft-hearted and tender, the opposite of what people expect. When our daughter, Kathy, and her fiancée told us at Christmas that they were getting married, Jerry got emotional. He cried."
Which is to say, despite all his toughness, Sloan is human. He used to drive a van around Salt Lake City a fact that, by itself, says a whole lot about an NBA head coach who made millions of dollars wearing a cap. He once was mistaken as a limo driver by a woman who needed a lift to the airport. When she flagged Sloan down, and asked him for a ride, he responded that he wasn't headed that way, "But if you really need a ride …"
Speaking to Sloan's reputation for toughness is my all-time favorite quote about Jerry, one I've repeated many times, uttered 20 years ago by Frank Layden: "Nobody fights with Jerry because you know the price would be too high. You might come out the winner, at his age, you might even lick him, but you'd lose an eye, an arm, your testicles, in the process. Everything would be gone. He's a throwback, a blue-collar guy, a dirt farmer. I know you're going to think I'm kidding when I say this, but I saw Jerry Sloan fight at the Alamo, I saw him at Harpers Ferry, I saw him at Pearl Harbor. He's loyal. He's a hard worker. He's a man."
The people of McLeansboro, from Don's Liquor Hut to Huck's Food & Fuel, love that about Sloan. The people of Utah love that about Sloan. Just watch the way people approach and respond to him when he sits in his seat at a Jazz game.
On Wednesday, Jerry said that he doesn't want people to feel sorry for him. It reminds me of when, after a tight win over Houston in 1999, Sloan said this: "Tonight is what I live for guys struggling, coming back, competing. Those are the things that are most important. That's the best thing about being a coach. Seeing how guys react in a tough situation. Watching them fight back."
Fight back now, Jerry. We're with you.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.