You’re going to hear a lot about Hall of Fame legend Jerry Sloan today, all of it and more deserved. Sloan came from a different era, one much rougher and tougher than today. One where you had to fight for every inch of respect. One where you sometimes even fought for fun and made a lifetime friend from it.
That old saying about having to walk ten miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways? That was essentially true of a young Sloan, who would wake and work at the Gobbler’s Knob, Illinois farm of his widowed mother and nine older siblings for a couple of hours before bolting for a welcome respite at basketball practice before class. He had more callouses by high school than seemingly an entire generation does now.
For a fellow that professed to be “scared of my own shadow” as a country boy, Jerry Sloan was out of his element moving on to the big wide world outside after small-town school, and took some solace in laboring on a field of roughnecks for a time before mustering the courage to give the hardwood courts another try.
This time it would stick, and Sloan quickly gained a reputation as someone that took no bull on the basketball court, drawing strength from a difficult upbringing to forge a career made of broken noses and bruising baskets. Sloan found a niche in the game by simply being tougher than anyone else, a hallmark of his style, with a will he imposed on opponents — and even more so on his own teammates and later players, demanding the most from them, forcing them in his quirky, country way to dig that much deeper than the other guy.
Jerry became very close to coach Dick Motta and ‘mate Norm Van Lier once he’d made his way to Chicago and the Bulls. Then coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, Dr. Jack Ramsey recalls:
Sloan was in the middle of everything they did, and the Bulls adopted his no-holds-barred demeanor. Motta once told me that Sloan and Van Lier got into it at practice sometimes in battles that carried off the floor and out into the corridors of the building.
Despite fighting each other, when the chips were down both Sloan and Van Lier knew where their loyalties lie. After the infamous Malice at the Palace occurred Jerry was asked if anything like that had happened to him in his playing days. Sloan dons a sly smile and recounts an… “interaction” with a fan:
Uh…yeah, I’ve had a few little incidents like that. Back then when we played, Van Lier and I got, somebody threw an aerosol can in our huddle one time and we, uh, went up there and let him know we didn’t want him to throw anymore of those.
It wasn’t any different once he was the head coach of the Utah Jazz. Whenever Sloan felt like his guys were getting the short end of the stick he was the first one up and at ’em. He appreciated a player that was willing to leave it all out there like none other and having felt nothing short of lucky to be where he was in life just couldn’t bring himself to half-ass anything.
If you can read lips, I suggest you keep your swear jar handy for the next couple of vids.
In 1996 Jerry Stackhouse landed a couple of haymakers on the much smaller Jeff Hornacek during a game in Utah, an assault that landed him only a two game suspension. But Jerry Sloan wouldn’t forget this, nor another incident involving Stackhouse and another Jazz player, this time Kirk Snyder some years later.
Matt Harpring was a player after Jerry’s own heart, probably helping to explain why the now-color commentator of Jazz television broadcasts got so many minutes while playing for Sloan. Like Jerry as a player, Harpring wasn’t particularly athletic, nor was he likely to explode for 20-plus points very often. But what Harpring was was tough, so when he took one to the beak one night — by you guessed it, Jerry Stackhouse — Jerry Sloan erupted off the bench in his player’s defense.
Call me crazy, but if I’m Jerry Stackhouse I’m not waiting for Jerry Sloan in the tunnel after this one.
Jerry Sloan never backed down in defense of his guys. Not once. And not once was his authority as a genuine tough guy challenged. When it came right down to it, no one wanted a piece of this ole country boy.
Not even NBA players in their primes. “I’m not scared to walk out there and take care of my players,” said Sloan in the 1999 playoffs when Rasheed Wallace tossed Thurl Bailey right in front of him. Sloan bull-rushed Wallace who walked away rather readily.
Man, one time I set a pick on (John) Stockton and I knocked Stockton to the ground and I gave him a shoulder. And I’m really cool with Stockton but I was trying to show the rest of the team like I’m going to get the technical, you guys. I’ll be the bad guy, come on. Well, Stockton kind of laughed. I laughed. I looked at the bench and Sloan looked at me.
I said, ‘You want some?’ He was like, ‘Damn right I want some.’
He started walking toward me. So, you know, it’s a good thing there was a ref there because, hey, he’s one of the toughest guys in the league. I don’t want to fight that guy. So, I’ll tell you, when your team is led by one of the toughest guys in the league, your team is going to be tough.
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.
–Frank Layden, To the Brink by Michael Lewis
They might start out jawing, but when Jerry Sloan stood in seriousness they cooled faster than a late autumn night on a small Illinois farm.