An Open Letter To My Childhood Hero Jerry Sloan


Last week, it was announced that legendary former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia. The shockwaves were felt across Jazz Nation. I felt them, too, because Jerry Sloan was one of my childhood heroes. 

Dear Coach Sloan,

I know it’s been several years since you officially hung up your whistle and rode your tractor off into the sunset. Nevertheless, I don’t know what else to call you other than “Coach.” I think I speak on behalf of all Jazz fans when I say that you’ll always be Coach — especially in our hearts.

You’re a permanent fixture on the mantlepiece of Utah basketball and your spot is forever reserved.

When news broke about your diagnosis, I wish I could say I was shocked. You’re an old man and this is what happens to old men. That I wasn’t shocked probably speaks volumes on how desensitized I am. However, it doesn’t make it suck any less. The only thing I could think was, “damn it, not Jerry,” while wiping the mist from my eyes.

Situations that carry that kind of gravitas always hurt the most.

Because, Coach, I’ve almost always looked up to you. My parents split when I was young and my Dad bought the house right next door to his law office in Downtown Salt Lake City. Because of that, I’ve always considered myself a proud Salt Laker.

What’s more, I’m a basketball fan. Outside of my wife and stuff like breathing, it’s pretty much my favorite thing ever. And as a basketball fan, and a Salt Laker, there’s no team I love more than the Utah Jazz. The team you helped build.

There is no Utah Jazz without you, Coach. And outside of Larry Miller, there’s not a single person more important to the franchise.

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve playing basketball with my two brothers. My big brother (rest in peace, Bryce) being three-years older than me, and my little brother being 15 months younger. Because of the odd number, we would almost always play one-on-one games with one of the brothers sitting out and “coaching” the other two.

And while the players we would pretend to be (I was almost always either Michael Jordan or Karl Malone) would change, the brother on the sideline was always you.

You personified everything I fell in love with while watching the Jazz growing up — courage, consistency, grittiness, loyalty, toughness and a get-it-done-by-whatever-means attitude.

There seems to be nothing you couldn’t fix with some elbow grease and rubbing a little dirt on it. It’s a tribute to the type of man you are.

I’ve always admired you because of this. You’ve always carried yourself with such discipline, such pride, such toughness and such persistence. It’s also why you were able to leave such an irreversible imprint on my favorite team.

Truthfully, the reason I have such an affinity for these characteristics is because it’s how I was raised. My Pops was a single child from Pocatello, Idaho who worked on the railroads during the post-Depression era. He was also a college heavyweight boxing champion.

After making (and paying) his way through school, my Pops went on to become a successful patent attorney, father of seven children, and one of the toughest men you could ever meet. I like to think he instilled at least some of that in me. I’m positive you can relate.

In so many ways you two are mirror images of each other. No matter the situation, you were always ready to face it, with your hard hat on and your lunch pale by your side. That’s contagious willpower.

We saw this game-in and game-out during the John Stockton and Karl Malone era. For over a decade, it was as if those two players — and really the rest of those teams — were direct reflections of you. And I think that is the best compliment a team can pay to their coach.

We all knew what to expect when watching those Jazz teams. It was precise passing, bone-rattling screens, devastating pick-and-rolls, suffocating defense and off-ball cuts so sharp they could draw blood. Everyone knew what was coming, yet no one could do a damn thing to stop it. To me, that’s greatness.

Furthermore, you always seemed to be a student of the game. Well, that is until you became a Dean of coaching. It’s why other NBA legends such as Gregg Popovich speak about you in a tone of reverence and admiration. And why Jeff Van Gundy gets downright giddy at the opportunity to talk to or about you. 

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With all of this it’s no wonder you were at the helm of over 1,200 career victories, 13 50-win seasons, 16 consecutive winning records and 20 playoff appearances.

The fact that you never won Coach of the Year, not even once, remains the biggest basketball tragedy of my lifetime.

It’s also pretty staggering to consider that when you were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, it just seemed expected. Like, of course, it’s the great Jerry Sloan. Let him say a few words, give him his plaque and his shrine in Springfield and then continue with business as usual.

You wouldn’t have it any other way; having panache was never your thing.

My intention is not to come off as if I’m discounting your greatness. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Because you were so great, it’s universally accepted that your spot among the basketball elite is firmly cemented for eternity.

And yet we never heard a word of any of these accomplishments come out of your mouth. Out of all the attributes I’ve listed above, it’s your humility that’s the most remarkable. For someone to have accomplished so much, to be so humble, is truly the mark of an incredible man.

It was always onto the next with you. With your eyes steadily focused on the road ahead. You have always been so firmly planted in improving and moving forward. And that’s what allowed you to coach so well for so long.

Which brings me to the present. You have Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia. These are conditions that will only get worse. Conditions more difficult to beat than those Chicago Bulls team of the 90’s.

I remember watching the deterioration of my Grandma’s mental state after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease (Lewy Body Dementia is considered one step below Alzheimer’s). It got to the point where she couldn’t remember her own son’s name and would constantly ask for a glass of water despite there being one in her hands. It damn near killed me inside to watch.

These are monstrous maladies. Ones that place you at the bottom of an unclimbable hill. But you’re used to that, Coach. You’ve always made the best out of bad situations. Like in 2003, when everyone was predicting that your Jazz would be the worst team in the history of the NBA, and you ended up winning 42 games.

42 wins on a team that gave major minutes to Mikki Moore, DeShawn Stevenson and Curtis Borchardt. I still shake my head in disbelief.

And that’s just one small example. I fully expect you to face these conditions with the same grit and determination that you’re famous for. I mean, we’re talking about a man who made six All-Defensive teams and started in a playoff series despite having a dislocated sternum and broken ribs.

Even in the wake of your announcement, you made it clear you didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for you. So I won’t, Coach. There will be moments of heartache, but ultimately I’ll remain inspired by what you represent. Even in the darkest of hours, you’re still the toughest of them all.

In the following days after your announcement, I was able to witness an outpouring of social media love pointed in your direction. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about you, Coach.

Ideas of everything from a four-mile walk (an homage to the four miles you walk every day and your number as a player), a three-on-three hoops tournament and other charitable acts were tossed around.

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This type of love is only reserved for those who are greatly admired. It’s a wonderful example of the impact you’ve left on this state and Utah Jazz fans alike.

Personally, I don’t care what ends up coming to fruition. A walk or a three-on-three tournament is all the same to me. All I know is that I will happily pay whatever participation fee is necessary so that I can be a part of it.

So please, Coach, do us one last favor. Put up one last fight. In fact, fight like hell. Show us all that legendary toughness one more time. Give us one more thing to believe in before it’s all over.

But no matter what, when January 31st (that’s Jerry Sloan Day in Utah to those not in the know) comes around, I’ll be cracking open a Budweiser (your favorite beer) in your honor. I promise you this will continue beyond when I have to pour out a little on the ground because you’re no longer with us.

I didn’t cry when Hot Rod died, but I know I will when you do.

Thank you, Coach, for all that you taught us and the example you set for us. For your courage, fortitude and everlasting tenacity. I’m a better man having been able to grow up with you in my life.

If I end up being a fraction of the man you are, I’ll consider my life to be a complete success.

Your friend,
Greg Foster