Lakers react to Jerry Sloan's departure
There had always been a time when Phil Jackson expected Jerry Sloan would finally pick up the Larry O'Brien trophy, wear a championship ring and win the league's coach-of-the-year award.
That thought originated when Jackson saw first-hand how tough of a challenge his Chicago Bulls team went through in securing the 1997 and 1998 NBA championships in two grueling six-game series against the Utah Jazz. Once the Bulls' dynasty was disbanded the following season, Jackson figured the mantle would go to the Jazz. That moment never came. Three days after signing a one-year contract extension, Sloan ended his 23-year tenure as the head coach of the Jazz on Thursday, marking the longest-serving coach in the four major U.S. professional leagues.
"My time is up," Sloan said teary-eyed in a news conference, "and it's time for me to move on."
Other reasons have varied, with reports including one from The Times' Mark Heisler who said, "He was having trouble with All-Star point guard Deron Williams and didn't think he was being backed up by third-year owner Greg Miller." But the reasons for Sloan's departure in the midst of an abnormal 31-23 record aren't so much important as it is the unanimous praise for Sloan. That included Jackson, who's rarely known to praise any coach.
"You hate to see a guy out having never won a championship with all the great teams he’s had,” Jackson told reporters in Boston before the Lakers' 92-86 victory Thursday over the Celtics. "We all had admiration for him. As a colleague, we’ll miss him."
The reasons go beyond the 1,221 wins Sloan accumulated, which eclipses Jackson's current mark of 1,134 wins. Even with his Bulls beating the Jazz in the Finals, the Lakers eliminating them in the last three postseasons and currently owning a 17-home winning streak, Jackson always maintained a high level of respect for Sloan and his team. Jackson never tweaked a Utah player, which is usually a playoff staple of his. He never assumed his teams would get by easy against a team that's been predicated on hard work and a never-give-up attitude, a quality of traits that aren't really equated with L.A. with the superior talent and celebrity that surrounds the team. And in his collaborative photography book with NBA photographer Andy Bernstein titled "Journey to the Ring," Jackson described Utah this way: "This opponent almost seems like a yearly struggle for us" before saying the Jazz is "one of the most disciplined teams in the NBA."
"Jerry's an animal. He's a dogged guy," Jackson said during the preseason. "He's had good talent. He never had superior talent, but he's done well with it."
"He was stubborn," Jackson added to reporters in Boston. "He had to be as a coach. He had a system. The system was effective. It's not easy to have a team in Utah. It's not the biggest draw in the country to have in free agents to go there. They were able to have a really great home record and play the kind of basketball that was admirable."
Lakers guard Derek Fisher saw that first-hand when he played for Utah in the 2006-07 season. He and Kobe Bryant have always held a wide level of respect for Sloan and the Jazz ever since falling to them in the 1997 and 1998 NBA playoffs. When Fisher watched those years' Finals between the Jazz and Bulls, he shared in his book, "Character Driven: Life, Lessons and Basketball" how he marveled the way the Jazz never deviated from their system, but maintained consistency in running it.
"The frustrating thing about analyzing the Utah Jazz of that vintage was that a lot of the time you knew what was going to happen on the offensive end -- a pick-and-roll between John Stockton and Karl Malone," Fisher wrote. "But they executed it so well and the play so seamlessly suited their unique skills that even if you did a good job defending it, you still couldn't stop it."
When Fisher joined Utah, he shared an anecdote where he learned "the Sloan Way in a surprising manner" as Fisher put in his book. He then revealed an anecdote on how Sloan talked about the need to have an unspecified curfew during trips. That apparently applied to Fisher opting to go to a nearby convenience store and returning to his hotel after midnight. Fisher revealed that led to an honest conversation where he respectfully stated Sloan never gave a specified curfew, prompting Sloan to then tell the team that the curfew in the future would be set at midnight.
This episode struck Fisher for numerous reasons. He appreciated Sloan giving him the chance to defend himself without discipline. He respected that Sloan never singled him out in front of the team. And he couldn't help but acknowledge he preferred Jackson's method of coaching.
But that still didn't diminish Fisher's level of respect for Sloan as detailed in the book. Fisher shared that Sloan was extremely supportive of him when he missed Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against Golden State as he and his family went to New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City so that his then-10-month-old daughter, Tatum, could have surgery to treat a form of eye cancer. Fisher revealed Sloan didn't put any pressure on him for when he'd return, but the surgery went so well that Fisher managed to fly back to Salt Lake City and arrive in time to play in the second half of the Jazz's 127-117 Game 2 victory over Golden State, an effort that showcased Fisher forcing a turnover and hitting a critical three-pointer late in the game. And when he decided to opt out of his contract when the season ended so he could seek the best medical care for Tatum, Sloan made no issue of it, something that couldn't be said of Utah's fan base after Fisher signed with the Lakers.
"I've been fortunate in my NBA career to work under two of the most talented and successful coaches in the history of the pro game," Fisher wrote in his book. "I feel privileged to have played under two living legends and to have seen how two different approaches to the game and how to treat players can both produce winning teams."
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Photo: Longtime Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, being held back by assistant Phil Johnson after drawing a technical foul during a game against the Lakers in April 2009, will be replaced by assistant Tyrone Corbin, right. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times