Jerry Sloan, the Hall of Fame coach who was a fixture for decades in Utah and took the Jazz to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, died Friday. He was 78.
The Jazz said he died from complications of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. Sloan had been in failing health for many years.
Sloan spent 23 seasons coaching the Jazz. The team — with John Stockton and Karl Malone leading the way in many of those seasons — finished below .500 in only one of those years. Sloan won 1,221 games in his career, trailing Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson and Gregg Popovich in league history.
“It was an honor and a privilege to have one of the greatest and most respected coaches in NBA history coaching our team,” the Miller family, who own the Jazz, said in a statement. “We have appreciated our relationship with Jerry and acknowledge his dedication to and passion for the Utah Jazz.
“He has left an enduring legacy with this franchise and our family. The far-reaching impact of his life has touched our city, state and the world as well as countless players, staff and fans.”
Utah went to the Finals twice under Sloan, both times falling to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Sloan entered the Hall of Fame in 2009.
“I’m not into numbers and stuff like that,” Sloan said when he passed Pat Riley for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time win list in 2010; Popovich has since surpassed him for that spot. “I never have been. I’ve got a great organization to work for that’s given me an opportunity to stay there for a long time. I’m very thankful for that and the coaches that I have with me. It’s not about me.”
He spent 34 years in the Jazz organization, as head coach, assistant, scout or senior basketball adviser. Sloan started as a scout, was promoted as an assistant under Frank Layden in 1984 and became the sixth coach in franchise history on Dec. 9, 1988, after Layden resigned.
“Like Stockton and Malone as players, Jerry Sloan epitomized the organization,” the Jazz said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed.”
Sloan’s longevity with the Jazz was remarkable. During his time in Utah, there were 245 coaching changes around the league and five teams — Charlotte, Memphis, Toronto, Orlando and Minnesota — did not even exist when he took the helm with the Jazz.
He also was the coach in Chicago for parts of three seasons, going 94-121. But his ties with the Bulls were much deeper. His No. 4 jersey was retired by the team after a playing career in which he averaged 14 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 755 games over 11 seasons. Sloan and backcourt mate Norm Van Lier were the defensive backbone for the Dick Motta-led Bulls.
“He would make the All-Star team today just on his defense,” longtime Bulls teammate Bob Love said in 2017. “These guys now running down the floor? Nobody would’ve wanted to mess with Jerry. He was tough as nails.”
Sloan was called “The Original Bull” because he was selected in the 1966 expansion draft and became a two-time All-Star known for his toughness and grit. He remains the only NBA player to average more than seven rebounds and more than two steals a game in his career.
“Jerry was the face of the Bulls organization from its inception through the mid-1970s, and very appropriately, his uniform No. 4 was the first jersey retired by the team,” Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said Friday. “A great player and a Hall of Fame NBA coach, most importantly, Jerry was a great person.”
After his playing career, Sloan was hired as Evansville coach in March 1977, but backed out after five days for personal reasons. Nine months later, the team plane crashed, killing all aboard.
Some of his former players praised him Friday.
“I think the Utah Jazz are Jerry Sloan,” former center Mark Eaton told ESPN. "The whole franchise is steeped in the things that he taught and put together in the ’90s, and I think that everything is measured against that. You look at the team today, and I notice that when players make great plays of effort where they’re getting after a loose ball on the floor or blocking out or getting a steal or making something happen, the crowd reacts.
"It's what this market is known for and what the team is known for, and I think he was well-revered around the league because of that, because he had one philosophy and he stuck to it and it produced results and everybody got on board from ownership down to the players, and I think that's the legacy."
Said former guard Darrell Griffith: “He’s one of the top coaches in the NBA even though he didn’t win a championship. That didn’t minimize his accomplishments. He’s been great for Utah, for the team and the basketball world. He’s taken that franchise and made it what it is over 23 years. He’s a Hall of Fame coach, and there’s nothing more you can add to what he’s done. He’s going to go down as one of the top coaches in the game. He already is, and rightfully so.”
Reaction to death of Jerry Sloan
“Jerry Sloan was among the NBA’s most respected and admired legends.” — NBA commissioner Adam Silver
“It’s a sad day for all of us who knew Jerry Sloan. Not only on the basketball court but, more importantly, as a human being. He was genuine and true. And that is rare. He was a mentor for me from afar until I got to know him. A man who suffered no fools, he possessed a humor, often disguised, and had a heart as big as the prairie.” — San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
“Jerry Sloan will always be synonymous with the Utah Jazz. He will forever be a part of the Utah Jazz organization and we join his family, friends and fans in mourning his loss. We are so thankful for what he accomplished here in Utah and the decades of dedication, loyalty and tenacity he brought to our franchise.” — Statement from Utah Jazz
“I was honored by the opportunity to follow in Coach Sloan’s giant footsteps, and subsequently humbled by the task of trying to uphold the standards and the success that are synonymous with his legacy. The clear identity that he established for Jazz Basketball — unselfishness, toughness and the essential importance of Team – has always left a palpable responsibility to strive for in carrying forward.” — Jazz coach Quin Snyder
“It was a privilege to play against a Jerry Sloan coached team, I always knew that we would be severely tested. His overall philosophy on both sides of the ball was fundamentally solid and always one step ahead of the game.” — Miami Heat president Pat Riley
“He was a great coach and a great player, too. You tend to forget just how good certain players were. And Jerry, for rebounding, for defense, for toughness, there weren’t many players in his category for those three things.” — longtime NBA executive Rod Thorn
“Jerry, in my mind, is one of the top five coaches that I coached against. Because of that, I would say he’s probably one of the top five coaches in NBA history. ... Jerry was a very loyal and very demanding old-school coach. It was all about playing the right way and playing hard. It’s pretty simple: If you didn’t play hard and you didn’t play the right way, you didn’t play.” — longtime NBA coach George Karl
“Thank you for the opportunities, thank you for the lessons, thank you for help mold me into a great basketball player and man. I will always bring my “lunch pail” to work! RIP Coach Sloan” — former Jazz forward Paul Millsap
“Blessed that I got to play for him and learn so much from him during my 5 1/2 years in Utah. You knew he always had your back when you stepped out on that court.” — former Jazzh guard Deron Williams
“We lost a great one.” — former NBA guard Baron Davis
“I didn’t get to spend a lot of time playing for Coach Sloan, but coming in as a rookie he had a major impact on my transition to the NBA. I’m grateful for that. Prayers to his family, friends and loved ones.” — former Jazz forward Gordon Hayward
“I loved everything about Jerry Sloan, from the way he played to the way he coached. He was a tenacious competitor who represented the Bulls of the ‘70s so well. Jerry became one of my favorite coaches when he was on the 1996 Dream Team staff and it was an honor to learn from him.” — Hall of Famer and former Bulls great Scottie Pippen
“Jerry Sloan was a warrior. I got to know him through Coach Clem Haskins when I was an assistant coach in 1980 at Western Kentucky. They played together on the Chicago Bulls. Jerry and Clem spoke every summer at our camp. They would tell stories about their playing days, and I hung on every word. I would never have imagined we would be coaching against each other when I was an assistant at Seattle and then as a head coach myself. All of us who love to coach have learned many lessons from Coach Sloan. I send my thoughts to his family and he will be truly missed.” — Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey