Friday, February 11, 2011

Jazz hit sour note with Sloan resignation

It was October, 1997, and Karl Malone was on a roll -- only it wasn’t the kind that typically came on the back half of a pick with running partner John Stockton, often resulting in a thunderous dunk or an open mid-range jumper.

The Mailman was in a full lather, all right, but it had nothing to do with the fact that he’d just finished a strenuous Utah Jazz training camp practice in Boise, Idaho.

Referee Dan Crawford T's up Jerry Sloan in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Malone would occasionally work himself into a frenzy over some perceived slight, using his anger as a motivating influence to great personal advantage. On this occasion, the fall following the Jazz’s first six-game setback to the Chicago Bulls in the 1997 NBA Finals, Malone was upset with teammate Greg Ostertag – who earned Malone’s ire by showing up to camp out of shape – and Jazz owner Larry Miller, who had let slip in an interview somewhere that he thought his perennial All-NBA power forward might just have lost a step.

Malone, one of the last players left in the gym, was sitting down in a chair, holding court with several reporters and letting his thoughts rip. He’d been going on for about five minutes, and seemed nowhere near being done, when Jazz coach Jerry Sloan poked his head into the gym, briefly surveyed the scene, and yelled for Malone to get on the team bus.

I will never forget Malone’s reaction. Despite being interrupted in mid-rant, Malone immediately popped out of his chair and said something like, “Sorry, guys, but the boss has spoken.” Then he walked over and got on the bus.

To me, that was always the perfect example of the kind of respect Sloan carried with his players. Malone, especially, could be emotional and tempestuous, but when Sloan spoke, he, Stockton and every other Jazzman got in step.

Sloan stepped down Thursday as coach of the Jazz, ending what was the longest active coaching reign in North American pro sports. The move, coming in the middle of Sloan’s 23rd season as head coach, came following a heated halftime argument with All-Star Deron Williams, the culmination of a few other run-ins with his talented but temperamental point guard this season. The Jazz can attempt to put a nice spin on Thursday's stunning developments with Sloan simply saying it was time for him resign, but one thing I know after covering the Jazz for seven years during the 1990s and observing the team from a distance since then is that Jerry Sloan is no quitter. That he resigned not only in the middle of the season, but after a bizarre 30-minute post-game meeting with general manager Kevin O'Connor says there is more to this story than that Jazz are letting on.

In my experience, you learn more about a person following a loss than you do a win. It’s easy to cover up personality quirks and other flaws when you’re winning, but someone’s true character often reveals itself in adversity. To that end, I’m always reminded of something Sloan said in the press room at Key Arena in Seattle, right after the Jazz lost a hard-fought Game 7 to the Sonics in the 1996 Western Conference finals, denying the team its first trip to the NBA Finals. Sloan pointed out that the interesting thing to him wasn’t necessarily the winning or losing, it was seeing which players had the will to compete in adversity.

Sloan rode that will to compete all the way to becoming the third-winningest coach in NBA history – despite never claiming an NBA championship or even NBA Coach-of-the-Year honors for that matter. (By the way, it's a travesty that Sloan, a Hall of Famer, never won Coach of the Year. For laughs sometime, take a look at the list of those who won Coach of the Year during Sloan's tenure. Del Harris? Avery Johnson? Sam Mitchell?)

The Jazz have now handed former Jazzman Ty Corbin the keys to the team bus. It remains to be seen if Williams will get on it.

Note: Karl Malone subsequently commented on Sloan's departure the following day when he attended Corbin's head coaching debut. (It was a coincidence, he was previously scheduled to attend.) He made some very pointed comments -- Hey, would you expect anything different? -- regarding the move. It appears to me that he's not buying the team's portrayal of the events either. To see KUTV's report, including a few minutes of video from Malone's visit with the media, click here.

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