By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
Like just about all of us, the NBA has had a rough start and continuation of the year 2020.
The loss of iconic basketball legends punctuated the early days of the year as the NBA and fans of the game worldwide said goodbye to the league’s defining commissioner, David Stern, and GOAT-level talent Kobe Bryant.
Another basketball lifer took the final transition last week in hall of fame player/coach Jerry Sloan, a defining figure in the histories of both the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, his loss adds to the solemn series of events surrounding the sport as it begins making plans to renew a season paused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Losing Sloan, whose death was announced last Friday at the age of 78, is a tough loss for the Jazz, but it can also be viewed as a time to celebrate a life devoted to the building of that once wayward franchise with a name that still doesn’t really fit its area and fan-base. Yet, largely under Sloan’s leadership for 23 years as coach, the Jazz staked out a relevancy and standard for quality that allowed the franchise to reign at the top of the NBA’s Western Conference in the late 1990s while living off that sucess in the years since, well past the coach’s retirement.
Just prior to Sloan’s death, though, the Jazz had the unfortunate coincidence of being seen as ground zero for the Covid-19 virus taking hold in American sports.
It was the shut down of the Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game on March 11 that brought the then-breaking news of Utah players Rudy Gobert (and soon after, Donovan Mitchell) being the first NBA players to test positive for the virus. After Gobert’s positive diagnosis the league shut down operations immediately, which is its current state as of this article’s publishing.
Rumors started to circulate quickly regarding the severity of the incident and how it may permanently effect the relationship of two teammates seen as cornerstones of the current Jazz roster. Some reporting had Gobert and Mitchell being so at odds that they would have to break up the duo.
ESPN NBA reporter Eric Woodyard previously covered the Jazz for the Deseret News in Utah, he can speak to what he saw to be a great personal relationship and friendship between the two while also mentioning that any relationship can get bumpy when the element of sudden illness or even death figures into what was an unprecedented situation.
However, no matter their personal relationship status, Woodyard believes Mitchell and Gobert will always have a strong professional relationship, and that is partially due to the strong “team first” culture within the franchise.
“[Mitchell and Gobert] are better as Jazz players because their game is structured,” Woodyard told WARR Media over the holiday weekend. “I think that system really fits Rudy Gobert perfect and it fits Donavan Mitchell perfect. I think they can have a professional relationship moving forward and they are the right organization to do it with because of that strong culture with (Jazz coach Quin) Snyder being the type of leader he is as their coach and they have solid group of guys around that can get through it.”
You’d figure that coach Snyder has gotten a lot of his cues in Utah from the job Sloan did, which included coaching the franchise to 15 straight winning seasons and playoff appearances that included back-to-back Finals appearances (’97, ’98) as well as an established discipline that was admired league-wide. There’s a certain way things are done with the Jazz, that way of thinking started with Sloan and it continues to exist today, it’ll likely be the reason the Gobert/Mitchell situation is dealt with with little to no issues.
Woodyard never got to cover Sloan, a native of McLeansboro, Ill., in his prime coaching days, but he had a number of interactions with him and talked to many players who were coached by him. In those moments, Woodyard got a clear understanding of the respect Utah and the Jazz had for Sloan.
“He was in pretty bad shape when I met him and I did get a chance to talk to his wife Tammy so I knew it was getting serious right before he passed away,” Woodyard said. “He would always be around, especially when Greg Popovich was in town. He was a great person.
“You see all the DNA of Jerry Sloan within the Jazz organization at the end of the day and learning about his legacy is still so huge there in Salt Lake City and in some ways also in Chicago. It really tells you the type of person he was.”
Of course, Sloan’s Chicago and Illinois roots involve his being raised in Southern Illinois and being the first draft pick of the expansion Bulls in 1966 after a stellar college career at Evansville. Sloan defined the early Bulls teams with his defensive tenacity and skillful play, especially once he was teamed with back-court mate Norm Van Lier in the ’70s.
Along with a short coaching tenure that ended in the early ’80s, Sloan distinguishes himself as the first Bull to have his number (#4) retired by the franchise.
After first joining Utah as an assistant coach in 1985, Sloan took over from legendary predecessor Frank Layden in ’88, beginning to lay the groundwork for the grand impact he’d have on that franchise.
Woodyard, who currently covers the Bulls and several other Midwestern teams for ESPN, reminisced about his time covering the Jazz, stating one of the reasons why Snyder fits in so well with that team is due to a comparable mindset he has with Sloan.
“Quin was in that same [Sloan] DNA and was an amazing coach to cover,” Woodyard said. “He made me a better reporter because I would have to find out my stuff in different ways because he was so smart. Jerry Sloan put that DNA in the Jazz to hire a guy like Quin Snyder.”
There is likely no Jazz in the Salt Lake valley today without Jerry Sloan, and as we mourn his death, let us also reminisce on his impact within the game and celebrate what he has done to teach the game of basketball and uphold its best values, to the great benefit of not only two winning franchises but to countless players, coaches and even reporters like Woodyard.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media