SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - The National Basketball Association (NBA) is loaded with youth, talent and tattoos, plus old-school coach Jerry Sloan who has been patrolling the sidelines at the Utah Jazz for nearly two decades.
“I’m old,” said Sloan. “You can call it old school or whatever you want. I just was always taught at a very young age that if you’re going to play basketball you play to win.”
Sloan, 64, recorded his 1,000th career coaching victory on Monday, becoming just the fifth coach in NBA history to reach the milestone.
Having coached a total of 1,663 games, he has the seventh best winning percentage in NBA history and has taken the Jazz to two NBA Finals appearances (1997 and 1998) and five Midwest Division titles.
With Sloan leading the way the Utah Jazz have made their fastest start, at 16-5, behind a blend of veterans Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring, Gordan Giricek, Derek Fisher, Mehmet Okur and second-year guard Deron Williams.
They also have four promising rookies on the team.
Russian-born forward Kirilenko remembers his first meeting with the square-jawed coach.
“He was a legend already,” said Kirilenko, adding that playing for a coach like Sloan was something he was accustomed to.
“We call them old generation,” he said. “They get used to showing their skills in one way. They don’t accept anything else. And we have a lot of coaches in Russia like this.”
Sloan has guided Jazz teams to 16 consecutive winning seasons, 15 trips to the NBA playoffs (1989-2003) and 10 50-win seasons. No one in American professional sports has a longer tenure with the same team.
“I’ve never looked for another job since I’ve been here,” Sloan said in an interview with Reuters. “I knew I was going to be here as much as I could and do everything I could to help this team and if I get fired so be it.
“I’ve been fired before. But life goes on.”
Since Sloan was given the head coaching job in December 1988 there have been close to 200 head coaching changes in the NBA.
A native of McLeansboro, Illinois, Sloan starred at the nearby University of Evansville. A gritty player, he was the Chicago Bulls’ first pick in the 1966 expansion draft, earning him the moniker “The Original Bull”.
He played in two all-star games and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team four times before injuries ended his playing days.
Sloan accepted the head coaching job at Evansville in 1977 but three days later, in a fateful decision, changed his mind. The job went to Bobby Watson, a Vietnam war veteran.
Tragedy struck on December 13, 1977 when Watson and all 14 Evansville players were killed when their DC-3 airplane crashed on takeoff.
“This is just a game,” Sloan said reflecting on the disaster. “It hit me at an early age in my career and so it’s something that stays with you. You figure how lucky you’ve been and I’ve been a very lucky guy.”
Sloan went on to coach the Bulls for nearly three seasons (94-121) but was fired midseason in 1982 after the club skidded to a 19-32 start.
Having been raised on a farm, Sloan already knew about changing seasons. He moved on.
“Jerry knew tough times as a youngster being the youngest of ten and losing his father at a very early age,” said former NBA public relations specialist Bill Kreifeldt.
“He knew tough times when he lost his wife Bobbye. I think he relishes the challenges of re-tooling the Jazz.”
Bobbye Sloan’s death to cancer nearly two years ago was devastating to Jerry after 41 years of marriage. But the coach decided to carry on doing what he loved most.
NBA All-Star guard Fisher said Sloan delivered valuable lessons about hard work and appreciation.
Over the years Sloan has tilled a homegrown view of the world into a fundamental brand of basketball that seems to feed a basic hunger for how to play the game.
“I think people are more interested in basketball being a team game and that’s all I’ve ever known,” said the six-foot-five-inch (1.96-meter) Sloan, who is still as trim as he was in his playing days.
With his 1,000th win behind him, over the Dallas Mavericks, Sloan will continue to work the sidelines, encouraging his players and fuming when he believes an official misses a call. His message remains clear.
“If you do it his way you’ve got a chance to win,” said rookie guard Dee Brown.