Sloan's no-nonsense approach to the game has been shaped by a life in which hard work was necessary not only to excel but also to survive. He was just four years old when his father died suddenly, leaving him, his mother and his nine older siblings to take care of the family's farm, which was located 16 long miles from McLeansboro. Sloan got his first job in second grade, yanking shrubs out of the ground for $2 a day. In high school he rose before dawn to make 7 a.m. basketball practice, then worked after school in the fields until dark. "It was no picnic," Sloan says. "But we learned that hard work never killed anybody."
Although Sloan went on to star at Evansville, becoming a second-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets in the '65 draft, he continued to throw himself into every play as if his next meal depended on it. When he was left unprotected by the Bullets in the expansion draft after his rookie year, and claimed by Chicago, he just took that rejection as a sign that he needed to work harder. To this day Motta calls Sloan "the most driven person" he has ever known.
Shortly after his aching knees forced Sloan to retire in 1976, he accepted an assistant's position at Evansville with the idea that he would become the team's head coach the following season. When the time came to move up, however, Sloan chose not to take the job, for reasons he won't specify. The decision may have saved his life. On Dec. 13, 1977, a DC-3 carrying the Purple Aces to a game against Middle Tennessee State crashed and burned shortly after takeoff, killing all 36 people aboard. "It was sad," Sloan says. "I had just talked to the team the week before. It made me realize that basketball wasn't everything in life."
Sloan still uses the memory of that tragedy to guide him in his coaching. Although his Utah teams have been big winners during the regular season, they have never reached the Finals. Some fans have blamed Sloan for the failures, saying he should have done more to make the pick-and-roll-dependent Jazz less predictable. "Our guys play as hard as they can play—I don't see any fault in that," Sloan says. "It's like those teams I was on in Chicago. We gave it everything we could. We just weren't good enough.
"Some people think if you don't win a championship, it makes you a lesser person. I think there's a lot to be said for coming back year after year, like we have, and trying to get better. I think the value of that is what sports is able to teach us."
Then Sloan, the collector, pauses to think about how it would be to one day hold the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his hands. "Don't get me wrong: It would be great to win one," Sloan says, his eyes burning with intensity. "But mainly for guys like Karl and John, who've played the game harder than anybody else. They deserve it."
Sloan might have included himself too. For deep down he knows that the NBA trophy is the one piece of hardware he really has been looking for all these years.