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Bobbye Sloan first felt a stabbing pain in her breast on June 13, 1997, the day the Jazz was eliminated in Game 6 of its first Finals. She had performed a self-examination four months earlier without detecting anything, but Bobbye, who earned a degree from the Washington University School of Nursing in St. Louis, knew what to do. She made the doctor's appointment without telling anyone, least of all her husband.
At the time Jerry was consumed by basketball, and though making the Finals had been gratifying, losing them was depressing. His coaching career had mirrored his playing career (and has continued to do so). The Bulls for whom he scratched and battled for 10 of his 11 NBA seasons—as a reliable scoring guard (14.0 points per game), an in-your-jock stopper (four berths on the NBA all-defensive first team) and a willing and able pugilist (he squared off against Wilt Chamberlain)—were recognized as the Best Team Never to Win It All, the backhanded encomium now affixed to the Jazz. Around his family Sloan rarely showed the aggressive streak so evident on the court, but there were dark places in his soul, and he medicated himself with hops and nicotine. He played in an era when many players lit up before games and got lit after them, and Sloan, who is nothing if not old school, just kept it up.
For Bobbye, the last person she would confide in was the man whose history had for so long intertwined with her own. She was the one who had picked up Jerry when he stood in the cold, thumb extended, after high school basketball practice and given him a ride home to the hard-scrabble area known as Gobbler's Knob, 15 miles south of McLeansboro. She was the one who had told him to get cracking after he had left both Illinois and Southern Illinois, devastated by homesickness, and gone to work in the oil fields. She was the one who had cheered him to an All-America career at Evansville and raised their children (two daughters and a son) while he was making headlines as a player and a coach. All those shared experiences, and still, they couldn't talk.
Just before the June 1997 appointment at which she would find out the results of her biopsy, Bobbye finally told her son, Brian, then an emergency room resident, what was going on. He was there with her when she got the news that the pea-sized tumor was malignant. It was excised later in the summer, and the first round of chemotherapy left her in the bathroom, puking her guts out all night long. On the day of the reconstruction, when Bobbye felt the gulf between them had never been wider, Jerry was reflecting on something she had said a week earlier: "Here I am fighting for my life with all I've got, and you're snuffing yours out," and then she got up and walked away.
Jerry is not the type to admit he had an epiphany—and certainly not the type to identify it as such—but her words stuck with him. About a week after her reconstruction he came to her and said, "I need to make some changes. We'll start with the smoking, go on to the drinking, and see if we can put this thing back together."
The thing is back together. Bobbye's latest tests have shown no sign of cancer, and it is with renewed relish these days that the Sloans pursue their joint passion for collecting. Jerry is known as a man who guards a buck as closely as he guarded the opposition's top scorer, and he is a bargain hunter of the first order—a devotee of garage and estate sales, a regular at auctions, a votary of flea markets. He can discourse at length on American art pottery and art glass, antique toys and tractors. A turn-of-the-century vase made at Sophie Newcomb College (that means something if you're into vases) that Jerry bought 25 years ago for $10—the asking price was $12, but no self-respecting collector pays tag—the Sloans now estimate to be worth at least $20,000.
The Sloans look, buy and rarely discard. "My kids are going to shoot me when I die," says Jerry. On an off day during the season, and on any day back in their beloved McLeansboro, where they are building a house on an 80-acre field, they might be found among their fellow foragers, horse trading their way to the best deal.
Sloan says he hasn't had a drop of alcohol in four years. He has also quit smoking with the help of Zyban, an antidepressant. His oldest daughter, Kathy, a pharmaceutical rep, recommended he get a prescription, and once he started taking it, he says, giving up cigarettes "was the easiest thing I ever did." After games he goes directly home or to the team hotel, rarely replaying the results in his mind or agonizing over late-night TV highlights. He hasn't been able to run much since he retired with arthritic knees, but he has upped his workout regimen (weights, stationary bike, walking with Bobbye) and, despite a voracious appetite, keeps his weight at about 225 pounds on a 6'5" frame. "Basically," he says, "I'm a real boring guy these days. And loving it."
Sloan feels that his drinking never affected his coaching. He has worked for 18 years in the most conservative of pro towns, and while he's been criticized (quietly) for never winning it all, and while some have winced as they lip-read his commentary to the refs, his off-the-court conduct has never been publicly called into question. Around the league it was long known that Sloan was a good bet to have an adult beverage after the game, but he was always at practice the next day and never seemed to give anything less than his all on the bench.
Sloan is loath to talk about his past habits, both because he is a private person and because he feels he might appear to be endorsing a misguided lifestyle. This much he will say: "I had a bad habit of smoking, then I had a bad habit of drinking, and they go together. I never thought it affected me, but other people did, particularly my family, and I began to see that maybe they were right. When you get away from these things, you realize how nasty they are, how they control your life."