On JAN. 2, 1998, maybe the worst day of her life, Bobbye Sloan sat alone in a Salt Lake City hospital room, waiting for a surgeon to give her a new left breast. Well, she wasn't actually alone. Her husband, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, was present, but even in the best of times he is not much of a talker, and Bobbye, who is, was frightened and depressed. The relationship between husband and wife, who were high school sweethearts more than four decades ago in McLeansboro, Ill., had deteriorated, mostly because Jerry tended to brood and internalize. When he did that he tended to light a cigarette, and when he did that he tended to drink a beer, and when he did that he tended to do it in a bar, and when he did that he tended to come home after last call. "We were in a horrible place," Bobbye said recently, tears filling her eyes.
Fast-forward to Jan. 16, 2002, right before the Jazz tips off against the Seattle SuperSonics at the Delta Center. Bobbye settles into her customary seat several rows up on the baseline farthest from the Jazz bench. She searches for her husband's eyes as he searches for hers, and they lock glances. Almost imperceptibly, they put two fingers to their lips then hold those fingers aloft. Only then can Jerry Sloan begin coaching his team.
He proceeds to do so in almost the same way he did on Dec. 9, 1988, his first game after sliding over from an assistant's seat to replace Frank Layden, who had abruptly quit. There has been a numbing consistency to the regime of Sloan, 59, the longest-tenured head coach in any professional sport. The Jazz has finished either first or second in the Midwest Division 11 times in his 13 years. Sloan has never had a losing season or failed to make the playoffs in Utah, where, after last Saturday's 97-96 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, he had a winning percentage of .672 (715-349). His 94-121 record as coach of the Chicago Bulls from 1979-80 to '81-82 lowers his career mark to .633, sixth best in NBA history and surpassed among active coaches only by Phil Jackson's .740 and Pat Riley's .683. In 1997 and '98 Sloan led the Jazz to the Finals, in which Utah bowed each time to Jackson's Bulls. Sloan has never been voted Coach of the Year, a slight that Jackson (a onetime winner)
This promises to be another grind-it-out campaign for the Jazz (25-22 at week's end), especially since it will go 26 days between home games because of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Utah is running the same plays, or variations of them, that it has run every year under Sloan, engineered by John Stockton and completed by Karl Malone, those holy pick-and-rollers who came to Salt Lake when Sloan was an assistant. "Best offensive system I've ever coached against," says Riley. Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves admiringly calls it "meat and potatoes basketball," even if Jazz fans less admiring of the team's bland style might prefer a splash of truffle oil from time to time.
Last February, Sloan signed a three-year, $12 million contract extension. His negotiations with team owner Larry Miller tend to be pro forma affairs. Sloan sits, sans agent, on the couch in Miller's office, wearing his beloved John Deere cap; Miller throws out a figure that generally ranks in the top third of coaches' salaries; Sloan thinks it over for a moment and says something along the lines of, Yep. "Jerry represents everything we need to be as a franchise in this market," says Miller. "The dependability, the loyalty, the effort."
Around the league, however, it is a foregone conclusion that Sloan won't stick around for the length of his contract if his locker room lieutenants leave. "Jerry establishes a tone, Karl and John maintain it, and everyone quickly learns to fall into line," says the Washington Wizards' Doug Collins, who among NBA coaches is closest to Sloan. "It's an enviable system."
The Mailman, who, if he stays healthy, may become the league's alltime leading scorer in 2003-04, has periodically asked to be traded and could be in the off-season. He and Sloan have had public run-ins, but their mutual respect has never wavered. "Jerry has a philosophy I love: Even if you have words with somebody, you get over it right away," Malone says. "You stand by the team bus and you say hello to each other no matter what happened during the game or at practice. You don't have a 40-minute meeting to clear the air. You just clear it."
In Stockton, Sloan has his bounce-passing, charge-taking, relentlessly competitive alter ego, who still glances at Sloan on almost every half-court possession to get the play call. "Why wouldn't I?" he says. Stockton, who turns 40 on March 26, will almost certainly be gone by the end of 2002-03. Yet Sloan won't rule out coaching, even with another team, well beyond Stockton's departure. He enjoys nothing more than "piddling around" (his favorite phrase) with lineups and has been energized by the enthusiasm and talent of 23-year-old rookie center Jarron Collins, 20-year-old guard DeShawn Stevenson and the 20-year-old Russian rookie forward, Andrei Kirilenko. At a recent practice Sloan told his team, as is his wont, "You've got to f---ing compete!" Kirilenko approached him later and asked, "Coach, what does this word compete mean?"
"I could see him going on [coaching] because he loves the game and knows he has something to offer younger players," says Stockton. "Teaching players the right habits—that's what Jerry Sloan is about."
For a long time Bobbye figured that when Stockton left, her husband would follow. "Now I'm not so sure," she says. "The losses are hard because the game means so much to him." She tears up again as she says, "But now we have each other. Again. We can go through it together."