Jerry Sloan, who last week retired as coach of the Jazz, was the longest-tenured (22-plus seasons with Utah) and third-winningest (1,221--803) coach in NBA history. My first thought, though, upon hearing the 68-year-old Sloan's announcement last Thursday was to the standard of excellence he set during the 15 seasons that he coached Karl Malone and John Stockton: every year a winning record and a postseason appearance; three 60-win seasons; and two NBA Finals appearances.
But that's not where to look to see Sloan's greatness. The most difficult challenge for an NBA franchise is to adjust to the loss of a superstar—or, in this case, two superstars. When, after the 2002--03 season, Stockton retired and Malone went to the Lakers, I was among those shocked that Sloan didn't follow. "Hell, no," Sloan snapped. "I'm looking forward to coaching these young guys."
What Sloan did was coax 42 wins out of a 2003--04 team whose starting lineups included the likes of Carlos Arroyo, Greg Ostertag and Jarron Collins, and a pretty good player, Andrei Kirilenko. The Jazz slipped to 26--56 the next year, but Sloan righted the ship again, producing a 41--41 team, followed by seasons with 51, 54, 48 and 53 wins.
That Sloan was able to keep it going, that he was able to sell the basic tenets of his offensive system to a point guard other than Stockton, was no mystery to Sloan. He did it with hard work, repetition and a commitment to excellence. But believe this: It was a helluva lot harder without Malone and Stockton.
Clearly, Sloan's enthusiasm had waned this season, and perhaps his young charges had started to tune him out. But what should be recognized is not what Sloan was able to accomplish with Malone and Stockton but what he was able to get out of what he had once they were gone.