What does it mean to leave a legacy behind?
Not even future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who was questioned about his legacy during media day for Super Bowl XLVIII, is sure.
“I’ve been being asked about my legacy since I was about 25 years old. I’m not sure you can have a legacy when you’re 25 years old. Even 37. I’d have to be, like, 70 to have a legacy. I’m not even 100 percent sure what the word even means,” Manning said.
A legacy is defined as “something handed down by a predecessor.” The storied history of the NBA is full of accomplishments handed down through the ages. Red Auerbach was a huge part of putting up nine championship banners in Boston. Phil Jackson left six banners in Chicago and five in Los Angeles. Pat Riley has four titles in the City of Angles and one in South Beach. Gregg Popovich has four rings to show for his work in San Antonio.
So where does Jerry Sloan’s legacy fit into the lore of the NBA?
Trying to describe the basketball accomplishments of Sloan will never be done justice with words. As much as he’ll downplay it himself, Sloan had a monumental impact on the NBA during a basketball career that began in 1965, when he was selected fourth overall by the Baltimore Bullets. Sloan was then the first player selected by the Chicago Bulls during the 1966 expansion draft, earning the nickname, ‘The Original Bull.’
Sloan amassed numerous accolades as a player, including two All Star appearances and four selections to the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He’s fourth all-time in scoring for the Bulls, and 10th in steals per game in the NBA.
Sloan’s playing career laid the foundation for the type of coach he’d become – hard-nosed, old school, gritty, and disciplined. In the midst of an ever-changing NBA landscape, the introduction of the three-point line, and an almost league-wide switch from bruising big men to flashy guards, Sloan kept his approach to basketball the same.
That approach rewarded Sloan with 1,223 wins as a coach, third-most all time behind Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkens. Sloan is also the only coach in NBA history to record 1,000 wins with the same team.
Sloan was a coach who was blunt and to the point, and never saw the sense in beating around the bush. His sometimes prickly demeanor was always the same, and went hand-in-hand with his ability to maximize the talent on his roster and win basketball games.
Sloan only left two achievements unclaimed during his two and a half decades of coaching – he never once won Coach of the Year, and he never managed to win an NBA championship. While Coach of the Year is a subjective award, an NBA title is a huge measuring stick for coaches. Does the fact that Sloan never brought a banner to the rafters in Salt Lake City mean that his legacy as a coach is any less meaningful?
Not at all.
Besides a personality that was unique to himself, Sloan also gave the NBA an offense that’s still alive in the current incarnation of the Utah Jazz. Sloan was the mastermind behind the flex offense, a series of sets and plays predicated on screens, cuts, and which direction the point guard decided to go. Sloan didn’t modify his system to his players – he simply demanded that players modify their abilities to his system.
During the 90s, that strategy paid off enormously well. John Stockton and Karl Malone, arguably the best point guard-power forward duo in the history of basketball, powered the Jazz to back-to-back Finals appearances, only to be thwarted by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Realizing that the only teams that could stop a Sloan-coached team were headed by the greatest player of all time only makes what Sloan accomplished even more respectable.
After the 90s were over and Stockton and Malone stepped away from basketball, Sloan kept on coaching. He achieved serious greatness with teams that had no business being relevant, the 2003-04 Jazz being a prime example of his coaching prowess. That team had Andrei Kirilenko, Raul Lopez, Carlos Arroyo, Matt Harpring and plenty of other players who weren’t exactly at the height of their careers. Sloan piloted that group of players to a 42-40 record, good enough for seventh in the Western Conference.
If ever there was a year that Sloan deserved the Coach of the Year award, it was 2004. Sadly, he didn’t win the award, although that snub didn’t deter him from continuing to coax the best he possibly could out of players willing to cooperate and play within his system.
Deron Williams was drafted in 2005, and in 2008 a team featuring Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mehmet Okur reached the Western Conference Finals. That appearance would mark the sixth and final time the Jazz would reach the conference finals under Sloan.
The Los Angeles Lakers stopped future efforts by Utah to make a deeper post-season run in the next few years. Despite age starting to creep up on him, Sloan kept pacing the sidelines, defending his players to officials and did continued to be a great coach.
Current head coach Ty Corbin still runs the flex offense Sloan created, albeit with a few tweaks. Fans still talk in the stands about ‘Jazz basketball,’ that brand of ball which is unique and native to Utah. Sloan’s very essence as a coach still permeates nearly every aspect of this current Jazz team, three years after he stepped down as head coach.
That effect is due in large part to the fact that Sloan is still involved with the team. He’s currently working as a senior basketball advisor, assisting general manager Dennis Lindsey and coach Corbin. His brilliant basketball mind is still being picked by the people running the show in Utah.
I’ve had the chance to run into him a few times and he always has a relaxed smile on his face. He looks like a man definitely at peace with where he’s at.
Seeing as he was able to make a lasting impact on a city and a sports team that few people ever have the opportunity to do, he’s earned the right to smile a little more often, lean back in his lower-bowl seats, and take in Jazz basketball just like the rest of us.
So what has Sloan handed down – what exactly is his legacy?
Grit. Determination. The mindset that you’re never out of a game until the final buzzer sounds. The list of adjectives is too long to compile. No matter what, Sloan’s legacy in Utah is undeniable – he shaped the culture of basketball for the Jazz, and that culture doesn’t appear as if it’s going to change soon.