Before The Jordan Rules, The Last Dance or even a first Chicago Bulls tango into the NBA Finals, there was Jerry Sloan. He was floor burns, scowls and blood-stained jerseys. That is, awesome.
His was the first face of the Bulls, with eyes that could sear a hole through opponents and expose their hearts, souls. The expansion Bulls made him their first draft pick in 1966 and for those in my generation (i.e. old), he became the blueprint for blue collar.
He personified an era of Bulls basketball nudged into relative darkness by the glitz of the 1990s Michael Jordan-led championships. While understandable, that is a bit sad when you grew up watching Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, Chet Walker, etc., go toe-to-toe with the Jerry West Lakers, the Willis Reed Knicks, the Rick Barry Warriors.
More accurately, it was nose-to-nose, and for a teen from a small town in Illinois, it was inspiring. Sloan, who died Friday at age 78, also was a small town guy from Illinois, earning all-state honors at McLeansboro High School.
A star at the University of Evansville, where he helped win two NCAA College Division (now Division II) national titles, Sloan’s story was uplifting by the time he reached the Bulls.
CHICAGO — After the Bulls won their fifth NBA championship in 1997, Michael Jordan sat at the postgame news conference and fielded a question …
Televised NBA games were more rare in the early to mid-1970s, but when the opportunity arose to watch Sloan and the Bulls, it was worth tuning in. There was grit, fire, smothering defense, punishing drives and the occasional right hook.
They didn’t all come from Sloan, but the tone and tenacity of every game started with him. Watching from your living room in Atlanta, Illinois, you saw a guy with whom you could identify. He came from a place not much bigger than Atlanta (population 1,600), so in the youthful mind you thought, “I could do that. I could be Jerry Sloan.”
It seemed so real, so attainable in junior high, even a year or two into high school. Then reality rudely interrupted. You realized you weren’t tall enough to be Jerry Sloan, who was 6-foot-5. You weren’t quick enough to be Sloan, an NBA All-Defensive Team pick on multiple occasions. Most of all, you weren’t tough enough to be Jerry Sloan.
He feared no one and challenged everyone. He stood up and never backed down. He fought hard and dared you to fight back.
We all like to think we have that in us. Truth is, most of us have limits in regard to competitiveness, courage and, well, orneriness. Sloan was most comfortable in his skin when he was under yours. It’s what made him an outstanding player and a Hall of Fame coach.
A good portion of ESPN’s The Last Dance was devoted to the passion and intensity of Michael Jordan … how he imposed his will on teammates regularly, challenging them physically and mentally in practice.
The best player in the world, Jordan was as tenacious and demanding as he was talented. Which brings us to an interesting, delectable question.
What if Jordan and Sloan had played in the same era and on the same Bulls teams? What would those practices have been like?
They would have been daily hand-to-hand, fist-to-fist battles worthy of a ring announcer and pay-per-view. The Bulls would have been the only team in the league with corner stools and cut men.
Instead, Jordan and Sloan squared off only as a superstar player vs. a dynamite coach, with Jordan’s Bulls defeating Sloan’s Utah Jazz in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals. There was a Bulls “past and present” feel to those entertaining series, with some of us quietly hoping for Sloan to prevail at least once. An NBA title was the only missing piece to his career.
Most people remember him as a coach, which happens when you retire with the third-most wins in league history. The rest of us also appreciate what he meant as a player. He was “old-school” before we used that term and gave hope to teenage hoop lovers in little Atlanta, Illinois.
Sloan drove himself on the court and drove his players as a coach, even Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton. He drove some small town wannabees to work a bit harder as well.
Sloan was surrounded by more physically talented players with the Bulls in Walker, Love, Van Lier. Yet, he was the engine. In a small but meaningful way, it was great being along for the ride.
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