In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and Jerry Sloan coaching the Utah Jazz.
Just how long has Sloan been with the Jazz? He’s been coaching in Utah since before the Orlando Magic were born. Orlando has never faced a Jazz team not coached by Sloan, and Sloan is 24-19 in his previous 43 meetings with the Magic (although he is just 10-12 in games played in Orlando).
At 22 seasons and counting with the same franchise, Sloan is the longest-tenured coach in American professional sports — a feat that doesn’t go unrecognized by Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
Article continues below ...
“It’s a really positive statement both in terms of Coach Sloan’s mental toughness — because the business can wear you down — and his consistency,” Van Gundy said. “I also think it’s a positive statement on the organization in that they’ve realized that they have a very good coach, one of the best there’s ever been, and they’ve stayed with him.”
Then again, Sloan hasn’t given the Jazz much reason not to stay with him, either. In his 22 years on the bench, Utah has only had one sub-.500 season and has made the playoffs 19 times.
However, despite all of his success — Sloan is one of only six coaches in NBA history with more than 1,000 career wins and the only coach to win 1,000 games with the same team — he has never won an NBA championship. Utah advanced to the Finals in both 1997 and 1998, but lost 4-2 to Chicago both times as the Bulls capped off their second three-peat of the decade.
“He had some unfortunate timing there,” Van Gundy said. “He had his best teams when [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen were doing their thing with the Bulls. In most years, those probably would have been championship teams.”
Van Gundy said that a new coach in today’s NBA is unlikely to make it as long as Sloan, given most teams’ focus on championships over consistency.
“I think [a career like his] is a once-in-a-lifetime thing; I don’t think that you’ll probably see anybody 20-plus years — I’m not going to say ever again, because that’s a long time — but for a long, long time,” Van Gundy said. “No. 1, I don’t think there’s that kind of patience anywhere anymore. Even with guys who are doing well, I think people just get tired of certain people.
“I also don’t think there’s very many people that — even if your organization wanted you — could stand up to it for that long and stay with it. He’s been incredibly resilient and consistent over the years, and it’s really one of the phenomenal coaching stories — at least in our sport — that I’ve ever seen. It’s really mind-boggling.”
Van Gundy said that Utah’s consistency with Sloan at the helm allows them to build their team in a way that most teams can’t.
“I think what it’s enabled them to do is they can make some good personnel decisions because they know how they’re going to play,” Van Gundy said. “For 22 years they’ve played a certain style. They know what a ‘Utah player’ is and how he needs to play to fit into their system, and I think that makes it a lot easier on the personnel side than the teams who change coaches every two years.”
With Sloan, the philosophy is easy: Either you fit in, or you’re left out. But chances are if you don’t fit the system, you were probably never in to begin with.
“A lot of times your personnel becomes a mishmash of some talented guys who may not fit together and may not fit with the philosophy the coach is going to have,” Van Gundy said. “They haven’t had those problems in Utah. That’s been Jerry Sloan’s team for 22 years, and I think most of us could go out and scout for them and understand the type of guys that are going to fit pretty well.”
Another honor that Sloan has, surprisingly, never earned is the NBA’s Coach of the Year award.
“I think in large part what happens with Coach of the Year awards, it’s usually a coach of a team that sort of came out of nowhere and exceeded expectations,” Van Gundy said. “I think everybody knows Utah is going to be good every year, so nobody’s ever surprised when they are.”
After missing the playoffs for three straight years from 2004-2006 — Sloan’s only three years without a postseason appearance since taking over the Utah job in 1988 — Sloan led his team to the Western Conference Finals in 2007. Many believed that turnaround would earn him his first Red Auerbach Trophy, but then-Raptors coach Sam Mitchell took the award after leading his team to a franchise-record 47 wins.
But Sloan missing out on his best chance at the award doesn’t taint his legacy. Not even a little.
Said Van Gundy: “Nobody’s ever looked at it like, ‘Wow, Jerry Sloan did a great job this year,’ but he’s been rewarded for a lifetime of success.”
That reward came in the form of his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 alongisde his longtime point guard Stockton — oh, and that Jordan guy again.
“He’s in the Hall of Fame because of what he’s done year after year after year, and that’s certainly a bigger honor than one year sort of rising above expectations and getting Coach of the Year,” Van Gundy said. “I think he’s been recognized.
“I don’t think there’s many people who cover the league like you guys or any of us who coach against him who don’t know that he’s an outstanding coach and just a great role model for other coaches and, I think, a great advertisement for our game, for our business and for our profession.”
News & Notes
• For his career, Van Gundy is 6-4 in head-to-head matchups with Sloan (3-1 in Miami and 3-3 with Orlando), with Van Gundy’s teams scoring an average of 102.1 points per game to Sloan’s 99.9.
• In Van Gundy’s first year with the Heat, his team split the season series with Utah with both the win and the loss coming by an identical final score of 97-85.
• The 115 points scored against Sloan’s Jazz on January 12, 2008, was the second-most points ever in a losing effort for a Van Gundy-coached Magic team (the Magic also committed more personal fouls in that game — 32 — than in any other game during Van Gundy’s tenure).
• Orlando also scored 111 points in a loss to Utah last December — the fifth-most ever for the Magic in a loss under Van Gundy.
• And if the Magic are looking to break their three-point shooting slump, Utah might be a good team to do it against. Since Van Gundy took over as coach of the Magic, Orlando has shot 38.3 percent from long distance against Utah and has averaged more than 10 three pointers per game.