This story was published on Bulls.com in 2009
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will be inducting Mr. Chicago Bull on Friday night.
Yes, Michael Jordan will be inducted as well.
Mr. Chicago Bull is Jerry Sloan.
Sloan is primarily gaining admittance to the Basketball Hall for Fame for his astonishing coaching career with the Utah Jazz, where Sloan has been a model of professionalism and consistency in 21 seasons and with more than 1,000 victories.
Ninety-four of those wins came as head coach of the Bulls between 1979 and 1982, and, had things developed as they were supposed to, Sloan should have been establishing those coaching records and going into the Hall of Fame as the greatest Bulls coach ever.
No one in Chicago is complaining given the fabulous run with Jordan and Phil Jackson through the 1990s. But Jerry Sloan, 185 pounds of hustle and tenacity, really, reflected and represented Chicago better than anyone else.
The makeup of Jerry Sloan most symbolized the substance and fabric of the City of Broad Shoulders, though Sloan’s own shoulders were somewhat bony.
We are all thrilled in Chicago to have experienced and witnessed the brilliance of Jordan, and proud that he was able to perform his basketball magic and derring-do as a representative of Chicago.
But though we retain pride in Chicago and everything the city stands for and has accomplished, Chicago is never quite mistaken for the greatest there ever was. Michael Jordan stands on that pedestal. Jerry Sloan is the guy who helped build it.
Sloan is a guy, like Chicagoans braving the cold and the Midwest’s brutality, to stoically endure it, accept it and fight through it. Not complain. Not quit. Just keep moving forward and working. Hardly the beneficiary of great natural gifts, but someone who chases them down out of determination and duty.
Sloan was the first Bull to have his jersey number retired. He was twice an All-Star, the first time in the franchise’s rookie season when the Bulls obtained Sloan in the expansion draft because the Baltimore Bullets (who had left Chicago when they were the Zephrys and Packers) decided they had at least eight better players. Sloan showed up at Bulls training camp at North Central College in 1966 and announced, “I just hope I can make the team.”
You know Jerry Sloan meant it. Not because he lacked confidence or the talent. After all, he was a first round NBA draft pick. But Sloan always understood well the lesson in life too many disregard. It all goes on without you. No one is irreplaceable. So you better work as hard as you can for as long as you can to get your chance. It remained a philosophy of life.
But he’d met a girl, Bobbye, and she persuaded Jerry to try college one more time, at Evansville U. (then College), and Sloan drove them to the national small college basketball championship. In that undefeated season they would beat Northwestern and Notre Dame. Not much of a shooter or dribbler or passer, Sloan just made plays seemingly more out of will than ability.Sloan enrolled at the University of Illinois, but left and returned to his Downstate Gobbler’s Knob home near McLeansboro because Champaign-Urbana was too big. Yes, intimidating metropolitan Champaign-Urbana. That’s what you call a small town kid. Then Sloan went to Southern Illinois, but left again and decided to make a career in the oil fields back home. Sloan’s dad had died when he was four and he always was pretty much on his own, anyway, a hard-nosed brawler trying to make his way through life.
And yet I’d hear things about Sloan like I heard about Michael Jordan when Jordan came to the Bulls in 1984.
Sloan’s coach at Evansville, Arad McCutchan, once said whatever team he put Jerry on in a scrimmage, whether it was the varsity or junior varsity or starters or reserves, that team won the scrimmage. Years later, Bulls coach Dick Motta would say kids who came to the Bulls would quickly learn the discipline required because the team’s star, Sloan, would be the first one there and the one working hardest at every practice.
Sloan always was the first player at the Stadium for games, generally arriving at 4:30 and ready and taped by the time the rest of the team and coaches began to arrive. It was nothing new for a kid in a family of 10 children who had to be up at 4:30 to do the chores around the farm before walking almost two miles to the main road and hitch hiking to school for basketball practice before classes. We always felt our kids had it too easy and talked about how we walked 10 miles in the snow to school. Of course, we didn’t. Sloan did. The difference was he never talked about it.
Jerry attended a one room schoolhouse through eighth grade and his graduating class was two. Now that’s what you call graduating in the top of your class. It also tells you a bit about why Sloan could not understand not taking a charge or diving for a loose ball.
McCutchan actually started grooming Jerry to be his replacement when Jerry was at Evansville. After all, you didn’t go to the pros—there were just nine NBA teams—back then from places like Division II Evansville. After Jerry’s playing career ended prematurely with the Bulls because of knee injuries, he went back to Evansville. McCutchan had always told Sloan when he left Evansville that Sloan would be his successor as head coach.
Jerry was drafted by Baltimore and persevered through a season on the bench. Johnny “Red” Kerr was finishing his playing career that season in Baltimore and he knew what the Bullets had even if coach Paul Seymour was too stubborn to recognize it. Kerr was in line to be the Bulls first coach, and he pushed for Sloan in that expansion draft.
(Kerr, who died earlier this year, was honored by the Hall of Fame Sept. 10 with the John Bunn award for contributions to the game. Also that night, former Bulls coach Doug Collins, a longtime broadcaster, was honored in Hall of Fame ceremonies with the Curt Gowdy media award for broadcasting.)
Sloan soon became the embodiment of the franchise and the city, a team striving for recognition, acceptance and success against the odds.
Early on, Sloan was accompanied by a flashy, if underappreciated guard, Guy Rodgers, and eventually the Bulls would add Chet Walker, Bob Love and Norm Van Lier and have a great run of 50-win seasons and near ultimate success in the early 1970s.
Though the constant always was Sloan and a style of basketball less aesthetic than effective.
A kind of basketball the pretty boys hated.
Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the Knicks stylish guard, always complained about Sloan getting in the way of Frazier’s fancy drives.
“Sloan jumps out to make contact when you are driving trying to draw an offensive foul,” Frazier once sniffed to Bulls original beat writer Bob “Lefty” Logan from the Chicago Tribune.
“I’m going to get him someday and I’ve told him so,” Billy Cunningham once fumed about Sloan.
“I was rebounding and he grabbed me like he always does,” complained Golden boy Rick Barry.
“Here come the crazies,” Phil Jackson used to shout when the Bulls would enter Madison Square Garden.
Jerry didn’t understand. Just as he doesn’t today. You hear him say the same things he does today that he said as a Bulls player more than 40 years ago.
“It’s supposed to be against the law to play hard in this league,” Sloan would say back then in response.
“If Jerry Sloan played in New York, he’d be called a defensive genius,” Bulls coach Dick Motta used to say.
Motta would call Sloan a defensive superstar.
“The NBA is a scorer’s league and if you don’t get a lot of points, you’re overlooked no matter how much else you contribute,” Sloan once told Logan. “Some vital parts of the game aren’t put in the proper perspective. Only scorers are considered stars. But they miss the real fun.”
My guess is Sloan still says the same thing every year when training camp opens. And then stands by it.
That’s why until Michael Jordan came along, Sloan was Mr. Chicago Bull. Everyone knew that. From the season the franchise began in 1966-67, the Bulls were known as the blizzard of basketball teams. They came at you relentlessly and hard and it could be messy and you hated being involved in it. And then they’d come back for more.
Sloan’s expansion Bulls made the playoffs. Rodgers and Bob Boozer led with 18 points per game followed by Sloan at 17.4. There were at least six players on the roster taller than the 6-5 Sloan. Sloan was easily the team’s leading rebounder and perennially among the leading rebounders in the league among non centers. That first season with the Bulls Sloan averaged 9.1 rebounds and his first six seasons in Chicago averaged more than eight rebounds per game combined. They didn’t start counting steals and blocks in the NBA until the 1973-74 season. The first season they did, even though Sloan was toward the end of his career, Sloan was fourth in the league in steals and then seventh in the league in steals in his last full season on 1974-75. That first season, Sloan also was second on the team in assists and by far the leader in fouls.
Sloan was all-defensive first team four times, including his final full season in the NBA, and second team twice.
“I don’t have the ability of the men I guard,” Sloan would explain. “So I have to work twice as hard to stay on the floor with them.”
And it wasn’t easy because if you play like that, you take even more punishment. In the 1969-70 season, Sloan dove for a loose ball and ripped the groin muscle away from the bone. I had to rest for two days just writing that sentence. Sloan was back after missing just 29 games as that injury never fully healed the rest of his playing career.
He tore a muscle in his left foot, knocking him out of the 1973-74 playoffs. He was still limping when he came into camp for the 1974-75 season from that injury, but missed just four games all that season. Sloan’s knees finally gave out in 1975-76 when he played just 22 games and retired. He’d had his knee drained 22 times before he finally had knee surgery. He’d become a walking floor burn.
But Sloan could make plays and score as well. Along with all those Jordan 40s and 50s and 60s in Bulls history, there’s a 43-pointer Sloan had against the Bucks in the 1968-69 season and a career high 18.3 per game along with 8.8 rebounds in 1970-71 when the Bulls had their first 50-win season in franchise history and went on to average 52 wins for the next five seasons.
They never had the big man, so they lost either to teams led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain. It’s why longtime Bulls fans still look back with regret at the great chance in 1974-75 when the Bulls led the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, who also lacked the dominant big man, 3-2 in the conference finals. The Bulls lost the next two games and the Warriors went on to sweep the Bullets to win the 1975 championship.
It was a fractured team by that time with Norm Van Lier, Bob Love and Chet Walker all at odds with Motta. And Sloan’s body was fractured.
He limped through 22 games in 1975-76 and called it a career.
Sloan then went back to fulfill his collegiate destiny by coaching at Evansville. He agreed to take the head coaching job in January, 1977, but changed his mind shortly thereafter and returned to the Bulls as an assistant coach.
Bobby Watson got the job and when the team was in Chicago to play DePaul in December, 1977, Sloan met with the players briefly on the team bus as they left Chicago. A few days later as the team plane was leaving Evansville for a game against Middle Tennessee State, the plane crashed and everyone was killed.
In 1979, Sloan replaced Scotty Robertson, who had finished the previous season for Larry Costello. After a 30-52 first season as Bulls coach, the Bulls were 45-37 in 1980-81 under Sloan and beat the Knicks in the best of three first round series with a thrilling 115-114 overtime home victory. It was the franchise’s first playoff series win in six years.
But after a slow start the following season, Sloan was replaced by general manager Rod Thorn, who finished the season. Sloan left Chicago for good. He briefly coached the Evansville Thunder of the CBA and was hired as an assistant by the Utah Jazz. In December, 1988, Sloan replaced Jazz coach Frank Layden and now will be honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame for that extraordinary coaching run in which Sloan’s Jazz has had a losing record just one season.
But it really began for Sloan in Chicago, and the Bulls franchise and basketball in Chicago never would have been the same without Jerry Sloan.
Logan died a few years back. I remember him telling me once he wanted to write a book about the Bulls. He said he mentioned it to Motta. Motta said: “It should be about Jerry Sloan. He is the story of the franchise. He is the franchise.”