Rozner: Chicago, Jerry Sloan fit like a glove
As the eulogies poured in Friday morning, Jerry Sloan was remembered as one of the greatest coaches of all time.
And this is not in dispute.
Sloan, who died at age 78 from complications related to Parkinson's and dementia, is fourth on the all-time wins list behind Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens and Gregg Popovich, and he coached the fourth-most NBA playoff games in history, the result of a tremendous 23-year run with the Jazz.
He was tough and ferociously old-school, which played well as Utah went to back-to-back NBA Finals against the Bulls (1997-98). It was less effective near the end of his tenure when he walked away in 2011 from a generation of players that no longer wanted to hear the truth.
"He's the right guy for this team," Karl Malone said during the 1998 Finals, as he teed up Phil Jackson. "We don't need books to read. We need to play better defense, and who knows that better than Jerry Sloan?"
But the interesting part of how he was remembered Friday was that my first thought was hardly as Jerry Sloan the coach in Utah, or even Jerry Sloan who coached 215 games in Chicago, unfortunately for him fired two years before Michael Jordan's arrival.
No, my first thought was of Jerry Sloan, the great Chicago Bulls guard, an original member of the franchise who was first to have his number retired on the West Side.
He was the kid from a downstate farm who was drafted in the first round by Baltimore out of Evansville, the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mother after his father died when he was only 4 years old.
Taken by the Bulls in the expansion draft after one year in the NBA, Sloan was a brilliant defender, later teaming in the backcourt with Norm Van Lier as the Bulls made a run to the Western Conference finals in 1974, only to be swept by Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
The following year, the Bulls won their only division title before the Jordan era, and again went to the West final before a truly heartbreaking loss to Golden State. With a 3-2 series lead, they had two chances to win the series, losing at home in Game 6 and blowing a huge lead in Game 7 on the road.
Sloan retired a year later at the age of 33 after knee injuries cut short his playing days.
Van Lier and Sloan were the Doug Plank and Gary Fencik of the Bulls' backcourt for five years, suffocating opposing players with their glovelike defense, and their affection for one another, and the respect they had for how the game was played, was evident when they ran into one another.
During the 1998 NBA Finals, I was standing with Van Lier as we were about to go on television when Sloan walked past and stopped the proceedings.
It was a joy to watch old friends who fought together as they remembered the past, and hysterical when Van Lier tried to get information from the Utah coach on how the Jazz intended to slow Michael Jordan.
It ended with a laugh when each suggested the other try their hand at it, admitting the impossible, followed by a firm embrace.
It is not wrong that Sloan is remembered as a legendary coach, a Hall of Fame coach, but in Chicago he is also thought of as a player, not as part of the golden era of Bulls basketball, but he was "The Original Bull."
He was the man from McLeansboro in Southern Illinois with the John Deere hats, a father of three who stood by his high school sweetheart through 41 years of marriage, until Bobbye died of cancer in 2004.
He left us Friday with the respect of every NBA and college coach who drew from his teachings, and with the admiration of those who played with and against him.
In Chicago, his No. 4 graces the rafters, a reminder of the early days of a franchise, a gritty and grimy player who left it all out on the court.
For a kid from a tiny town 300 miles away, few have ever fit the character of this big city better than Jerry Sloan.