Jerry Sloan died less than a week after a heavily packaged Michael Jordan documentary ended, and I couldn’t help but be struck by the timing of it. Not that it had some sort of cosmic meaning. Just that life is … interesting.
In “The Last Dance,’’ Jordan was presented as the ultimate competitor, unmatched, we were told too many times to count, in his desire to win.
Sloan’s scars and bent nose would have begged to differ.
One commentator in ESPN’s 10-part series chalked up Jordan’s mental strength to his ability to live completely in the moment when he was on the court. Unburdened by distractions, he could use his transcendent talent to reduce opponents to rubble. The flaw in the observation was the notion that few others had unlocked this mystical truth, that few others knew how to be 100 percent focused on the task at hand. How would anyone know? Is there a device that measures focus and determination?
If the moment involved a basketball and a basketball court, Jerry Sloan lived fully in it. And Jordan would have dominated the NBA if he had smoked a cigar and dreamed about golf while he dribbled the ball up court.
Sloan’s death Friday at 78 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia was a nudge. It was a reminder that there was basketball before Jordan and that there were players as driven to win as he was. It’s just that Jordan’s enormous shadow has made it difficult to see anything other than Jordan.
Sloan was the opposite of “The Last Dance.’’ He wasn’t about the hoopla, either as a player for the Bulls or as a Hall of Fame coach. He wasn’t about his brand. He didn’t have one. If he had, it would have been a floor burn on a knee. How would you make a logo out of that?
He had enough talent to average 18.3 points a game for the Bulls in 1970-71, but offense wasn’t his calling card. Defense was. His elbows were. So was a nose that had been broken too many times to count.
He played every game as if it might be his last, as if he would be going off to war the next day and didn’t know if he’d make it back. Head first, diving for a loose ball. That was his way. The Jazz, the team he coached to two NBA Finals, losing both times to Jordan’s Bulls, was made in his image. A pick-and-roll offense led by John Stockton and his short shorts, and by Karl Malone and his muscles. And Sloan in sport coats that seemed to be bought off the rack at J.C. Penney.
He went into the Basketball Hall of Fame the same year Jordan did. Again, you couldn’t miss the contrast. At the 2009 induction ceremony, all the attention went to MJ, who used his speech to talk about the countless slights that had driven him as a player. Sloan talked about the one-room grade school he attended for six years in downstate McLeansboro. If he had pulled out a butter churn at the lectern, no one would have blinked. As I watched him that day in Springfield, Massachusetts, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t feel like he belonged there. At a minimum, he looked like a kid who couldn’t wait to get out of his church clothes and go play.
This isn’t a pining for the old days, just an acknowledgment that there were old days, that there was life before Jordan. That the Bulls existed before 1984, when they drafted Michael with the third overall pick. That another guard existed in another era who made exhausted opponents say, “Would you give it a rest, kid?”
Jordan’s legacy makes us forget that sometimes.
Sloan and fellow Bull Norm Van Lier made life miserable for other teams. Opposing players knew they were in for two hours of distinct unpleasantness. Not fun for them, but fun for Chicagoans to take in. It was like watching water balloons being dropped from a fifth-story window. You wouldn’t want to be the balloons, but …
“The Last Dance’’ was an ode to the greatest player of all time. If you forgot that Jordan was the reason the Bulls won those six NBA titles, you were reminded of it by the way he demeaned teammates throughout the documentary. That’s just the way he and it was.
Sloan didn’t have a sliver of Jordan’s talent. He had an even smaller amount of Jordan’s ego.
“It’s not about me,’’ he said in 2010, after moving into the No. 3 spot on the NBA’s all-time victory list for coaches.
Unless the topic was hustle. Then it was all about Jerry Sloan.