SALT LAKE CITY – They were his prized possessions, collected over the years, stowed at the farm in southern Illinois.
As soon as another season would come to a close, he'd turn to them, a diversion from obsessing over how things had ended, another year spent with no NBA title to show for it, no sense of satisfaction realized beyond players who improved themselves and a team that acted as if it actually cared. He would tinker with them, move them from here to there with help
from his buddies, shine them and dirty them and shine them some more, use them not so much to plow and till as to pass the days until it was time for tip-off yet again. And now they're gone, all 60-plus.
Jerry Sloan spent the first month of his retirement selling every tractor he owned.
"I sold all my tractors,'' Jerry Sloan said, explaining how he spent much of 18 March days, a stretch that included his 69th
birthday, back home in McLeansboro. Why?
Why in the world would Sloan, who resigned in February after more than two decades as head coach of the Utah Jazz, sell the toys that mattered to him most now that his schedule finally affords ample occasions to play?
On the surface, it makes no sense. Doesn't feel right. Seems as out of whack as an NBA postseason being under way, and Sloan and the Jazz nowhere to be seen. This is just the fourth year in the last 28 that Utah did not make the playoffs.
Before Sloan abruptly quit this season, his Jazz teams qualified 19 times in 22 years, with the only exceptions being the three postseasons immediately after point guard John Stockton retired and power forward Karl Malone moved on from Salt Lake City. Each of the past four years the Jazz have been there, with since-departed Carlos Boozer(notes) at power forward, since-traded Deron Williams(notes) at the point and since-he-had-nowhere-better-to-be Jerry Sloan coaching his heart out.
But not anymore. The oft-criticized Boozer left for Chicago as a free agent last off-season, following six years in Utah during which he missed about 28 percent of his regular-season games because of injuries. Fellow two-time All-Star and 2008 gold medal-winning Olympian Williams – his sometimes petulant behavior believed by many in-the-know to have influenced Sloan's decision that he simply didn't want or need to deal with it all any longer – was traded to New Jersey about two weeks after the longtime coach's resignation.
And Sloan himself is now free, burdened no more by what it takes to babysit brats who can't be bothered to always give their all, don't have what it takes to play for someone who merely demands honest effort and/or only want to perform when coddled and cooed. As he said, voice cracking, on the day his resignation was made official, "My time is up, and it's time for me to move on.'' No wonder then that Sloan, huffing and puffing as he and his surgically replaced knee negotiated an elliptical machine one recent Sunday afternoon, seems less stressed now than he ever has been since Stockton-and-Malone were picking-and-rolling their way to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Jeff Hornacek was drilling jumpers and the Jazz
were making deep playoff runs a rule rather than the exception. "I haven't missed basketball, because I've been busy,'' he said a couple weeks back. "And I haven't really had a chance to think about that much. "I'm just kind of living life day-to-day,'' added Sloan, a Naismith Hall honoree himself. "It's strange, but I've never done this before.'' At least not in what seems like forever.
Sloan took the Jazz to the playoffs in all but three of his 22 full seasons with the team.
So Sloan does what he does to fill the void – especially now that the man who had been tenured with the same team longer than any other current coach or general manager in major American professional sports has much more time on his hands.
In the immediate aftermath of resigning from the only job he's had since December of 1988, the ex-Chicago Bulls
and now ex-Jazz coach flew from Salt Lake to St. Louis, rented a vehicle and drove 105 miles or so to his native McLeansboro, a tiny Illinois town with four roads stemming from its square, one of which leads past the fairgrounds to a beautiful home and surrounding farmland where Sloan and high school sweetheart Bobbye were supposed to retire.
After a bit of time there, he drove to Indianapolis to see some grandchildren. Then it was back to Utah and current wife Tammy, who joined him a couple years after Bobbye lost a brutal bout with pancreatic cancer in 2004.
His continuing plan, at least for now: "Just relax, enjoy myself, visit with my kids.'' "I'm a pretty simple guy,'' said someone who once made a living – and a name – diving after loose balls and playing lockdown defense for the Bulls. "It doesn't take a lot to entertain me.''But there is one thing he hasn't done, and probably won't spend much doing these next couple of months. "I haven't watched a lot of basketball,'' Sloan said. So surely there will be more time spent on the farm, and probably a trip or two with Tammy and teenage stepson Rhett. But Sloan has no grandiose strategy, nothing much mapped out beyond maybe his next workout or a game-day nap. Except there are no more game days. At least not for now.
Oh, there was talk early in April that Sloan might be open to coaching again – or at least that he'd listen if another team came calling. But the truth is he has no clue what his long-term future holds. Heck, he doesn't even know if he'll watch any NBA playoff games at all this month, or next, or in June, when two teams will vie for the championship his own Jazz clubs never could win, despite two trips to the NBA Finals. What he does know is that he can accept the fact the playoffs are
ongoing, and neither he nor the 39-43 Jazz – who finished 8-20 in their 28 games under replacement-coach Tyrone Corbin – are a part of them. "That's just life,'' Sloan said, his quotes clipped by a combination of treadmill fatigue and simple observation. "There's not anything you can do about that.'' Nor is there much one can do about coming to grips with being a
coach who has no team to coach and a farmer with no tractors to ride, except maybe find another team or buy new tractors.
As noncommittal as he is about coaching again, Sloan does acknowledge that there are parts of the job he sorely misses – namely time spent with assistant coach Phil Johnson, his right-hand man in Utah ever since '88, and a decidedly loyal staff.
In 23 seasons, Sloan had only six bench assistants: Johnson, ex-Jazz player Corbin, current Jazz assistant Scott Layden, ex-assistant Gordie Chiesa, ex-assistant/ex-Jazz player Kenny Natt and current Jazz head scout Dave Fredman. He's had only three head trainers: Don Sparks, Mike Shimensky and Gary Briggs. The Jazz's current player development/strength coach, Mark McKown, has been with Sloan since 1997. And Sloan worked for only three general managers: Frank Layden, son
Scott Layden and Kevin O'Connor.
Sloan says he misses the time he spent with longtime assistant Phil Johnson and the rest of his coaching staff. Johnson resigned from the Jazz with Sloan. Whether it was at a mall foodcourt following a morning shoot-around, a steakhouse or Italian restaurant picked by Scott Layden on off nights or an arena pressroom on game nights, Sloan and multiple staff members would break bread together practically every day they spent on the road. "I miss the association with coaches and the guys I work with, all that sort of thing,'' Sloan said.
That established, there is plenty he does not miss. And it isn't just the drama that goes with coaching today's pampered NBA players. "Having to pack your bags every time you turn around,'' Sloan said, "is one thing I always didn't like about basketball.'' Mostly, though, there are many more likes than dislikes. That is why the transition to retirement, if that's what it should be called, has had its challenges. "Adjusting to a non-schedule is sort of different,'' Sloan said. "There isn't anywhere I have to be.'' Not at shoot around. Not at a game. Not somewhere preparing for the playoffs. Not on an airplane. Not at a hotel checkout desk. Not on a bus to this arena or that. Not even on the farm, decompressing because there is, without a
doubt, another NBA season around the corner, another Jazz team to coach next season. And that is why Sloan selling his tractors is so difficult to comprehend, but also makes, upon further contemplation, so much sense. Back home in Illinois in March, the man more comfortable wearing a John Deere cap than a coat and tie or even gym shorts got his fill.
For now. For a while. Maybe even forever. "I tried to piddle with the tractors, but I got tired of them,'' Sloan said. "They take a lot of time and lot of effort. "I don't need them,'' he added. "It kind of gave me something to do, and [now] I have a lot of other things I need to take care of.'' Or not. There is, after all, no schedule. Not anymore.