When looking back at the history of any particular sports team, one can often pinpoint times in a team’s existence where one person (or a group of people) became synonymous with the franchise. Whether it be a great player like Magic Johnson (& his “Showtime Lakers”) or a legendary coach like Phil Jackson, the man becomes the face of his team. Great leaders make an unmistakable imprint on their teams and it shows in how they get their teammates (or players) to raise their level of play. One particular man who did this excellently was Jerry Sloan, Former Head Coach of The Utah Jazz.
Jerry Sloan began coaching the Jazz way back in 1988 and did so for an amazing 23 seasons; something that may well never happen again in today’s cutthroat sports world. In his time with Utah, Sloan became a stabilizing force for his team, a voice of reason and above all else he became the team’s unquestioned leader. Every game you could see Sloan on the sidelines actively engaging his players and letting the referee’s know when they botched a call. On several occasions Sloan would even be known to get into pushing matches with Refs who he believed blew big calls; that’s just how fiery the guy was. Sloan retired last season in a move that shocked everyone, including his own team (especially since he had just signed a deal to coach into the 2011-2012 season). The move came just a few weeks before the team moved star point guard (and franchise building block) Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets. The retirement of a legend and the departure of the team’s lone star in such a short time span made it seem apparent that the franchise was dedicating to rebuilding; but that may not be the case.
Truly great leaders like Jerry Sloan don’t just go away, they leave their mark. During his tenure with Utah, Sloan instilled a fight hard mentality into all the teams and players he coached, including the team now being guided by Sloan’s former assistant and Rookie Head Coach Tyrone Corbin. Watching the Jazz play Memphis this past Sunday (part of the ESPN NBA Triple-Header) I couldn’t help but experience major Déjà-Vu. Despite sporting a young roster, the Jazz looked and played much like the Sloan-Led teams of the 90’s; teams that bolstered the tandem of John Stockton & Karl Malone (two Hall of Famers). Today’s team may not have the star power of past squads but they sure are talented, and furthermore the values of team play and dedication to hard work that made those past teams tough to beat are still evident today; all that’s changed are the names on the jerseys. Young players like Enes Kanter, Alec Burks and Paul Millsap have stepped up their play while veterans such as Devin Harris (a former All-Star) and Jamaal Tinsley have come in and filled the leadership void. While watching the Jazz-Grizzlies game I came away impressed with how Utah had structured there team, playing through rising star Gordon Heyward predominately but integrating their big men into the game plan as well. Heyward’s ability to shoot off the screens by Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap as well as his ability to utilize the pick and roll and turn it into easy buckets made the Utah offense very tough to stop.
The Pick & Roll and Pick & Pop were staples of the Stockton-Malone offense, and they still work today as will they tomorrow; because they’re smart basketball plays. The Jazz are a very young team, but their growth will come quickly because of the culture Jerry Sloan instilled into this franchise. By playing through a proven system, drafting well and giving the talent time to grow (and mature) Utah is now in place to be a playoff team this season despite losing their franchise star and Hall of Fame Coach just one year ago (they currently sit at 14-13, 9th in the West). It really is a testimony to resiliency and shows that a great leader never really retires because their values and ways will never be forgotten.
Are The Jazz Playoff Ready? Is Gordon Heyward a young Stockton? What do you think?