Did Jerry Sloan Have A Basketball Mind?

Aug 6, 2020, 5:19 PM | Updated: 5:25 pm
Jerry Sloan...
Head coach Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz talks with his team during the preseason NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on October 12, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz have been honoring former head coach Jerry Sloan with a 1223 patch on the shoulder of their jerseys in Orlando. Sloan passed away in May after being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease four years ago. The Jazz won a ton of games with Sloan as head coach, 1,129 to be exact. But how did he coach compare to modern NBA coaches? Did Sloan have a basketball mind?

To answer that question, I talked to long time assistant coach Gordie Chiesa, who spent 16 years as one of Sloan’s assistants on the Jazz bench.

You can listen to the entire interview here in the latest episode of the Jazz Notes podcast.

Did Jerry Sloan have a basketball mind?

The question is probably ludicrous on its own. Sloan spent his entire life in basketball, from high school until he was nearly 70. That’s more than 50 years in the game. In fact, it’s probably safer to ask if Sloan had anything but a basketball mind.

However, when I think about modern coaches, analytics, and front offices filled with statisticians rather than former basketball players, I don’t know how Sloan fits in. Chiesa elaborated on what made Sloan such a successful leader, even if he wasn’t observing the nitty-gritty of analytics-driven basketball.

Was there a science to Sloan’s coaching?

“The science was the system,” Chiesa said. “The system of ball sharing and playing help to helper defense. And It sounds so trivial, but it’s not. It’s a huge component as far as successful teams. When the ball moves, the scoreboard moves when the ball sticks, the scoreboard sticks.”

Though Sloan may have preferred the eye test to the math test, it’s not like the Jazz weren’t playing the percentages each time they had the ball on offense. No, Sloan’s teams didn’t shoot enough threes, and fouling a player instead of letting him get certain shots at the rim isn’t statistically the right choice.

But Sloan didn’t overlook the numbers that said if you include John Stockton and Karl Malone in most of your offensive plays, you’ll score more often than not. However, as Chiesa elaborates, Sloan’s teams didn’t ignore their supporting cast either.

“I call it partnership scoring where everybody’s sharing with the ball,” Chiesa said. “There are some other players with unique talents that will have the ball more, I get it. But if you don’t touch the ball that often in a game, you don’t feel as far as you’re part of it.”

A Nuanced Leader

While Sloan wasn’t one to celebrate his own spotlight, he was a successful leader inside the locker room. While the childhood farmer group up and brought his lunchpail mentality to the game of basketball, he wasn’t without his nuance towards the players.

Chiesa was responsible for drawing up the early game plan for the Jazz during the pregame speech. Sloan, understanding the challenges that lie ahead of the players in each game, preferred to keep the speeches short.

“Jerry always told the story about when he played and the [Chiacgo Bulls] head coach was Dick Motta,” Chiesa remembered.  “Dick Motta and the old school blackboard with the flying chalk in his hand would be diagramming seven, eight, 10 plays on the blackboard. And Jerry was saying to himself internally, ‘Please stop.’ I’m guarding Oscar Robertson 25 minutes from now.”

What made Sloan best, however, was his ability to control a locker room. Chiesa said that though Sloan didn’t always get along with the players in his locker room, there was no lack of humanity from the head coach.

“When teams are successful and reach their potential, there is discipline,” Chiesa said. “Now, within that discipline, there has to be a human factor. So the players have to understand that there’s one person in charge, and that person wants you to succeed as an individual player.”

Chiesa shared his thoughts on the success of the NBA bubble, the current day Jazz, and what the team needs to do this offseason to fulfill their potential. Listen above, subscribe on Itunes, and leave a review for the Jazz Notes Podcast.

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