Legendary Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan sadly passed away Friday after a battle with Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. Sloan was recently thrust into the public eye after the final episodes of The Last Dance last Sunday’s in which Sloan’s Jazz lost two straight NBA Finals to M.J. and the Bulls in 1997 and 1998. Sloan’s ailing health had been reported on in July 2019, but things seemed pretty dire after Karl Malone publicly asked for “prayers for Coach Sloan” on a ’90s NBA Legends Zoom Conference hosted by Ahmad Rashad.
Sloan never won a NBA championship, but is one of the NBA’s all-time great coaches and is fourth all-time in victories with 1,221. However, Sloan’s NBA coaching career almost never happened.
Back in 1976, Jerry Sloan had just retired from the NBA after 10 seasons with the Bulls. Sloan was known for his extreme intensity and tenacity on defense with the Bulls. He was a two-time NBA-All Star with the Bulls and four-time All-Defensive First Team. An Illinois native, Sloan was known as the “Original Bull” and led the team as a rookie to their only division title before the Michael Jordan era. His No. 4 jersey hangs in the United Center rafters alongside Bob Love, Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
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A series of knee injuries forced Sloan’s retirement in 1976. Upon retirement, Sloan immediately accepted the head coaching job at his alma mater, Evansville University, a mid-major school in Evansville, Indiana. Five days after accepting the position, Sloan shockingly withdrew from the position after five days only citing “personal reasons.”
On Dec. 13, 1977, Air Indiana Flight 216 carrying the Evansville basketball team took off for Nashville for a game against Middle Tennessee State. Tragically, the plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 29 people on board. The only member of the Evansville basketball team to not die in the crash was David Furr who was out for the season due to injury and not on the plane. Just two weeks after the crash, Furr and his brother were killed in a car accident. To this day, the Evansville plane crash remains one of the worst accidents involving a professional or college sports team in the United States in terms of fatalities. Only the 1970 Marshall football team plane crash (75 total killed) and the 1970 Wichita State football team plane crash (31 total killed) surpass it.
The tragedy had a great effect on Jerry Sloan. Here’s what he told the LA Times back in 1991:
“I’ve always probably been a little carried away by basketball,” Sloan acknowledged. “But at that point, I realized I needed to change and that I was wrapped too tight. I don’t think I lost any of my competitiveness; it was about how and why things happen.
“That’s when I realized basketball was just a game.”
In 1978, Sloan was hired by the Bulls as a scout. He would begin his coaching career with the Bulls, serving as an assistant in his first season and then as head coach of the team before being fired after a poor start to the NBA campaign in 1982. Sloan was hired by the Jazz as an assistant in 1985 and then as head coach in 1988. Sixteen years after that, Sloan had taken the Jazz to the playoffs in each season and became recognized as one of the NBA’s all-time coaching greats. He resigned as Jazz head coach in 2011 citing “decreased energy” as the primary reason.
If not for a decision to NOT coach his alma mater, one of the NBA’s all-time great coaches would have never even existed. RIP Coach Sloan.
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