Sports oddsmaker Danny Sheridan says the Utah Jazz have a one in a million chance of winning the NBA championship, but that doesn’t mean Jerry Sloan should give a damn. At the same time, just because you haven’t heard Roxy Music’s wonderfully chaotic jazz-influenced song, “Remake/Remodel” doesn’t mean it deserves to be obscure. Confused? Stay with me here.
As in a traditional jazz tune, each Roxy Music musician plays a solo before melding the helter-skelter parts back together into music. While the new Utah Jazz strive to be a traditional jazz quintet under Sloan’s direction, it’s still, to most observers, a young rock band making a lot of noise. But don’t say that to Utah Jazz President Dennis Haslam.
“We don’t consider it rebuilding. We consider it remodeling,” Haslam told the media.
Execution was the hallmark of the Jazz under point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone. They set the standard for the classic pick-and-roll basketball play refined under Sloan’s methods. Stockton retired to Spokane, and Malone is chasing a ring and the all-time scoring title in Los Angeles. Sloan’s steely coaching method is the lone remnant of the Jazz’s glory days.
As a college player in 1965, Sloan led Evansville to an undefeated season and a Division II national championship, which he said was “better than a million dollars.” Converted to today’s currency values, that’s almost enough to have paid Malone’s salary for the past three years. Sloan was drafted by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, but soon joined the Chicago Bulls where he carved out his niche. Under coach Dick Motta—the former Weber State coach, whose mantra was “go to work”—Sloan and a collection of hard-nosed roll players formed a team that, from 1968 to 1975, no one wanted to play.
Former Deseret News Jazz beat writer Dave Blackwell remembers how Sloan played the game. “Was he tough? [Sloan was] an overachiever. People were in awe of the way [the Bulls] competed. It was perfect for ‘the city of broad shoulders.’ Jerry wouldn’t back down from anyone, not even [the 7-foot-1-inch, 275-pound] Wilt Chamberlain. Those Bulls would knock [opposing players] down if they had to. ...”
The memories are even more vivid for Sloan. “We played hard every night,” Sloan said, “We weren’t as talented—we played against some great teams: Milwaukee had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, a couple of guys in the Hall of Fame … same with the Lakers [Jerry West, Chamberlain]. Our guys never had anybody in the Hall of Fame, but we competed against them. We just weren’t quite good enough to get over the hump. I don’t think anybody would say that when we stepped on the floor, that we didn’t compete. In a lot of people’s eyes, they didn’t think we were supposed to be there, but we were right there; they had to beat us.”
Some people called Sloan’s style of play “dirty.” Some people called it “boring.” But his legacy continued with Stockton and Malone, and winning ugly has always been preferable to losing with flair.
Sloan was able to take such an old-school approach to the game for granted, as embodied by his pure point guard and hard power forward. “Old school” elements include setting hard picks on the defender, even if he outweighs you, or using your elbows to clear space for a rebound. That’s why detractors called it dirty.
“Old school” means beating everyone else down the floor, and always getting back on defense—even if it seems that the other teams’ lay-up is a given. It constitutes crisp passing in lieu of incessant dribbling, and simple passing instead of going behind the back to make the highlight reel. What’s boring to some is playing hard to Sloan.
Like Sloan, Stockton and Malone had amazing durability considering their physical style of play, enhanced by the fact that they would play through pain and minor injuries. The Jazz’s new power forward, Keon Clark, already has missed several practices, and at least opening game, due to a minor or perhaps not-so-minor ankle sprain. “We’ve already had more missed days of practice,” Sloan said, “than Stockton and Malone probably had in their entire careers.”
Contrast these antiquated elements with the attitude of today’s young NBA players, who represent hip-hop, getting paid, and playing the way they want to play. New school street credibility is what sells.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson, a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body and one of the NBA’s latest street-cred poster boys, embodies this new attitude. Last year, responding to a feud he had with coach Larry Brown over missed practices, Iverson replied, “Practice? Man, we talking about practice, not a game. … How in the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?” said Iverson, who cut a rap album under the nom de pimp, Jewelz.
At least partly because of this rift, Brown left Philadelphia to coach the rival Detroit Pistons during the off-season. He told the Detroit Free Press, “at this age … I can’t coach assholes anymore.”
Last year DeShawn Stevenson, whom the Jazz drafted straight out of high school, got in an argument with Sloan about his perceived lack of playing time, and was immediately suspended from the team and sent back to Salt Lake City. Perhaps Stevenson was lucky he didn’t get his ass kicked by an old man.
Meeting Sloan in person is somewhat intimidating. When you shake his large hands, you are really only shaking his fingers. And there is something predatory about his gaze that makes you want to refrain from asking stupid questions. But can Sloan’s old-school approach survive in a new NBA climate where 18-year-olds are anointed superstars before they ever step on the court?
Perhaps realizing the irony, the Jazz’s new ad campaign has showcased Sloan himself in faux “bling-bling” regalia under the header, “New School Now in Session.” Upon first view, the ad looks digitally altered, but apparently Sloan agreed to it, without realizing what he was getting into. The sight of Sloan in a sideways baseball cap with an oversized gold dollar-sign necklace looked surreal, especially on an NBA coach who requires that his players’ shirts be tucked in at all times.
Sometimes jazz is played “in tuxedos”—Sloan’s euphemism for when his Jazz are playing too soft—so who knows if Sloan would agree with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s comparison of basketball as a metaphor for jazz musicianship to ESPN’s Eric Neel:
“The whole idea of a jazz quintet resonates—there’s a theme, and there’s a ball on the court, everybody shares, everybody has their moment with the ball, with different responsibilities at different times, but the central focus is the ball and putting the tune out there in a certain way.”
Abdul-Jabbar is also connected with the Jazz’s last rebuilding era. In 1981, the Lakers lost to the Jazz in the Salt Palace. The defending champion Lakers weren’t supposed to lose to a Jazz team that would finish with 25 wins and 57 losses. Abdul-Jabbar was ejected, and as he left the floor of the old arena, he kicked a large water cooler off of a table. After the game, a young Magic Johnson threw a temper tantrum, effectively getting his coach, Paul Westhead, fired. It was an early victory for players in the on-going erosion of coaches’ authority. Just ask former Golden State Warriors Coach P.J. Carlesimo, who was choked by Latrell Sprewell.
Westhead’s replacement, Pat Riley, recently stepped down from coaching after 21 seasons. Old-school coaches are a dying breed. Sloan is the longest-tenured coach in the NBA (or in any professional sport). Hubie Brown of Memphis is older, but he had a 15-year hiatus between his current coaching job and his last one. Don Nelson of Dallas and Larry Brown of Detroit have coached longer, but Nellie’s high-octane Mavericks are decidedly new-school, and Brown has been a bit of a nomad, coaching seven different NBA teams, and also at the collegiate level. Sloan enters his 16th consecutive season as the coach of the Jazz, and his 19th overall as a head coach.
Kevin O’Connor, Utah Jazz’s senior vice president of basketball operations, explained why the young Jazz need Jerry Sloan: “Especially this year, he’s so important because he’s a coach that is concerned that his kids play hard and get better. There are very few coaches who demand instant respect, and he is one of them. The league just lost another coach like that [Riley]. Sloan has the respect of the players because he’s been there … and he knows what he wants to do.”
Part of the Jazz’s mission is finding players who are good fits for their structured, disciplined system. For the past 20 years, the Jazz have made an effort to get players “of good character.” But talent is also required to win in the NBA. The Jazz were extremely fortunate to land two players of character and talent—Stockton and Malone with the No. 16 and No. 13 picks of the NBA draft, respectively. But the odds of it happening again are as long as Sheridan’s odds for the Jazz winning the NBA championship this year.
In 2000, O’Connor took a risk in his first draft with the Jazz, selecting DeShawn Stevenson straight out of high school. The crowd at the draft party in the Delta Center cheered because O’Connor had done something out of the box, and the buzz on Stevenson was that he could be the next Kobe Bryant (on the court). Shortly after the draft, Stevenson was arrested on suspicion of fighting. In 2001, he was charged with the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl. Shortly before that incident, the Jazz had ironically referred to him as “untouchable (not to be traded),” a term generally reserved for young teenage girls. Felony charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor, to which he pleaded “no contest.”
As a high schooler, Stevenson was clearly the best player, so instead of running a structured offense, the team would give him the ball and get out of the way so he could go one-on-one. That doesn’t fit in with Sloan’s synergy, so Stevenson has spent most of his first three seasons in the doghouse.
This year it seems that Stevenson has finally matured, that he “gets it” according to Sloan, who’s recently raved about his work ethic and attitude during the preseason.
O’Connor doesn’t buy the rap that Sloan can’t coach younger players. “I think the word is ‘patience.’ He can be patient with young players and coach them well, he just hasn’t had to for a while,” O’Connor said.
In the pursuit of athletic ability at all costs, at the expense of old-school team chemistry, other franchises have ignored character in the pursuit of talent. Take the Portland Trail Blazers—the only team to surpass the Jazz’s consecutive playoff streak. They sit at 21 years in a row and may make it back. But because of a litany of criminal charges—detailed at www.oregonlive.com/blazers/special—they are often referred to as the “Jail Blazers.” The Blazers actually brought former Jazz players Adam Keefe and Scott Padgett into camp, ostensibly to improve their team’s character. But because of a lack of talent, both were cut. Padgett managed to sign with the Houston Rockets, filling in for forward Eddie Griffin, who has been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team and is under investigation for allegedly assaulting and shooting at a woman purporting to be his girlfriend.
Out of necessity, or attrition, “boring” is making a slight comeback in the NBA. The New York Knicks recently traded the aforementioned coach-choker Sprewell and received “vanilla” (Rick Majerus’ word, not mine) former-Ute player Keith Van Horn in return. Now the Machiavellian Knicks fans will have someone to boo besides former Jazz GM Scott Layden. BYU alum Danny Ainge, in his new role as Celtics GM, recently jettisoned talented but me-first player Antoine Walker for lesser players in an effort to rebuild team culture in a less selfish way.
Most recently, Trail Blazers’ management took out a full-page Oregonian ad stating, “Here is our pledge to you: To evaluate character along with basketball talent when selecting players; To establish a player code of conduct and to hold our players accountable for their actions both on and off the court; To challenge every obstacle that would prevent us from taking quick and authoritative action for any behavior that compromises our expectation of our players acting responsibly at all times….”
But the Blazers were the same talented, highly erratic group when they faced the Jazz last week.
The Delta Center was a study in contrasts and noise on opening night. Jay Francis, Utah Jazz’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, said that with the new team, they would “focus on fun, entertainment, [and being] young … [Invite the fans to] come see something [they] haven’t seen before.”
They delivered: A blues band played out in the square in front of the Delta Center as if it were the playoffs; a red carpet was rolled out at the entrance; selected ushers wore tuxes; and the comely Jazz Dancers wore disco sparkle sequins as they circulated through the crowd handing out magnetic schedules. Oh yeah, the players performed well, too.
Between the third and fourth quarter, the Jazz Bear mascot did a version of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” with an exploding piano that left smoke wafting through the air well into fourth quarter. The smoke might have made the Blazers’ feel at home considering Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace, Portland’s version of Stockton and Malone, have both had recent marijuana-related arrests. To be fair, Keon Clark also has allegedly found himself on the edge of reefer madness, but he didn’t suit up for the game.
The Oregonian’s Jason Quick wrote of the season opener: “Through the years, the Trail Blazers organization has spent enormous amounts of money buying size, playmakers and rebounders. But $85 million later, the Blazers are discovering one item they forgot on their shopping list: a brain.”
“I always know Jerry Sloan’s teams are going to keep battling, keep battling,” Trail Blazers’ coach Mo Cheeks told the media. “That’s just what they do.”
Cheeks was an old-school player for the Philadelphia 76ers in his own right, a team-first point guard who held the all-time record for steals until Stockton surpassed him. Pity him in his current plight with the Blazers. In the off-season, it was rumored that Cheeks wouldn’t mind returning to Philly to fill their coaching vacancy. There, he could have had the privilege of coaching Iverson.
It was only one victory, but the Jazz got the job done, and did it in team-oriented fashion. All 10 players who got in the game contributed—five of them scored between 14 and 18 points. “I thought our guys played really hard, especially down the stretch. It looked like we had a little bit of an idea of what we were trying to do,” Sloan said. “We did make some mistakes, but we didn’t drop our heads at the end. We stayed in there.”
Sloan almost seemed to have enjoyed the game, even if it wasn’t as recreational as restoring an old tractor back home on his farm in McLeansboro, Ill.
Perhaps the one current Jazz player who epitomizes playing hard, Sloan-style basketball is Matt Harpring. Dubbed “Little Jerry” by his teammates, Harpring comes from a long line of college football players. He plays basketball as if it were a full-contact sport, diving to the rim like a hockey player dives to the goal. After being named first team captain in recent memory, aside from Stockton and Malone, Harpring seemed to be trying too hard to live up to the mantle.
“Matt doesn’t need to carry this team,” Sloan said. “He was trying hard, but he was trying to do too much [himself]. You can’t just duck your head and go. He’ll get opportunities, and play well as long as he stays within what [the team is] trying to do … when somebody’s struggling, somebody else needs to step up.”
Early in the preseason, Sloan wondered if anyone would step up to fill the leadership void. “There are a lot of things that go in to being a leader besides who scores the most points or who grabs the most rebounds. How do you react after you get your butt beat a couple of times? Who’s the guy who says, ‘OK, let’s go get after it. Let’s step forward,’?” Sloan asked. The Blazers beat on the Jazz for the first three quarters, then, catalyzed by Harpring, they all stepped forward and surged to the win.
Perhaps the player who best epitomizes the Jazz’s old-school/new-school dichotomy is the supremely athletic, yet still highly unpredictable player Andrei Kirilenko. A star on his Russian team, he’s accustomed to getting the ball and freelancing, which is a no-no. That’s like trying to improv jazz before you’ve learned to play standards. At a pivotal moment in a playoff game last year, Kirilenko failed to execute the play Sloan had called and threw the ball out of bounds. Sloan sent another player to the scorer’s table to take over for him, but by the time the substitute could check into the game, Kirilenko had scored two baskets and made a stellar defensive play. Neither he nor the majority of the crowd understood why he had to sit.
In the opener, Kirilenko started the game in the first half and seemed discombobulated, so Sloan had him on the bench to start the second half, and the Jazz fell behind by double figures. When Sloan reinserted him into the game, it was winning time and Andrei made some of the most athletic defensive plays and swooping dunks that a fan could ever hope to see. But it was within the team concept. Earlier in the preseason, Kirilenko said he cared nothing for personal glory. “We are young and greedy for wins,” he said.
Losing has never been part of the Utah Jazz’s master plan, to their credit. Unfortunately, the most effective way to build a good team in the NBA is to be bad for a year and lose enough games to enter the draft lottery, through which the best young players are selected. Just ask Jazz rivals Houston, which won the lottery twice, and San Antonio, which acquired consensus best player Tim Duncan. Both of those franchises have won NBA championships—unlike the Jazz.
The Jazz have been consistently good for so long they’ve never had a lottery pick since the NBA instated the system in 1985 to prevent teams from tanking at the end of the season. But don’t ever suggest that the Jazz should be in the lottery to Jerry Sloan.
“If you said ‘lose to get in the lottery’ to Jerry, you’d rile him,” said O’Connor, “We’re not out here to lose. We’re out here to play.”
“That’s the makeup of our team,” said new Jazz guard Raja Bell, “We’ve got to play hard … from the jump until the last whistle in order to have a chance in games … A lot of teams don’t play hard most of the game, so we’ll have a chance to pull them out at the end.” Along with point guard Carlos Arroyo, Bell forms the first ever Florida International Golden Panther backcourt in the NBA. Never heard of ‘em? Obscurity is in the eye of the beholder.
And if new-school players don’t want to come to Utah and play for Sloan, to hell (or Portland or Philly) with them.
CARLOS ARROYO – It may have been only one game, and it may never happen again, but Arroyo practically channeled John Stockton in the Jazz opener. This guy could be a good-not-great point guard in the NBA for some time, and the Jazz owe some karma to Puerto Rico for the way it did JosÃ© Ortiz, an 18 and 10 guy at Oregon State whom the Jazz drafted, then let languish on the bench. He was a power forward, so there were few minutes to be had behind Karl Malone. But when Ortiz played he showed flashes of greatness—alright, they were Chris Morris-esque—despite the fact that he didn’t appear to know the plays, or speak English. In international play with Puerto Rico, Piculin has demonstrated what he could have been. Silly Jazz. But back to the present: arriba Arroyo!
KEON CLARK – Didn’t mean to “bag” on Keon in the article. This guy can drop “dimes” with the best of them. And with such skinny legs, he probably is legitimately injured. But was that him watching “Musical Chairs” during the opener timeout when the portly fellow revealed his plumber’s crack?
BEN HANDLOGTEN –The guy can really play, but looks goofy as hell. Have he and original Utah Jazzman Ben Poquette ever been photographed together? Dude, they’re both from Michigan.
RAUL LOPEZ—If he remains healthy, Lopez should become a type of player similar to French phenom Tony Parker, whom he was taken ahead of. That is to say, very fast, perhaps more of a scorer than a playmaker, but definitely a keeper. Doctors replaced his knee ligament with one from a cadaver. The procedure was redone last year once Lopez landed on American soil. I don’t know why some women find him so “en fuego.” They’re talking about basketball, right? And some women like Justin Timberlake solely for his music.
MYSTERY PLAYER—Your guess is as good as mine. Here’s a roster spot available for a salary dump.
GREG OSTERTAG—He finally played with some maturity last year, but he still lacks consistency. A major factor in the Jazz’s playoff victory against the Kings, he then got ejected in the first few minutes of game 5. His contract expires after this year, so in a salary cap-strapped league, he could be tempting trade-bait. In the first half of the opening game, ‘Tag left the floor when he thought he’d been subbed for, but Sloan wrangled him back in the game. “Greg’s a little further ahead in his coaching than I’d like,” he said.
ALEKSANDER PAVLOVIC—following a league wide trend toward drafting international players, the Jazz drafted this swingman out of Serbia and Montenegro. The Jazz need a scorer. There is nothing wrong with the team as currently constructed that a 20-points-per-game-scorer wouldn’t fix. Pavlovic could be it … eventually. Pavlovic is compared to sweet-shooting Sacramento Kings player Peja Stojakavic, and has made an early impression. P.S. My NBA.com Virtual GM squad is named “Pavlovic’s Perros.” Ring a bell?
TREVOR RUFFIN—Represents a link to the belabored post-dynasty rebuilding of the Bulls. Uh-oh. His name could be spelled Roughin’ and will have 6 fouls to give every night. Sounds like a Jerry Sloan type of guy.
STANFORD BIG MEN—Perhaps it’s best not to lump Jarron Collins and Curtis Borchardt together. The former is a twin, the latter is the Second Coming of erudite Stanford big man Rich Kelley (now a Jazz scout). But a hack’s gotta’ do what a hack’s gotta’ do. Here’s hoping that, health permitting, they dance better than Mark Madsen.
MO WILLIAMS—He’s the little engine that could, a second rounder with something to prove. In the past, players such as Bryon Russell, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson (or even Mark Eaton and Bobby Hansen) have proven that with a little hard work a player can make it in the NBA—if he’s in the right system. Williams is a long shot to get much playing time this year, but he could get Mo if Lopez is injured.