NBA Sloan has Jazz back in hunt
But Utah may be hard-pressed to stay successful.
Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has never paid attention to preseason predictions, a lesson he learned nearly four decades ago.
In the summer of 1966, Sloan left the Baltimore Bullets as the first pick in the expansion draft, joining Chicago -- a distinction that earned him the nickname "The Original Bull."
"I went to an expansion team that was supposed to win 10 games, and we made the playoffs -- one of the few expansion teams ever to make the playoffs," said Sloan, whose team has been one of the biggest surprises thus far in the 2003-04 season. "I've always believed you can win if guys come and play hard every night."
Playing hard has been Sloan's mantra since his days as a scrappy forward who led Evansville to a 29-0 record as a senior before garnering NBA All-Defensive team honors six times.
Sloan's teams have always mimicked their coach's characteristics of working hard and acting professionally, and this year's unit is no exception.
Nobody expected the Jazz to contend for a playoff spot this season after the departure of Karl Malone and John Stockton, yet Utah entered the weekend as one of 11 Western Conference teams with records above .500.
Sloan dismisses Utah's early-season success, explaining that the Jazz caught opponents off-guard during the first six weeks because nobody was certain how Utah's revamped roster planned to play.
Now that there's a body of work for opposing coaches and scouts to pick apart, the challenge for the Jazz will be to maintain the level of success they've established.
Extending Utah's streak of consecutive playoff appearances to 21 is still a longshot. Still, Sloan figures to receive strong support in voting for the coach of the year award that eluded him in the Stockton-Malone era.
Not that he gives a hoot.
"I didn't play this game for recognition, and I don't coach for it," said Sloan, who twice turned down opportunities to leave Utah for bigger markets.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been 158 head coaching changes in the NBA since Sloan replaced Frank Layden on Dec. 9, 1988. He has been with Utah more than twice as long as the second-most tenured NBA coach, Flip Saunders of the Minnesota Timberwolves (eight seasons).
Retirement will eventually take Sloan back to the downstate Illinois community of McLeansboro, where he will tinker with his collection of antique tractors.
But he isn't certain when that day will arrive, leaving him pacing the sidelines, swearing at officials and demanding the same of his team that he gave as a player -- effort, tenacity and toughness.
"The easiest thing to do is just turn 'em loose and let 'em go, but I don't see us helping them become any better. My job still remains the same, doesn't make any difference who's here," Sloan said. "Our job's still like an expansion team in my mind, we have to go in with the idea we're going to try to get better.
"We don't have a star, somebody we can just throw the ball to. We need to help each other through the offense and do the right thing, and the guys are getting better and better at doing that."