It was Game 3 of the 1998 Finals. After winning both regular season match-ups and the first game at home, the Utah Jazz dropped Game 2, losing home court advantage, and going into Chicago with the series tied at 1 apiece.
And they were obliterated.
96-54. Lowest point total in NBA Finals history, and what was then the lowest point total for any post-shot-clock NBA game (since eclipsed twice and tied once). The Jazz shot 30% as a team, only Karl Malone scored in double figures, and every single player on the Bullsâ€™ roster scored. Even Jud Buechler made two 3s.
I watched that game with my father and one of his colleagues. As the extended garbage time finally expired, and the post game interviews replaced it, a defeated Jerry Sloan came to the podium. And my fatherâ€™s colleague said:
â€œNo, donâ€™t interview poor Jerryâ€.
Now, anybody whoâ€™s been present for even a part of Gerald Eugene Sloanâ€™s NBA career would tell you that there are very few adjectives less fitting to describe him than â€œPoorâ€. Thereâ€™s Tenacious, 4 time all-defensive team Jerry. Thereâ€™s Original Jerry, as in the Original Bull, the franchise for which he was an all-star 30 years before they beat him twice in the Finals.
Thereâ€™s the Jerry that collects tractors, and the Jerry that wears John Deere hats, and the Jerry that makes sideline reporters cry as he stares into their souls and obliterates their will to live with every mid-quarter interview. Thereâ€™s Comic Gold Jerry, the one who asks us not to jackpot around, who talks about ice pick fights, who tells us that the finger John Stockton injured is â€œthe one on his handâ€, the one who would never make up a word to describe himself but is just as â€œquotatiousâ€ as whatever it is that Shaq calls himself now.
And of course, thereâ€™s Brilliant Jerry. The one who coached 21 winning teams in 23 seasons, including taking a pitiful rosterÂ which got 71 starts from Carlos Arroyo, 31 from Jarron Collins, 23 from Michael Ruffin, and whoâ€™s 3rd leading scorer was Gordon Giricek to 42 wins. The one who missed the playoffs 3 times in 22 tries. The one who stood at the helm of 23 Utah Jazz teams, in the franchiseâ€™s 32 year stay in Utah. The mastermind standing behind what was consistently one of the leagueâ€™s best offenses, no matter the cast at his hands, for a time span longer than the life of he who writes this.
On that night in June of 1998, though, when that same offense had failed him on the biggest stage possible, the Jerry Sloan slumping his way through the saddest postgame interview I can remember was Poor Jerry Sloan. And even as a 7 year old, which in the Michael Jordan era meant I was a full-blown Bulls bandwagoner, I can remember feeling bad for this man, hoping I never have to see him in this state again.
Which is why it hurt so badly, 12 and a half years later, to see Poor Jerry Sloan walking out the door. When facing such a huge part of the NBA, such a fierce competitor, the last feeling you want to feel is pity. We like to think that when legends finally bow out, they do it gracefully â€“ head held high, clearly past their peak but only to the trained eye, preferably coming off what was the their greatest victory. Hopeless romantics strive for that cathartic moment, when a competitor who has already proven his worthiness in every way possible somehow one-ups himself before riding off into the sunset.
Jerry may be riding into the sunset all right, but there is nothing cathartic about how itâ€™s being done. In the middle of a tumultuous season, with multiple parts of the team struggling to fit together, a slump gone so bad that even making the playoffs seems in danger, and his star point guard putting up huge numbers while looking like the grumpy dwarf.
In fairness to Sloan, my perception of his departure is probably skewed by how sad it is just to see him walk, in any shape or form. By all accounts, no matter how much you believe the Deron Williams accusations, Jerry is the one who decided to walk away, and is doing so on his own terms. But this kind of exit hardly seems fit for a coach person of Jerryâ€™s caliber. A person who has affected his franchise so much, that I honestly expect Ty Corbinâ€™s new team to show up tonight in Phoenix with the name â€œUtah Dudesâ€ on their jerseys. Because, come on, how can the Jazz not be coached by Jerry?
Perhaps itâ€™s only fitting, though, that it happens like this. Jerry Sloan never needed our approval, that silly Coach of the Year award, or the satisfaction of a proper farewell tour. Maybe for the man who has become synonymous with one of the leagueâ€™s best â€œdo the dirty laundry at homeâ€ franchises, a sudden declaration that enough is enough really was the only way to go. Maybe Jerry Sloanâ€™s greatness is measured in that he doesnâ€™t need the self-confirmation that comes with a title, that heâ€™s perfectly content to join his two greatest disciples on the list of ringless greats.
All thatâ€™s left to hope is that the basketball-less portion of Jerry Sloanâ€™s life is as fulfilling as possible. Because those who stay near the game, and those who watch it from home, will forever be left with a void in the shape of an icy stare.