Jerry Sloan died on May 22nd. Here we remember him with an article that appeared in Green Magazine in January of 2005.
For nearly 30 years now, professional basketball has played a major role in the life of Jerry Sloan. He played in the NBA (including 11 seasons for the Chicago Bulls) and he’s been head coach of the Utah Jazz since 1988. Sloan has also worked as an assistant NBA coach.
But as important as the sport is to Sloan, he is involved in a hobby that means almost as much to him.
“There was disappointment in Utah that coach Jerry Sloan didn’t win the Coach of the Year award (at the end of last season) ….
“I saw a coach get the most out of a team that anybody could,” said Kevin O’Connor, Utah’s vice president of basketball operations. “So for him not to be recognized as coach of the year is disappointing to us.”
Well, not everyone. Apparently, Sloan said winning the award was “not something I’m interested in personally.”
Said O’Connor: “He’s disappointed for the organization, that it wasn’t recognized. He would be a lot more disappointed if they were giving away a John Deere tractor.”
Jerry Sloan coaches basketball as his occupation, but collects tractors as his avocation. He is as passionate about one as the other.
He was born in McLeansboro, Illinois and still spends part of each year there on the farm he owns. Four large barns house his collection of 50 tractors, a “concoction” (as he calls it) of brands such as Olivers, Internationals, Cockshutts and, of course, John Deeres.
His interest in tractors started with a 1944 John Deere “B” that his father owned and that Sloan used when he was growing up in Illinois. John Deere tractors remain a favorite with Sloan.
Jerry Sloan is the last of the strong, silent types in the NBA, a relic from a bygone era who has the bearing of Gary Cooper and the spirit of James Cagney.
He is an unpretentious sort who never has lost his deep connection to the flyover portion of the country. He works in a John Deere cap by day and a rumpled suit by night.
About 20 to 25 of his tractors are in “pretty good shape,” said Sloan. A couple are in original condition and he won’t do anything to those, but instead will leave them as they are. But no matter what shape his tractors are in, Sloan doesn’t just let them sit idle in the barn: “It’s fun to listen to them run and to drive them around once in a while,” he said. “When I’m coaching, I ride around on a bus, so people think I’m crazy to ride tractors. But I love to be outdoors and I love to drive tractors.
His collection includes a John Deere 430, 530, 630, 730, 420 crawler, “LA,” a couple “M” tractors, 40, 50 and a 60. “There’s nothing significant like orchards or Hi-Crops,” he said, although he does have an “H” Hi-Crop and a 66 Oliver orchard. “There are not a lot of those,” he said of the Oliver.
“I’m kind of like Sanford and Son,” said Sloan, referring to a television show that features a father/ son who tended to collect a variety of everything.
He also has three International Super “C” tractors. Actually he had four of those, but then sold one. “I wish I had it back,” said Sloan, a collector who admits he is “very lucky that I do not have to sell them” because that would be hard for him to do.
“I have always been a collector,” he said, listing interests through the years in pedal tractors, farm toys and more. His best buy thus far, he said, was a piece of pottery that he bought at an antique shop in Buffalo, New York about 30 years ago. He paid $12 for the vase, which now has an estimated value of $20,000 to $30,000.
“That would buy a few groceries if I had to sell it,” he said with a laugh.
Sloan said both he and his wife, Bobbye, have had a longtime interest in antiques and, in fact, his wife was one of the first 32 dealers in an antique shop in the Prospect Heights area of Chicago when they lived in that city. An initial interest in pottery prompted his wife to buy books on antiques. As those books were read and knowledge gained, their interest in antiques grew—from one thing to another.
“I love collecting,” said Sloan. “I would rather do that than eat when I’m hungry.”
Sloan finds collectibles in a variety of places, including garage sales. “I love garage sales,” he said, “anything to do with junk.” One of the Sloans’ daughters, Kathy, wrote a book about buying and selling clothes on eBay, which included a story about her father’s methods at garage sales—specifically that he often bargains for a good buy. “I’m not afraid to ask them if they could come down,” said Sloan with a laugh. “That’s the fun part of it.”
“I have always been a packrat,” said Sloan. “My wife always said that when one of us passed away, the other one is going to be left with a big mess to clean up.”
Sloan now finds himself as the one left to “clean up.” About six years ago, Bobbye Sloan successfully battled breast cancer. Then, about a year ago, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and her husband was faced with a decision—whether to continue coaching last season or quit to be with his wife:
Theirs is an uplifting NBA love story, strengthened by the enemy within the wife.
She stepped out of her husband’s shadow in the late ’90s to raise public awareness of breast cancer, the battle she won as a prelude to the cruel struggle before her now. She is up against pancreatic cancer, a virulent foe that has both jarred and bonded the two anew.
The crusty coach was prepared to leave the Jazz to be at his wife’s side, to care for the one person who always has known how to find the old softy lurking within. She refused to hear the word quit. She kicked the coach back to the bench because she, too, loves the team, loves its grit, loves how it reflects the coach’s spirit and, by extension, hers as well.
Sloan secured his 800th victory with the Jazz in their last outing, the 894th victory of his career, numbers that merit a league-wide toast.
By habit, the honoree is unwilling to accept the gesture. Sloan has a sick wife who needs him and a team that needs his hard-nosed attention to detail.
Here’s to the victories ahead for Sloan and his wife.
The battle with pancreatic cancer did not end in a victory for Bobbye Sloan, who died in June 2004. Both natives of McLeansboro, Illinois, she and Jerry Sloan had been high school sweethearts who married in 1962 and were wed about 42 years before her death. They had three children: Kathy, who works for a pharmaceutical firm in Omaha, Nebraska; Brian, a medical doctor in Indiana; and Holly, a junior high school teacher and coach in Crystal Lake, Illinois. The Sloans also have seven grandchildren.
After his wife’s death, Sloan spent much of last summer at his farm in Illinois, living in the home his wife wanted to build six years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and just trying to regroup his life. He was not involved in the player draft or other activities that occur during the offseason. Sloan is quick to credit the support he received from the Utah Jazz management during a difficult time: “Our company was great to me,” he said of the time he was allowed to take off. “But then pretty soon it was time to get back to work.”
Last year, the Jazz did not make it to the playoffs, although the team did far better than some thought they would, and there are high hopes for the current season:
There’s something about the hardscrabble rural Illinois upbringing that makes him want to fight. Picked by several experts to have the worst record in the league, the Jazz won 42 games and narrowly missed the playoffs. That wasn’t surprising; it was shocking.
Sloan’s deadpan response: “When you think about it, we really didn’t do anything except go home early. We missed the playoffs, which isn’t a really exciting thing to happen.”
This year, though, the Jazz will be no surprise. Their draft is rated an A-minus by Athlon Sports Pro Basketball and TSN says they had the best draft in the Northwest Division. Street and Smith’s considers their offseason acquisitions a five-star effort, while Lindy’s gives them an A-plus and has them returning to the playoffs. Steve Kerr of Yahoo.Sports ranks them the fourth-best team in the West.
Writes Kerr: “A year ago, I looked at the Jazz roster and predicted 25 wins. I should have realized that with Jerry Sloan at the helm, that just wasn’t going to happen. Sloan has established a foundation so strong in Salt Lake City that even the departures of Stockton and Malone didn’t faze him … Utah should be back in the playoffs.”
All of which is merely background clatter to Sloan. He didn’t worry about the negativism last year and he’s not paying attention to the preseason buildup this year.
“There are so many things to be concerned about on a day-to-day basis, but that’s not one of them,” said Sloan.
Someone else can be in charge of predicting.
He’s in charge of winning.
Some columnists are already suggesting Sloan should be Coach of the Year, an honor he has never received in his 16 years of coaching in the NBA (and sixth best winning percentage). Sloan doesn’t speak about possible honors, but rather seems to be rather unconcerned about that aspect of his career. Perhaps he realizes such honors are fleeting or remembers that his own athletic career began rather inauspiciously. He graduated from McLeansboro High School, then went to the University of Illinois on an athletic scholarship but quit college after only six weeks. “I was a little bit lost,” he said. “I had never been away from home.”
Sloan went to work in the oil fields, but quickly decided that he did not want to stay there long so he soon enrolled in college at Evansville, Indiana, a much smaller school where he was also offered an athletic scholarship. He was named an outstanding player in 1964 and 1965 NCAA College Division II Tournaments and, as a senior, helped lead the team to a national championship in its division.
He was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets and played there one year before moving in 1966 to the Chicago Bulls as part of the expansion list. He played there 11 years, then coached 2-1/2 years before being fired. “That’s one of the pitfalls of professional sports,” he said.
But the good thing about losing that job, he said, was that it allowed his family to move back to hometown McLeansboro for two years. During that time, his son’s basketball team placed third at state when Brian was a junior and went undefeated when Brian was a senior. Also in his senior year, Brian was named “Mr. Basketball” by Illinois sports writers.
“Our family had a great time joining in the excitement of the fans” during those years, said Sloan. “It was a great time for our family. If there was something positive about getting fired, it was watching our son play. I had never gotten to do that while I was coaching.”
During that time, Sloan farmed with his brother but knew he would eventually return to coaching. And he did—he was offered a job with the Evansville (Indiana) Thunder of the Continental Basketball Association and put together a team. But even before the season began, he received a call that saw him moving to Salt Lake City, Utah and taking on an assistant coaching job there with the Jazz. When the Jazz head coach stepped down, Sloan took on that role in 1988 and has been there ever since—which ranks him as the coach with the longest active tenure with one team in the NBA.
Now nearly 63 years old, Sloan said he is likely near the end of his coaching career. But no matter what the future brings, Sloan remains strong to his rural roots. He was born March 28, 1942 at McLeansboro, the youngest of 10 children. His father died when Sloan was 4, but the 1944 John Deere “B” that his dad had bought new remained on the farm for years after that. The home place was 60 acres, mostly pasture for cattle and horses, but other farmland was added through the years.
“Everybody pretty much cut their teeth on it,” Sloan said of the “B” tractor, adding his brothers (and later Sloan) continued to farm after his father passed away.
When Sloan was in high school and helping with farm work, he and his brother, Roger, decided to overhaul the “B.” Sloan still remembers painting the tractor with a paint brush. “It was not a great paint job, but it preserved it at that time,” he said with a laugh. “We used a lot of baling wire—we weren’t blessed with a lot of money.”
Eventually his mother sold the “B” for $100. About 15 years ago, Sloan found the tractor, but it was too rough for him to consider restoring. Several year later, his nephew, Tom Sloan, did buy the tractor and restored it (the story of that restoration and a photo of the tractor were featured in the September 2001 issue of Green Magazine).
These days, Sloan leaves the restoration work to other such as his friends, Danny Brown and Snooky Edmonds, who have traveled throughout the country to pick up tractors for Sloan. “Snooky likes to fix them up and they look pretty nice after he’s gotten ahold of them,” said Sloan, adding he prefers locating tractors rather than trying to restore them.
“I’m a better coach when I tell other people what to do,” he said with a laugh.
Two brothers Sloan went to high school with now farm the 2,000 acres he owns in Illinois. He helps, but on a limited basis: “I just piddle around,” he said. “I clean out fence rows, but it gives me something to do in the summertime. It’s exciting to me and a great diversion from the job I’ve had all these years.”
“It’s a completely different lifestyle” in rural Illinois, he said. “It’s hard for people get ahold of you out there.” Sloan does not carry a cell phone and has no fax or email address. That allows him to blend in, as does the attitude of those who live near him: “They could care less who I am—I’m no celebrity. They know the business I’m in but could care less.”
Sloan agrees with that opinion. Although he’s been in the professional basketball spotlight for about 30 years, “It’s not a big deal—that’s the way I look at it,” he said. Living on his farm, driving his tractors and going to garage sales now and then appear to be a lifestyle Sloan enjoys.
It wasn’t always that way. Sloan admits that years ago, he was spending all his time concentrating on basketball until a Chicago coach told him that he needed to get a hobby. So Sloan, always the collector, started looking for tractors. “I think that’s why I’ve been able to stay in it (coaching) as long as I have,” he said. “I have lasted longer than one ordinarily might have in this profession—and collecting tractors has saved us a lot of medical bills.”
“People think I’m a little crazy anyway,” he said of those in his professional life who might think his hobby of collecting tractors is rather strange.
Although he’s not one to predict what might happen, Sloan does have a dream for the future—although he doubts it will happen. “I dream I will go into the barn one day and all my tractors will be Hi-Crops,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s an April fool’s dream.”
Italicized portions of this story are excerpts from various sports websites.