NEW YORK — Apparently, there was a pact all along . . . Jerry Sloan came in around the same time with Hosni Mubarak, and damned if he isn’t going out with him.
Unlike Mubarak, Sloan, the longest-tenured coach in North American professional sports, can take a hint . . . minus mob scenes to facilitate his decision-making process or ESPN to hype it.
After 22-plus seasons of completely controlling how the Jazz players conducted themselves in his presence on and off the court, his mind and his “energy-drained” body signaled the authoritarian was fighting a losing battle.
Sloan had witnessed enough of late; it went well beyond 10 losses in his last 14 games at the helm. And without saying so, clearly, he recognized the players had heard more than enough from him. No longer were they paying strict attention to his play-calling or rules-of-the-road.
So, with all due respect to the Miller family — which purchased the franchise in 1985 and unreservedly supported Sloan’s methods of operation — and himself, he decided to retire six weeks and four days before his 69th birthday.
At last Thursday’s news conference announcing Sloan’s emotional exit, as well as the departure of first lieutenant Phil Johnson, who was Jerry before Jerry was Jerry, and promotion of Tyrone Corbin, CEO Greg Miller testified unequivocally that “nobody pushed him out.”
Not ownership, not top management and not the players.
All you had to do was see the grief-stricken faces of chairman Gail Miller, her son, Greg, president Randy Rigby and VP Kevin O’Connor to know that’s incontrovertibly true as far as their control tower is concerned. These people would’ve done anything to hang on to their favorite son.
In fact, 10 minutes before meeting the media, O’Connor said he was still trying to talk Sloan out of retiring.
The previous night, immediately after an unsightly breakdown in the closing minutes to the Bulls, Sloan was so upset by the disorder and disobedience he wanted to quit right then and there.
O’Connor convinced him to go home and sleep on it.
“I hated hearing it,” Greg Miller said, “but it’s his decision, his life.”
And life as a coach, Sloan admitted, wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. “I thought about (leaving) a few days ago . . . My energy level has dropped a lot.”
Alleged conflicts with players, notably Deron Williams — the lone player who imaginably has the juice to stand up to Sloan without dire consequences, if not have the sway to get him fired — are being cited as the major motive for Jerry’s steep energy descent.
Utah’s 91-86 stained setback to the Bulls — ironically, the team that drafted the 198-cm Evansville guard in 1966 and Sloan’s one and only coaching pit stop before arriving in Salt Lake City 26 years ago to assist Frank Layden — perceptibly hurled him over the edge.
In no particular order, missing 10-21 free throws and 7-8 from offshore, bench outscored, 25-5, and, with the Jazz down, 87-86, Williams mishandled two possessions in the final 1:08.
His mistakes — a swipe from behind and a careless pass — were as pathetic and they were apathetic; no pained look or anger, whatsoever. Hardly what you expect, I submit, from arguably the league’s premier point guard.
“Put it on me,” Williams said following his 11-point, game-high 12-assist, five-turnover performance. “Because at the end of the game, I had the ball in my hands. I’ve gotta make the plays to win the game . . . Put it on me.”
In the mentality of many, Williams is being declared the leader of a mutiny against Sloan’s old fashioned regulations (forbidding head/cell phones on the bus to encourage teammates to talk to each other, for instance) and prehistoric offense.
“Jerry is as good as any at the job,” rebuts a former head coach by e-mail. “Game did not pass him by. His subtle changes every year to his game escaped bird brains like (ESPN’s) Ric Bucher. You had to know the game because it was too subtle usually, but the opponent had to adjust or just get beat.
“In any event, no one ever calls out Phil for staying basically the same and I am sure Sloan relates better to players than the Zen Hen (Phil Jackson), whom players actually scoff at behind his back.”
According to reports, Sloan and Williams got into it verbally at halftime of the Bulls game when Deron purportedly didn’t run four plays called by Jerry.
Sloan brushed off a question about problems with players (Williams was not named) as being responsible for his move.
“I’ve had confrontations with players my whole career as a player and a coach. That’s a minor thing. These things happen.”
Throughout the years they’ve happened repeatedly. I don’t have enough space to list the players Sloan hasn’t seen cornea-to-cornea with — Karl Malone, Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko, Antoine Carr, Greg Ostertag, Olden Polynice and Mark Jackson are a few “slighted” souls that come to mind.
“Players respect Jerry,” said a GM, “but if they have the financial opportunity to go someplace else where they can be happier chances are they’ll do it.”
Boozer and Kyle Korver, both on the premises for Sloan’s last game, are the two most recent examples of that.
For whatever it’s worth, none of the above antagonists, not even Malone (John Stockton was always around to stabilize the situation) were in position to run the asylum as Williams is now.
If anybody had the potential power to help Sloan decide to put himself out to pasture riding his John Deere tractor on his farm in McLeansboro, Ill., it’s the guy who’s on just about every opponent’s 2012 free agent wish list.
“I try not to make a big deal out of things,” Sloan said. “My time was up.”
Peter Vecsey cover the NBAfor the New York Post.