CHICAGO - Jerry Sloan thought for a while about the worst year in his life, the one that just passed when his wife of 41 years, Bobbye, died of pancreatic cancer, the one in which he had the difficult decision of returning to coach the Utah Jazz and the one in which the team got off to a horrible start.
It's 11-24 after falling to Milwaukee on Saturday, with 18 losses in its last 21 games in the poorest season Sloan ever has had coaching in the NBA - even when he was with the Chicago Bulls at the head of the line forming to strangle Larry Kenon. The Jazz have lost 10 straight and haven't won since Dec. 20.
"The most refreshing thing," Sloan offered with a laugh, "is I won't have to answer that question (about coach of the year) anymore."
I don't know, I still may vote for him. Can you only be a good coach when your team has a good record? If your team has a poor record, does that mean you are a poor coach or have done a bad job?
Sloan, whose Jazz team is in the throes of a brutal stretch of 10 of 13 road games, blames himself, of course.
"I don't think I'm doing very well," Sloan said. "I'm responsible for things that don't get done on the floor, and I haven't done as good a job in certain situations. We do not execute as well, but we have to keep working and hope they can do a better job having the ability to do that.
"I've always felt the things bad a coach is responsible for and the things good the players are responsible for. We've had ups and down, which caused frustration on their part and my part, probably. I expect more than what we have been able to achieve to this point.
"Maybe my expectations were too high to begin with. It's a lot easier to lose than to win. We just have to keep working."
As is Jerry Sloan.
Man of few words
The basketball has been the least of his inner turmoil surrounding the death of Bobbye. Consider having a crush for more than 40 years, a flame that never went out.
"Last year was a difficult year," Sloan said. "Very, very difficult."
That qualifies as a speech from the laconic farm kid from downstate McLeansboro, Ill., who is closing in on 1,000 NBA victories, has the eighth best coaching winning percentage (.614) and has coached longer with one franchise, 18 years, than anyone in American professional sport.
He never has had a losing season with Utah, although this one sure looks like it will be.
The Jazz were 8-5 when Andrei Kirilenko went down with a knee injury that will keep him out two more weeks. He is not only the Jazz' best player, he probably is Nos. 2 and 3 as well.
Sure, Utah added 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School grad Carlos Boozer from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Mehmet Okur from the Detroit Pistons. But the rebuilding Jazz is the league's second youngest team and the new guys are supporting players, even though Boozer leads the team in scoring (20.1 points a game) and rebounds (9.6 a game). It has been difficult for them to become featured players without Kirilenko.
"We usually have three or four possessions when we cannot make a shot and players start to drop their heads and feel sorry for themselves," Sloan said. "There are guys who haven't been in this situation, guys who were a third option and are trying to be that first option."
After almost two decades of John Stockton, it has been a relay race of guards, all dropping the baton with injuries and inconsistent play from Carlos Arroyo, Raul Lopez, Keith McLeod and Howard Eisley. There's still no regular.
Arroyo got a big contract extension and he hasn't been the same since. He got into a dispute with Sloan and was benched, working his way back into the rotation only because of injuries. The two, both stubborn, barely have spoken in weeks.
Raja Bell also has been hurt. Before his recent knee problems he was complaining about selfish, one-on-one play, rarely seen with a Sloan team.
"I'd say this year we have people a little bit more strong-minded in how they want to play," Sloan said. "Instead of playing as a team, they think, 'Give me the ball and I'll show you how to win.' That kind of thing. It doesn't take more than a couple possessions to destroy what you're doing. It's disappointing that we can't get 12 guys to play hard."
Jazz off key
The result has been an aberrant Jazz team, 21st in field-goal defense through Thursday, last in guarding the 3-point line, 20th in scoring, last in steals, 22nd in turnovers committed. Normally a precision unit, this Jazz team does shoot reasonably well, but it doesn't defend well and isn't particularly active.
The Jazz opened the court more last season in a surprise 42-40 season, but Sloan has gone back to more interior screens and postup attempts while trying a variety of motivational schemes from longer practices to shorter meetings.
"We question everything every day," Sloan said. "Do we practice enough? How much can they absorb? Are we asking too much? Are they capable of running the floor defensively? We don't seem to know where we're running. But I have the responsibility for that."
The questions around the NBA, inevitably, come to Sloan. He welcomes them.
Has he lost the drive, the players, the knack? Has it all passed him by at 62? Is it time? Fortunately, Utah is a stable organization.
"I'd be fired by now in most (places)," Sloan said. "I understand that. Nobody is infallible. I just try to coach day to day. You never know what tomorrow brings. If I cannot do the job and things don't work out, I know what happens.
"Regardless of what you've done, nobody cares. If they said, 'See you later,' I have no problem. I don't own the team. I've seen it over and over. The franchise has to come first."
The franchise has no such notions about losing Sloan, although it's up to him. No one was sure Sloan would return after watching Bobbye slowly die at home last spring.
"Sure, I thought about (not coming back) when Bobbye got sick," Sloan said. "It was more a request on her part, to continue after she was gone.
"I look at all the assistant coaches and everyone and what they did while I was there (last season) when I really wasn't there. They were terrific. The players went about their jobs. I don't think I've changed a great deal. Maybe I have. I'll let someone else judge that. They seem to say I'm less angry."
But no less a coach.
Earlier this season, Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber said he enjoyed most competing against the Jazz because of Sloan.
"He gets me pumped up sometimes when he screams at his players, argues with calls, things like that," Webber said. "He's one of the coaches I really respect. Certainly makes you want to beat him."
Most teams have been doing that this season, but Sloan hardly has quit on his team or himself.
"I think if we get everyone healthy we can win games and, hopefully, recover the interest in trying to win as a group instead of trying to win as individuals," he said.
"This can be a very competitive team. It takes a lot of hard work and you have to remind yourself it can be done."
If it can be done, Jerry Sloan remains the one to do it.
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