Preface: It’s a bit ironic that this blog will begin the day after Jerry Sloan, Utah’s head coach for 23 seasons, resigned along with longtime assistant Phil Johnson.
Jazz Basketball is what I refer to as the refreshing style of basketball the Utah Jazz have played for the past 20 years. It was based upon two things:
1. A precise halfcourt offense with pinpoint execution.
2. Players who competed and played as hard as they could.
For basketball purists, the Jazz’s offensive system was a thing of beauty to watch. It was a hybrid UCLA/flex-style offense predicated on constant motion and constant screening. The ball never stuck – and on the few times it did on the left block – the off-ball cutting would only increase. As John Stockton and Karl Malone developed into two of the games’ greatest players, Utah’s pick-and-roll became known as one of their most effective plays. However, it wasn’t just a 2-man game, it was the system in its entirety which also provided the proper court-spacing for their screen-roll that helped make their entire offense so effective.
The genius behind the offense was Phil Johnson. Like Sloan, Johnson’s coaching roots originated with Dick Motta, a former Weber State coach who would go on to win 935 NBA games during a 29-year coaching career that began with coaching Sloan as a player in Chicago. Motta stressed offensive and defensive fundamentals, and his most successful Bulls’ teams routinely ran a precise halfcourt motion offense. Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn remembered facing Motta’s teams: “They’ll move the ball and they’ll make us play defense. And if we make a mistake – bang – the right guy has the ball at the right time. They’re like a Vince Lombardi football team – execution counts for everything.”
Playing hard was the other trademark of Jazzbasketball and that was solely due to Jerry Sloan. As Frank Layden, the man who groomed Jerry as head coach, put it, Jerry had two simple rules: “Play hard, and play smart.”
Jerry Sloan was known as one of the toughest and most hard-nosed personalities the game had ever seen. During his 10 seasons playing in Chicago (where his #4 jersey still hangs from the rafters), there wasn’t a more intense or fiery competitor than Sloan. Former Bulls’ general manager Jerry Krause remembered Sloan’s Chicago days, “The only person I know that competed as hard as Michael Jordan was Jerry Sloan.”
Sloan took that persona into coaching. If his players didn’t play hard, if they didn’t give him maximum effort and execute the offense – they couldn’t coexist. Brutally honest, Sloan wasn’t afraid of confronting any player or any person whom he felt wasn’t committed to winning.
Sloan’s success in not only winning games but in also winning over his two superstars allowed him become the longest tenured coach in NBA history. After one disappointing early playoff exit, when management was contemplating a coaching change, John Stockton and Karl Malone both went to management and informed them there that if Jerry left Utah, they would eventually follow.
The late Larry H. Miller, who owned the team from 1986 until his death in 2009, understood that in a “players league,” coaches could only coach to their maximum abilities if they had more security than the players. Often times, if players didn’t like a coach, they would tune him out – knowing in the NBA coaches are fired much quicker than players are let go. Eventually, Larry Miller would give Jerry the unwavering support of ownership and management, and that stability forced players to buy into the Jazz system. As longtime Jazz announcer Hot Rot Hundley said: “It was [Jerry’s] way, or the highway.”
And with the death of Larry H. Miller in 2009, the Jazz organization under new leadership began to lose sight of many of the principles Larry instilled in the Jazz. This time as players began to rebel and act in their own self-interest, Sloan – at 68 years old in the twilight of his coaching career – didn’t feel he had the same support from management to force things to be done his way. Friction with star point guard Deron Williams proved to be the final straw. Sloan wanted to discipline Deron for insubordination. Jazz management balked. Thus, Jerry Sloan resigned on February 10, 2011, along with Phil Johnson – his assistant coach for 23 years.
And along with the resignation of the two men who constructed it, “JazzBasketball” as we know it, has also come to an end.