Jerry Sloan looked broken during his initial comments at the news conference announcing his resignation Thursday.
"This is a little bit tougher than I thought it would be," Sloan said.
I've seen Sloan under plenty of other trying circumstances, from losing streaks to heartbreaking NBA Finals defeats, but the only other time I've seen him broken was when his first wife was fighting cancer in 2004.
That's how hard it is to break Jerry Sloan. That's how monumental Thursday's news was.
My friend and I have a saying: "The NBA is far-reaching." It's a wondrous acknowledgment of how the league with the fewest number of players among the major team sports can generate headlines that equal or exceed those of any other collection of individuals. The NBA can pop up anywhere at any time. We saw Thursday how that reach extends even to Utah, a place that couldn't seem more non-NBA at first glance, a state in which only 1.4 percent of the population is African-American, a state in which up until recently you couldn't walk into a bar and order a beer without first becoming a "member." It even grabbed the team with the longest-tenured head coach in pro sports.
If a coach -- and not just any coach, Jerry Sloan -- can't overcome player unrest in Utah, no coach is safe. The instability caused by the flexing of player power over the past year is much more tangible than any threat of contraction or franchise relocation. The mere threat of Deron Williams leaving the Jazz in 2012 appears to have been enough to pry Sloan from his sideline seat after 23 years.
Williams just went from drafting behind Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to zooming to the lead in the current lap of potential 2012 free agents. We hadn't spent as much time pondering Williams' future as we had with Paul and Howard. (For Howard, it got so bad that he pleaded for it to stop.) The Magic have made their move, just opening a brand-new arena that they'd love for Howard to call home for the rest of his career. The Hornets have tried to avoid making any panic moves, in the belief Paul will buy into the plans of coach Monty Williams and general manager Dell Demps. The Jazz just played the biggest hand they have for 2012. It's the ultimate concession. Not even Sloan and his 1,221 career victories will be an obstacle.
One Jazz source told me, "Ninety-nine percent of the team loves Sloan. He didn't lose the team."
But that 1 percent won out.
Williams and Sloan never seemed to be harmonious; they coexisted. Sloan said he let Williams call more of his own plays, yet Williams didn't act like a guy who was running the team the way he wanted.
Last year, Sloan was asked to compare Williams to John Stockton. Sloan responded that he couldn't really do that, that he couldn't compare anyone five years into his career to a player who played the maximum number of games in 17 of 19 seasons. Sloan made no mention of Stockton's NBA record 15,806 assists or 3,265 steals. It showed not only how much Sloan values toughing it out night after night but also how far Williams had to go to reach Stockton status in Sloan's eyes. Williams could average a triple-double for the next five seasons ... and I bet he'd still have to go another 10 years without missing a game in order to impress Sloan.
Fifteen years might as well be never in the span of an NBA career. So Sloan and Williams were never going to work.
I've heard this situation compared to Magic Johnson and Paul Westhead in 1981. This is different for two reasons: Magic went public with his unhappiness about Westhead's offense, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss already was considering replacing Westhead before Magic spoke out. (Coincidentally, Magic's comments -- "I can't play here anymore ... I want to leave ... I want to be traded ... I'm not happy now" -- came after the Lakers lost to the Jazz in Salt Lake City.)
As recently as Monday, the Jazz entered into a one-year contract extension with Sloan. Then the Jazz lost at home to the Bulls on Wednesday night. It was the 11th home loss already in 2010-11 for Utah, a team that usually doesn't lose 10 home games in a whole season. (The number 11 is one shy of the two-season home loss total from 2007 to 2009.) So things weren't going well. But how many other coaches could navigate smoothly after losing 36 points worth of nightly offense via free agency in the form of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews?
Because the Jazz had an established system, because they drafted and acquired players over the years to fit that system, the franchise never fell into a ravine, not even after losing Stockton and Karl Malone in 2003. That's a testament to Sloan and to the front office for sticking with him over the years.
Too many teams have ditched players to accommodate a coach, only to subsequently fire the coach and turn into a loser both ways. That wasn't the Jazz ... not until Thursday. They lost Sloan and they're still not guaranteed to keep Williams. It's unsettling. If we can't count on Sloan coaching the Jazz, what can we count on? Even the Cavaliers won't keep losing forever.
George Karl differentiates between basketball and the NBA. By "NBA," he doesn't mean the league offices; he means everything that comes with The Association: the money, the lifestyle, trade and free-agency talk, the egos.
The NBA won out Thursday, even though it means the league lost.