When an NBA lifer calls it quits - in the middle of the season - red flags start flying. Especially after the guy in question is Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and his abrupt resignation takes place suspiciously close to an altercation he had with talented point guard Deron Williams.
Something sinister - with a villain? Apparently, the answer to that depends on . . . your date of birth. Old timers yearn for the days when the coach called the shots - even if Red Auerbach had to privately meet with Bill Russell and ask him to play along when Red yelled at Russ at practice because if he did, the rest of the guys would see Red was the boss. This was in the day when winning took precedence over everything - including contracts, no-trade clauses, endorsement deals, personal stats. Of course, Auerbach’s and Russell’s Celtic teams won every year so that strategy paid off handsomely - for one team in the league anyway.
Back then, there were no halftime extravaganzas, Kiss cams, tattooed players or agents. Of course, there also weren’t chartered flights, three-point shots, NBA television network and smoking was allowed in the arenas. In short, they weren’t the good old days as much as, merely, the “old days.” It’s up to the individual to decide which days are good. Or better.
What’s most disappointing about the Sloan situation is the post-announcement posturing, led by the coach himself who took the high road, a stance somewhat inconsistent with the way he normally confronted issues. Definitely different from the way he played. Jerry Sloan never backed down from a good battle. Then again, maybe he was being completely honest, that it was “his time.” Maybe the new breed of superstar (or even average player for that matter) had simply worn him down to where he realized these confrontations were no-win options.
That’s the indication the fan on the street gets when former players like John Stockton and Karl Malone make public statements regarding how highly they think of their old coach. Each said they were surprised by his move and felt the word “quit” was something they’d never associate with their old boss. Certainly not in the middle of the season. Malone, when questioned about verbal player-coach battles when he was playing, openly admitted there were many, but maintained every player on the team knew who was in control and that person was the coach.
Woodard and Bernstein coined the phrase “non-denial, denial” when they reported on Watergate. After hearing Williams’ response to Sloan’s retirement, that was the exact phrase that came to mind. He didn’t deny the verbal disagreement he had with Sloan but claimed that, in no way was he attempting to give management an ultimatum. Most damaging to Williams’ non-denial, denial was ESPN’s Chris Broussard, who has made his bones as the NBA’s leader in spreading gossip - and the nastier, the better. Broussard, doing his best Stephen A. Smith impersonation, said that the removal of Sloan from the Jazz bench would be welcome to Williams, as would the promotion of assistant Tyrone Corbin who, as Broussard said, recommended different plays during games than those that Sloan did, but which Williams thought were better. If ever something defined the difference between the old NBA and the new, that statement was it in a nutshell.
Fans of today’s NBA are witnessing superior athletes than those of yesteryear, yet a game that’s less team oriented than it was decades ago. Some of this is due to rules changes and some of it is due to a change in culture. Which is the better product is left to the viewer. In the case of young fans, they don’t know any other style and seem to enjoy the game as much as their parents and grandparents did at their age.
When Pat Riley coached, he used to forbid his players from even talking to opponents before a game and actually fined them if they helped up an opposing player up after knocking them down. Chatting it up when the teams take the court prior to formal warm ups is common place today.
Which side is right in the Jerry-Sloan-stepping-down argument? As well respected as Jerry Sloan is, there certainly are many who will say that today’s players just don’t respect authority. The flip side are those who state, as Thomas Jefferson (definitely classified as an old-timer) did:
“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”