I met Jerry Sloan, and his son Brian, about the turn of the millennium. Karl Malone had purchased elk hunts for both of them, and he asked me to be their guide. I have written about that story, and many other experiences I have had with Jerry and his family in another article a few years ago, when Jerry announced he was in the beginning stages of Parkinson’s and Lewy Dementia. I will leave a link for that at the end of this, if you care to read it.
There are people who knew Jerry longer and better than I. Who spent more time with him than I. Who talked with him more than I. Who know more about him than I. But, none of them knew him exactly like I did.
My relationship with Jerry was quite unique. It really had little to do with basketball, other than the games my wife and I attended with him and Tammy after his retirement. We would meet up with them at their house and ride with them as Tammy drove. We would park in the same place beneath the arena and be warmly welcomed as we went through security. Jerry would shake everyone’s hand and ask how they were. We would go up to dinner at their reserved table, sit with them in their seats several rows above the Jazz bench and enjoy the game. When the game was over we went back to their home, chat for a few minutes, and say our goodbyes.
It was very interesting to me that whenever I attended a game (with or without Jerry) I was given the same treatment by the security and Jazz employees at the game. They knew who I was and all referred to me as “Jerry’s guide”. They would chat it up with me and ask what adventure I had been on or what my next one was. I had access to the players “family lounge”, and was shown the respect of being Jerry’s family. It was very flattering and humbling at the same time. Even while Jerry was still coaching, I would wait outside the locker room before the games I attended. The players would go out to shoot around and he would come out and visit with me for several minutes. Many times he would have me bring the people I was with down as well and they got to meet Jerry. I always received VIP treatment from him and all the players.
One time in particular I called Jerry before a game and asked if I could bring a basketball I was auctioning off at a fundraiser for him and a few players to sign. I met him at the locker room over an hour before the game, he signed the ball and had all the players coming out sign it as well. I had nearly every player’s signature, including Karl’s, and knew the ball would generate a lot of money for the cause. As I was leaving he said, “Hold up.” He took the ball and went back into the locker room, a couple minutes later he came out and said, “I had John [Stockton] sign this one as well. It’s the only thing John ever signed that I had ties too. It was pretty cool, and only Jerry could of made that happen. The ball auctioned for $1,800.
That was the extent of my basketball relationship with Jerry. I don’t even recall us ever discussing basketball when we were not at a game. Whether I missed a great opportunity or not to learn basketball from him is undeniable, but basketball simply was not our common bond, or what our relationship was built on.
Jerry epitomized loyalty and kindness. That was evident from the countless stories being told over his life — particularly the last several days since his passing. Whether it was to his family or his farm, his teammates or his players, his associates or friends, Jerry Sloan was loyal.
Jerry called me his friend the first time we met. Nothing he ever said or did the next two-plus decades made me think otherwise. After our first few days hunting elk, he turned to me and said “Tony, most people are wired 110, not you, you are wired 220. If I had a team full of guys like that, we would never lose.” What a compliment that was.
May 4th, 2018 we went to the Jazz playoff game against the Rockets. Before the game we had our traditional dinner upstairs and Hakeem Olajuwon was in town. He respectfully came up to Jerry and shook his hand and introduced himself to me as well. We all chatted for a few minutes. Hakeem showed great respect and admiration for Jerry. It was obvious Hakeem knew he was in the presence of one of the all time greats, and wanted nothing more than to pay his respect. Listening to those two talk for a few minutes was priceless. It was inspiring and humbling. Two hall-of-famers, and some of the best ever at what they did. It was unbelievable that I was able to participate in that interaction.
March 18th 2017, Brian and his son, Grant, were in town. We went to dinner and Top Golf that night. As always, Jerry was more than accommodating to all who approached him. We ordered some snacks and watched Grant hit golf balls a country mile. Jerry never turned a person away when they wanted to say hi or get a photo. Man, the guy amazed me. Earlier in the day we had gone to the local sports expo. That night at dinner Jerry ordered dessert; he called it “clown face.” We laughed because it did look like a clown’s face. It was some sort of ice cream and toppings. Jerry had humor — sometimes it was dry, but it was humor. We laughed about “clown face” several times the last three years. One of the many “Jerry comments” that I will never forget.
February 9th, 2019 was the last basketball game I went to with Jerry. The Jazz were playing the Spurs and beat them fairly handily. While Tammy and Shannon (my wife) went to get some snacks and drinks at half-time, Jerry had me show him my hunting and fishing photos from the last year. My phone is full of photos of all different kinds of animals and fish from all over the world. It didn’t seem to matter what I showed him, every photo had a story, and he would ask about the person who caught the fish or got the animal. We talked about his and Brian’s elk hunt, and also the two different hog hunts we went on together. Keep in mind, those were almost twenty-years earlier. It was a moment in time that seemed to stop, and one that will be branded in my mind forever. We left that game after the third quarter, as the game was out of reach and Jerry was tired.
At the time I had the feeling I might never attend another game with him. When we got to his house we didn’t go in this time, we walked them to the door and shook his hand as I always did. Jerry was tired. As we made the 45 minute drive home that night, I told Shannon that we probably wouldn’t attend another game with Jerry and Tammy. I am not sure how many games we attended with them after his retirement over the years, If I was in town whenever Tammy offered, I would make sure our schedule worked out so we could go.
June 20th, 2019 was my last extended visit with Jerry. I spent over an hour with him. He had his John Deer hat on, and we must have walked at least a mile. This is something he was adamant about to stay healthy. I hadn’t seen Jerry in four months, as I was out of the state guiding my hunting trips in New Zealand and Alaska. I was home for only three days, so I called Tammy to arrange the visit. I was leaving for Alaska for the summer the next day, and I wanted to make sure I said goodbye.
Even Though Jerry was in great shape, I was going to be gone 3 months. You just don’t know what could happen to someones health in three months when they were battling what Jerry was. Like every time before, I showed him photos of my adventures, and talked about hunting. Tammy texted me later that night and told me Jerry told her I wore him out. He said “man, Tony sure can talk.” I guess that is the 220 in me that he noticed twenty-plus-years earlier.
For the next eight months I didn’t see Jerry. That is my busy time to fish and hunt. We did talk on the phone several times during those months. I would always text Tammy (because Jerry didn’t text) to see Jerry’s schedule before I called. I didn’t want to catch him when they had other things going on, or other people over. I also didn’t want to wake him during his midday naps. As long as I knew Jerry, he always got in his nap. When we talked, it was only for a couple minutes. Just enough for him to ask where I had been, when I was going again, and for me to ask what he had been up to.
In late November of 2019 my phone rang. That was not uncommon at all, but what was uncommon was that it was Jerry calling me. I thought it must be an accident, as my number is usually the first name in most people’s phones, and I get butt dials all the time. But Jerry had an old school flip phone, so butt calls were not gonna happen. I answered and on the other end was that distinctive voice. “Tony, this is Jerry Sloan, what have you been up to?” I remembering chuckling before I answered him and said “I just got back from Alaska hunting Sitka Blacktail deer.” He asked “Why would you want to be in Alaska in the end of November?” And I said, “Because I wasn’t very smart.” He laughed and said, “Neither am I, that must be why we are friends.”
It was the only time I recall him calling me with apparently no purpose. He had called me several times in the past, returning phone calls or confirming plans, but this time he called me from what seemed to be out of the blue and with no purpose. He never knew when I would be in or out of town, so I would touch base with him when I was around and we would grab lunch or just chat on the phone. But this time was different. I don’t know why he called. It was strange as it just wasn’t what he did. But I remember the conversation like it was yesterday and I even remember calling Brian after and telling him about it. Memorable is an understatement.
Early February 2020 is the last time I saw Jerry. I was in Salt Lake and called Tammy to see if I could stop by and say hi for a minute. I did this when I was in town. She said yes, as she always did, and I stopped in that evening. There was a basketball game on, and Jerry was lying in bed watching it. I walked in and shook his hand like I always did, and he of course asked what I had been up to. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly 8 months. He had been battling Parkinson’s and Lewy Dementia now for over four years. He was less talkative than he had been for all the years I had known him.
The diseases he was fighting were taking their toll. He was by no means giving up, but you could tell the battle was long and hard. It was the shortest visit I ever had with Jerry. Tammy was in the room in a chair watching the game with him, and I sat on the side of his bed. We had small talk as he faded in and out of sleep. Tammy said he didn’t eat a lot when Jerry spoke up and asked when they were having dinner. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a Dum-Dum sucker I had picked up at the bank earlier, and offered it to Jerry. I remember it was sour apple, he declined and said he had a drawer full of candy next to his bed. Tammy opened the drawer and he wasn’t lying, the drawer was full. Jerry loved his sweets. I opened the sucker and ate it myself. Jerry Drifted in an out of sleep while Tammy and I talked for a couple more minutes. I mentioned our hog hunt again to Jerry, and asked if he wanted to go on another one. He responded, “I have to check my schedule.” Tammy and I laughed at that same dry humor that he had shown since the day I met him.
Jerry drifted off again and I told Tammy I should probably leave. Tammy and I talked for another minute or so when Jerry spoke up and said, “you guys are being too loud. Tony, it’s time for you to go.” Those are the last words Jerry spoke to me. I leaned over, shook his hand and told him I would see him later. I wondered if that would be the last time I would ever see Jerry Sloan. Our friendship on earth likely had just written its last chapter. I walked out with a tear in my eye, much like right now. A part of me wanted to stay longer, and stretch out what I felt would be my last visit, but just like when Jerry benched a player, he had benched me. “Tony, it’s time for you to go.”
I called my friend Jay Brandriet on the way home. This friend had interviewed Jerry countless times when he was coach. He had worked for the local radio station for years and knew Jerry from those days. I told him I had just been visiting Jerry for a few minutes catching up. He then told me the following story from Spring of 2009.
“My assignment was usually to cover the road locker room. I remember a particular night where I needed to go over and get sound from the Utah side of things. This was a rare off-night for the Jazz at home, which they had not played well. Jerry came out and was ready to talk. We all had to wait for a particular TV crew before we could get started. Jerry seemed tense over the defeat.
There was eight or nine of us crowded around him in awkward silence. I was two feet in front of Jerry, and face to face. We needed a tension breaker here. I knew he was close friends with a buddy of mine.
I spoke up and said, “Hey coach, you and Tony Abbott been hunting lately?”
He smiled and took off his glasses and said, “No, but I did shoot some birds last fall.” His body language changed. I don’t even remember what else he said. He went from a potentially harsh to deal with competitor, to making us all feel like he was our uncle Jerry.”
Jerry Sloan and I became great friends. So much so that in the middle of a season, when the team was slumping and he was about to face tough questions from the media, my name brought a smile to his face and changed his demeanor.
I checked in with Tammy several times over the past few months, but once the COVID19 hit the state, Jerry couldn’t see friends. I understood, so Tammy and I would text every couple of weeks so I could get updates. Tammy was perfect for Jerry and his challenges.
The week Jerry passed I had talked with Tammy and Brian and knew Jerry’s time was limited. Brian told me a couple very cool things that I will keep to myself. At that point I thought I was prepared to deal with Jerry leaving this life and starting on his next “season.”
On the morning of May 22nd, 2020, Brian called and I knew what it was about. I answered with tears in my eyes already waiting to hear the words, yet the first thing he said was “Hey 220, you know my dad loved you.” I think I am a pretty tough guy. My emotions are fairly minimal and crying is just not something I do. I was sitting in the room with my daughter Jessie, and I had to stand up and walk into the next room and close the door. I cried. Not only did I cry, but I sobbed. We didn’t talk for a few seconds and then he said Jerry had passed just after 1:00 am.
I gave my condolences, and he gave his appreciation for the friend I had been to his dad, and the unique relationship we had formed. We both shed some tears and expressed some personal thoughts. It was very humbling.
Tammy was nothing short of incredible to Jerry, especially during his battle with these diseases. She was a rock amongst rocks. She definitely made his battle much more bearable. She even remembered mine and Shannon’s birthdays this April, and took the time to send us cards. Tammy Sloan will be our friend for life.
So why did I call this “The Jack Bull?” The Jack Bull is a phrase used to describe a Jack Russell terrier. It would just as soon have its head cut off then release its jaw from a victim it had engaged.
Jerry Sloan, when he played and when he coached, would lock his teeth on his opponent and refuse to release them no matter what. He would just as soon have his head cut off than release an opponent from his jaws. Whether it was going at other coaches, the officials, other team’s, or his own players… he was ferocious and relentless.
But I knew the side of Jerry that was kind, giving, humble, funny and loyal. Most people knew Jerry Sloan the coach, I knew Jerry Sloan as a friend. He was a “Jack Bull” with his friendships as well.
The Jack Bull was as good at what he did as anyone I know. His legacy in Basketball is solidified, and his loyalty to his family and friends is unquestionable.
His loyalty and kindness to me feels undeserved, but something I will always cherish.
The man who called me “220” the first time we met, who years later told me I was too loud and it was time for me to leave, was one of a kind. My friendship and experiences with Jerry Sloan spanned over two decades, and parts of two different centuries. I met Jerry when he was in his fifties, not much older than I am now. Our friendship was real, rewarding, sincere, and appreciated. I was friended by “The Jack Bull,” and I am a better person for it. Rest well my friend. Until we meet again.
Tony “220” Abbott
Link to previous article. http://tonylabbott.com/my-friend-jerry-sloan/