There are names that most people recognize. Whether you follow basketball or not, Jerry Sloan is one of those names.
I met Jerry nearly 20 years ago. I am not the starstruck kind of guy. In fact, I could not have cared less that Jerry was the head coach of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Anyone who knows me knows the outdoors is simply what I am. Hunting, fishing, camping or hiking are what I choose to fill my time with. If you like any of these, we are going to be friends. This is true whether you are an NBA Hall of Fame coach or you deliver my newspaper.
NBA great Karl Malone and I shared a friendship that developed from our love for the outdoors. Because of this, he asked me to guide a Utah elk hunt he had purchased for Jerry and Brian Sloan. In order for Brian to hunt he needed to take a one-day class and shooting qualification course for his hunter’s safety certification at the Lee Kay Center in Salt Lake City.
Jerry, Brian and I met for the first time at the shooting center. Imagine my surprise when Jerry and Brian pulled up in a white Ford Econoline van. Certainly not the car I would imagine a Hall of Fame coach to be driving.
Needless to say, Brian passed the course and we were off to Mount Pleasant to hunt elk. Looking back on that hunt now, it was obvious Jerry enjoyed being with his son Brian more than the hunt itself. This hunt brought us all together and began a friendship that I will always value.
The hunt only lasted two days. Brian shot his elk the first day and Jerry got his the next. I remember Jerry pulling out an old Winchester model 70 30:06 rifle that he was so proud of. At the time I remember thinking the rifle looked like it had not been shot in 30 years and was most likely bought at a garage sale for $100. The box of bullets was older than me and the scope on the rifle appeared more useless than helpful.
None of this seemed to matter to Jerry. In fact, this is exactly who he is. Material things are not important because he is a simple man. The past 20 years have made this oh so clear to me.
I remember watching Jerry shoot his elk at more than 300 yards. How he hit that elk with that gun is still a mystery to me! As we approached that magnificent animal while it was taking its last breaths, I admired the events that had just taken place.
We stood 20 feet away reflecting on the moment when the elk unexpectedly jumped up and charged toward us. Without hesitation Jerry, who was still carrying his “antique” firearm, stepped between me and the elk and shot it before it ran its antler into my gut. Without a thought, he turned to me and said, “That’s better than a fast break!”
About three weeks later Jerry and his good friend Mark McKown met me in Provo to pick up the processed elk meat. Jerry, still driving his Econoline, pulled up to my house and offered to drive to pick up the meat and to take me to lunch.
When I opened the sliding door to the van I noticed there were not seats in the back. Jerry and Mark were sitting up front in the only chairs. I looked around the van, filled with stuff that was probably purchased at garage sales, and I found a place to sit on an ice chest. We headed to a great sandwich shop in downtown Provo.
While walking through the parking lot, I was amused by Jerry and Mark pushing each other out of the way. Just before reaching the doors Jerry crouched down and picked up a penny off of the asphalt. As you can imagine, it was all I could do not to laugh at what I just witnessed. Without missing a step Jerry looked at me and said, “I picked up 18 of those in Chicago one day.”
At lunch that day, Jerry asked me about hunting hogs. I told him I could arrange a hunt in California and he asked me to do it for Mark, Brian and himself. I put together a group of a dozen or so people and scheduled the hunt for after the end of the NBA season.
As the date approached I was finalizing details and told Jerry he could fly into Bakersfield or Los Angeles and I would pick him up from the airport. He declined and said he would rather drive with me. I was taken aback. It was a 10-hour drive to the ranch from Salt Lake City or a 90-minute flight. Why Jerry would drive was beyond me, but that was his wish.
Jerry doesn’t let anyone drive. He is the kind of guy that likes to be behind the wheel. You could see his obvious discomfort after arriving at my house and realizing I would be driving. My youth prevailed and off we went.
We left the house at 7 a.m. in my Ford Excursion with Jerry, Mark and Brian, as well as my 7-year-old son, Jake. As we neared Cedar City, Jerry announced we had to stop and eat at Shoney’s. This was his and Bobbye’s favorite place to have breakfast. When we walked in you could tell that everyone in the restaurant was surprised to see Coach Sloan in their establishment, but everyone who approached him was treated as if they were lifelong friends.
When the hunt finished, and we were driving home, Jerry was in the front passenger seat and I was driving. It was the middle of the night and everyone else was asleep. Driving, to Jerry, is not a simple task. He was obviously uncomfortable with the idea of him sleeping while I drove. He stayed awake and talked to me until the sun rose as we rolled into Cedar City for our expected Shoney’s stop.
For anyone who knows Jerry, they know his language is colorful. Whether it was with his players, coaches or the referees, he used every word in the dictionary and a few others.
One thing he always made sure of was that he never cussed around my young son. More than anything else he could have done, this increased my respect for him. His language was like a church boy’s when my son was around. This showed an incredible amount of respect for Jake and me.
Over the past 20 years Jerry has always had time for me. It is genuine and sincere. He takes my calls, we go to lunch, or he signs autographs for fundraisers and kids whenever I ask.
At about the turn of the century there was a young child being discharged from Primary Children’s Hospital to spend his last days at home with his family. He was in the final stages of his battle with leukemia.
I called Jerry and asked if he would go with me to the hospital. I intended for him to take a picture with the child and give him a signed ball. After picking Jerry up from his house, he told me we needed to make a stop before going to the hospital. Twenty minutes later, we were jumping into Karl Malone’s SUV and the three of us were on our way to the hospital. Jerry had called Karl and asked him to go with us because, as Jerry said, “the child would be much more excited to see Karl than me.”
For nearly 20 years Jerry has never said no to me when I asked a favor. Whether it was signing a ball, going to a fundraiser or getting game tickets for someone who could not afford them, he always delivers. He does it willingly and happily with nothing to gain from me. It’s simply who he is.
Jerry walked away from basketball when he wanted to. He walked away on his terms and at his time. It was a surprise to everyone, but Jerry does things his way.
I remember having his son and daughter, Brian and Kathy, on my radio show after he retired from coaching. He is very proud of his children (he has three) and both Brian and Kathy are great friends of mine. They told my listeners that Jerry walked away and would not return because this is “just how their dad is.” Whatever it’s called, he makes up his mind and does it with zero regrets.
Several months ago, before the public was aware, Jerry shared with me that he has Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Recognizing his health limitations, I asked if he felt up to attending a fundraiser for the Chairbound Sportsman. This is a group made up of veterans and others who are in wheelchairs, and still want to be able to hunt, fish and be in the outdoors. Like every other time I have asked, he graciously accepted and he and his wife, Tammy, drove to Provo for the event.
He spent more than an hour walking the floor of the expo, shaking hands, taking photos and signing autographs for everyone who asked. He did this for anyone — kids, adults, law enforcement — it didn’t matter who. I witnessed what greatness really is. Even with his disease and its limitations, he did what he always does — he made everyone his friend.
The auction that night was one I will never forget. We raised more money for the Chairbound Sportsman than we ever had previously. We auctioned off a basketball that Jerry would sign when he took a picture with the highest bidder. We actually sold three of those balls and photos that night. We could have sold 30 if more had been available.
Jerry received an ovation that night that rivaled any during his Hall of Fame career.
At that auction there was a Henry Golden Boy .22 caliber rifle. Jerry wanted to know what it might sell for. I told him, and being the frugal guy he is, he said it was out of his price range. Jerry would rather donate $1,000 and receive nothing than buy an item for himself. I cannot explain it, I can only tell you that he has always been that way.
Jerry’s wife, Tammy, was the high bidder on an item in the silent auction. I called them to arrange a time when I could deliver the item. This time at their house was different for me. Usually I was there to ask him for donated autographs, game tickets or an appearance for a charity or other good cause.
I was there to drop something off with an added surprise. I had purchased the Henry Golden Boy .22 caliber rifle for Jerry and I was going to deliver it as my token of appreciation for the countless things he had done for me.
He answered the door and invited me in. He had just woken from his nap and did not notice I had the rifle behind my back. We walked into the kitchen and spoke for quite a while.
We just joked and shared stories. We talked openly about his health and what his plans were. He inquired about my family and my next adventure. I was off to New Zealand in a week and he was going to Idaho for treatment. He asked if I wanted to trade.
When I presented him with the rifle, I saw a smile I had not seen in a while come across his face. He opened the box and held that Golden Boy like it was the greatest gift he had ever been given. For the first time in our relationship, I felt like I was worthy of his friendship. He was appreciative and humbled that I would do something like this for him.
We visited for nearly two hours that day. As I was leaving he took me into his office and showed me many photos and memorabilia from his illustrious career. I have never asked Coach for an autograph for me personally. I never felt that it was appropriate for me to do so, and I believe he respects me for that.
Imagine my surprise when he opened up a cupboard and pulled out his NBA Hall of Fame inductee basketball. He asked Tammy for a marker and signed the ball to me. We took several photos and like now, as I write this, I got tears in my eyes.
The great Jerry Sloan gave me his Hall of Fame inductee basketball and signed it to me! Twenty years of never asking for an autograph for myself seemed trivial now. All those years of asking him to do something for me seemed insignificant. Hall of Fame coach and legend, Jerry Sloan, showed the ultimate respect to me and would not even let me mention that I could not take this priceless gift.
As I walked out the door he said he had one more thing for me. He opened the same cupboard and pulled out a John Deere ball cap. He signed it and handed it to me and then sent me on my way.
Jerry and I have tentative plans to drive to his ranch in southern Illinois this summer. It’s nearly 30 hours one way and I told him I would drive. He said that’s fine, as long as we can take his truck. Whether his health allows it or not, only time will tell.
If it does not, I will be grateful for 20 years of friendship from one of the most genuine people I know. If it does happen, I will be the luckiest man on the planet for 30 hours.
Jerry Sloan is my friend, and I will always cherish that.F