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Jerry Sloan, Mike D’Antoni tell familiar NBA story: Great coaches being denied titles by even greater players

Jerry Sloan, one of the most universally respected figures the NBA has ever known, died on Friday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, the Utah Jazz announced. He was 78, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one tribute to him, anywhere, that doesn’t mention, in some capacity, that he was one of the toughest SOBs around. 

For all his noted success, that was, and will remain, Sloan’s most lasting basketball legacy. He was a fighter. Old-school. As Raja Bell, who played for Sloan in Utah, put it: he had a “take-no-prisoners, give-no-layups-away and fight-for-every-inch-on-the-floor mentality.”

That’s the way Sloan played during an 11-year NBA career that ended with the Chicago Bulls retiring his jersey. That’s certainly the way he coached during a 26-year Hall of Fame career that saw him win 1,121 games, fourth-most in NBA history, while leading the Jazz to the postseason 19 times. During that span, Sloan won 98 playoff games — one fewer than Red Auerbach and sixth-most in history — and made two NBA Finals appearances. 

But no championships. 

Sloan’s best title shots, of course, came in 1997 and 1998, when his Jazz collided with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The Jazz won 64 and 62 games in those two seasons, respectively. They were paced by one of the best tandems in history in John Stockton and Karl Malone. Had they faced any other opponent, Sloan would likely have a ring on his resume. 

It’s a familiar NBA story: A great coach being denied a title by an even greater player, or greater team, legacies forever altered by simply existing in the wrong place at the wrong time. George Karl, the sixth-winningest coach in NBA history, running into Jordan with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1996. Rick Adelman, whose 1992 Portland Trail Blazers landed in Jordan’s path, and whose Sacramento Kings got chopped down by the Kobe-Shaq Lakers in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Mike D’Antoni, who has had legit championship rosters in both Phoenix and Houston, only to continually run up against the Tim Duncan Spurs and the Steph Curry/Kevin Durant Warriors, respectively. 

“With Mike [D’Antoni], what’s ironic is for years people said his style couldn’t win championships, and then the team that ended up proving the skeptics wrong was the team he had to beat,” Phil Weber, who served as D’Antoni’s assistant with both the Suns and Knicks, told CBS Sports. “Those Warriors teams were just fantastic, historic, you give them all the credit, but that’s Mike’s game they’re playing, and Houston still might’ve had them [in 2018] if [Chris] Paul doesn’t get hurt. That’s how thin the line is with these great teams, and, you know, coaches can only do so much. 

“I’ve had a paradigm shift,” Weber continued. “I remember I was watching NBA TV, some time last year I think it was, and they were talking about this very topic. They had all these owners on listing all the things that happened to their teams over the years, all the little bad breaks that in their eyes kept them from winning a championship. Every year there’s something, I guarantee you. Whether it’s Derek Fisher hitting that prayer with four-tenths of a second. It could be a block/charge here, a missed shot there. That old saying, you make your own luck. The best teams tend to have the best luck, you know?

“Our best chance in Phoenix was probably 2007, and of course that’s the year Amare’ [Stoudemire] got suspended. All of us who were a part of those Suns teams still think about that. Nash gets checked into the [scorer’s] table, we lose Amare’ for Game 5 with the series tied. But that’s why it’s so special to hold up one of those [championship] trophies. It’s not easy, man. Like I said, you have to be really good and then you have to get a little lucky, too.”

Indeed, look no further than the 2019 Toronto Raptors. First they land Kawhi Leonard in what was, at the time and certainly in hindsight, an unlikely stroke of fortune for all the factors considered. Then Leonard hits a time-stopping, ping-pong-bouncing, Game 7 buzzer-beater that barely gets Toronto past the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. Then, after all that, they face a Warriors team in the Finals that is playing without Durant and eventually loses Klay Thompson to a torn ACL. 

Now Nick Nurse is a championship coach. That isn’t taking anything away from Nurse, who is a fantastic coach by all accounts. It’s just the right-place-right-time reality of the NBA. Steve Kerr might not have gotten his first title in Golden State had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love not been out with injury for the 2015 Finals. That series goes the other way, and David Blatt is a championship coach. Maybe Tyronn Lue never gets the job. Now Lue is the champion. It’s all timing. 

“Delivery of excellence over 20 years makes you a great coach in my eyes, as much as winning a championship but being average half the time you’re coaching,” George Karl told CBS Sports after learning of Sloan’s death. “[Jerry Sloan] was special. Simple but brilliant. Old-school [coach] that was dedicated to team, tough man-to-man defense and unselfish offense without a lot of tricks and superb execution. One of my top five coaches I competed against.”

Like D’Antoni, so much of what we see in today’s NBA can be traced back to Sloan, who is something of a pick-and-roll pioneer. Look at a guy like Don Nelson, who never won a championship as a coach, but is the all-time wins leader and preceded D’Antoni in the small-ball, up-tempo practices that dominate today’s game. These are innovators. Hall of Famers. These are guys who have forgotten more basketball than most people in this world will ever know. 

Same goes for the players who never got that elusive ring. Charles Barkley. Patrick Ewing. Gary Payton. Reggie Miller. Stockton and Malone. All these guys ran into Michael Jordan, plain and simple, and so did Jerry Sloan. Judging coaches or players by titles alone is illogical. 

“It’s even more unfair for coaches, because at least when players do finally win [a championship], they get the credit,” an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports. “With coaches, even when they win, people will still say, ‘Oh, he just had great players.'”

“People always want to compare coaches after one team wins and one team loses, but it doesn’t work like that,” George Karl told CBS Sports in a previous interview. “it’s not the winning and losing that separates coaches. So much of that is out of your control. That’s a hard thing to accept, believe me. But it’s the truth.”