[This commentary was published in The Salt Lake Tribune on February 17, 2011. It remembers the work ethic and fortitude of NBA hopeful Jerry Sloan in 1966, as seen through the eyes of a twelve year-old.]
Thousands of men across America have had to make peace with their demon. With a little better luck or a little more playing time or one less injury—they could have made it in the NBA. But in the competitive and unforgiving realm of professional sports, they either never got out of training camp or were cut after a season or two on the bench.
In the summer of 1966, I was a typical 12 year-old boy who loved basketball. Like so many little Hoosiers, what I lacked in ability I made up for in hustle. The most important weeks of my summer were spent at the Arad McCutchan basketball camp at Evansville College. McCutchan was the renowned coach of the Purple Aces, whose teams had won back-to-back NCAA Division II championships when anchored by a player who was the hero of every boy in southern Indiana. For those teams, Jerry Sloan had been the defensive warrior, leading rebounder, second leading scorer, second team All-American and NCAA tournament MVP.
In that summer of 1966, Jerry had just completed his rookie year with the Baltimore Bullets, one of only nine NBA franchises at the time. The Bullets had made Sloan their first pick in a draft that included Rick Barry, Bill Bradley, Bob Love, Gail Goodrich, and Billy Cunningham.
Sloan made the Bullets’ roster, but the year was a disappointment. He found himself down the bench from some superb players. The Bullets used him sparingly. He was 10th in minutes played, 10th in scoring and, prophetically, fifth in number of fouls committed. As Sloan later said in a Hall of Fame interview, “I was totally lost and frustrated.”
After his rookie season, the Bullets decided not to protect Sloan and allowed the expansion Chicago Bulls to draft him. A concern about Sloan was that he was long on defense but short on offense. In the NBA of yesterday and today, there was no room for specialists. If you could not score, you were taking up space on the court for a guy who could produce on both ends.
Sloan returned to Evansville as the main draw for McCutchan’s camp and to have access to a first-class training facility. Stoic is an understatement when describing Jerry. He was good to the campers but he was never effusive, and he had something very important on his mind.
Camp ended around noon, and Jerry’s real workday began. Hour after hour and day after day, Jerry did what only a select number of players at his level have ever had the heart to do. In that summer of 1966, Sloan created a brutal practice regimen. He used his unflagging work ethic to take his game to a new level—an NBA level.
The memory is as clear to me today as it was 35 years ago. Jerry and another NBA hopeful going one-on-one, switching off on offense and defense. Full court. Full speed. Weaving, stretching, dipping shoulders, pushing for a split-second advantage. An endless exhausting drill—powerful, reckless sprints up and down the court. The object was to score by simulating what it would take to push your body through a forest of NBA defenders.
The other drill I remember was of Jerry pulling up, leaping high, and shooting 15 to 20-foot “close range” jump shots as if he were finishing a fast break or had slipped his defender. Hundreds of shots each day. Thousands through the summer. Relentless. Sloan was preparing himself to make three to five of these a game—if he could get his minutes.
The rest is NBA history. Jerry Sloan started on that first Bulls team which set a record for most wins in an expansion year. He became “The Original Bull,” a two-time All-Star, a four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team awardee, and a Hall of Fame coach. His signature jump shot and his quick moves to the rim made Sloan a consistent high scorer on the Bulls at 14 points a game. He became a complete player, leading by example in tenacity, rebounds, steals and assists— as well as personal and technical fouls.
Jerry Sloan’s example of courage and fortitude in the face of failure has lived in me for over three decades, part of the personal myth that we all create for ourselves. A private man like Jerry Sloan, who admits to his fair measure of personal faults, has no interest in playing the part of a role model. It is enough to say he has been a great teacher and a great coach to more people than he can imagine.
It is no secret why his players have always given him their last ounce of energy and devotion. Players who reach that elite level in sports know one of their own.
Douglas M. Schmidt is an investment banker and a writer who lives in Towson, Maryland. He grew up in Evansville, Ind., where he would ride his bike to the stadium to watch the Purple Aces.
© 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune