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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Home and Away

At the end of the long driveway leading to Jerry Sloan’s home outside the small town of McLeansboro, Ill., is a lone basketball hoop, but don’t expect to find this former University of Evansville and Chicago Bulls star shooting around outside when the sun sets and summer temperatures mellow. He’s likely enjoying the evening on his back porch, listening to the hum of insects, gazing over the rolling green Southern Illinois hills, and watching the deer and turkeys come out at dusk. His only distraction? “The coyotes,” he says, “get a little noisy.”

Home for the summer off-season, Sloan sports a blue Utah Jazz polo shirt but says he feels worlds away from his hectic career. “I just enjoy the different lifestyle from my business — we go here, there, and everywhere,” he says from beneath a John Deere baseball cap. This fall, Sloan begins his 21st season as head coach of the Utah Jazz NBA team; he has the distinction of being the longest-tenured coach of any team in any professional sports league.

But distinction is exactly what Sloan shies away from. He has a laundry list of accomplishments — including 17 trips to the NBA playoffs and an NBA Coach of the Year award from his peers — but as his longtime colleague, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, told The New York Times: “He doesn’t want the spotlight any more than he ever did when he was younger.”

Working in the NBA hasn’t stripped Sloan of his small-town Midwestern values of loyalty, humility, and simplicity. The same philosophies guide his coaching as well as the charitable efforts of the Bobbye and Jerry Sloan Hand-in-Hand Foundation, created in memory of his late wife of 41 years, his high school sweetheart and mother of his three children who lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in 2004. In August, the foundation will hold its first event in Evansville, and in true Sloan form, it isn’t an exclusive black-tie dinner or ritzy celebrity gala. Instead, he returns to Evansville to host “Bobbye Socks and Bobbye-Que,” a 1950s sock hop-themed dinner and dance in the city that helped propel him to a legendary career in professional basketball — a career that nearly veered off-course before it had barely begun.[pagebreak]

YOU CAN TAKE THE boy out of McLeansboro, but you can’t take McLeansboro out of the man. At heart, Sloan, 66, is — as former Jazz player John Starks once described him — “no-nonsense, an old country boy.” Despite decades in the volatile and media-saturated world of professional basketball, Sloan’s speech is matter-of-fact and unpretentious (“I’ll take two more questions,” he told his audience at a Jazz sponsors’ luncheon in 2004. “Got to go feed my dog.”). He doesn’t write books, do motivational speaking, or endorse sports drinks or deodorant. Instead, he collects antique John Deere tractors. He lives in a tasteful yet elegant home on a farm, and his giant feet, which once pounded the basketball court in a successful playing career, are planted firmly on the ground. “Jerry Sloan believes in home. In roots,” wrote former Evansville Courier columnist Don Wade in June 1997, when the Jazz stood just two wins from an NBA championship (they lost to the Bulls, Sloan’s old team, in the finals). “And they are put down deep in McLeansboro, Ill., where the marquee at the Dairy Queen wishes Jerry and the Jazz good luck.”

Gerald Eugene Sloan grew up 16 miles outside McLeansboro, “just over the hill,” he says, pointing beyond the dining room window he’s just finished cleaning after 10 months of absence. One of 10 children, Sloan was just four years old when he lost his father. Growing up poor, in a sheltered rural locale and attending a one-room schoolhouse left the young Sloan with a pronounced social anxiety: “I was scared to say hello to people,” he says. When he first entered McLeansboro High School, with its student body of 400, the size of the gymnasium overwhelmed him. He thought it was the biggest place he’d ever seen.

Even more stunning to Sloan was the proverbial new girl in town. Barbara Lou Irvin, known as “Bobbye,” had just moved to McLeansboro when he spotted the pretty brunette at the movies one night. But he was too shy to introduce himself — “Wow,” he remembers thinking, in typical understated manner. “She’s pretty tall.”

At 5-foot, 9-inches, Bobbye was a long-legged baton twirler and freshman class president – popular, outgoing, and independent. Sloan was three inches shorter than she was and, as he recalls, “scared of my shadow.” So how did the match get made?

“I got taller,” he laughs. He still doesn’t know how he mustered the nerve to ask Bobbye to the movies, but the pair began dating while they were freshman, and Sloan shot up in height. As a 6-foot, 5-inch basketball star at McLeansboro High School, the small-town boy captured the attention of the state’s largest university, and when Bobbye headed to St. Louis to enroll in a three-year nursing program, Sloan moved to the big city of Urbana-Champaign to attend the University of Illinois on a basketball scholarship. But overwhelmed by the 22,000-strong student body, the small-town boy “was lost,” he says. He dropped out, returned home, and took a job in the local oil fields.

Bobbye — determined to finish school and become a registered nurse — was furious. Quitting school was “the most devastating thing I did,” Sloan says. “I didn’t know if she’d have anything to do with me again.” The pair didn’t speak for a long time, and Jerry — both heartbroken and disillusioned by hard, monotonous labor in the oil fields –– knew something had to change.[pagebreak]

FORTUNATELY, THE LEGENDARY ARAD MCCUTCHAN STEPPED IN. As a high school senior, Sloan had passed up an offer of a scholarship to attend Evansville College (later University of Evansville) to play for McCutchan, who’d led the Aces to back-to-back NCAA College Division (later Division II) national championships in 1959 and 1960. When McCutchan got wind of the news that Sloan had dropped out of college to come back home for a dead-end job, he called the young man to arrange for a meeting in McLeansboro. Sloan didn’t have a car, so he hitchhiked into town to meet the coach. This time, Sloan took McCutchan up on his offer, enrolling in Evansville College in time for the 1961-62 season.

Small and friendly, Evansville College was “more suited” to Sloan than Illinois, he says, and his statistics as a Purple Ace speak for themselves: His jersey, now retired, hangs from the rafters at Roberts Stadium. Playing in an era when up to 12,000 fans regularly packed Roberts Stadium to cheer on the Aces, Sloan was a three-time All-American, helped his team win two more NCAA College Division National Championships, and led the Aces to their only undefeated season in history (29-0 in the 1964-65 season) — all while pursuing a degree in education, much to the delight of his high school sweetheart.

Once basketball and Bobbye were back in his life, Sloan flourished. “Those were the only two interests I really had,” he says. Between practices and games, he traveled to St. Louis on the weekends to visit the woman he married in April 1963, well before graduating from college. Their first daughter, Kathy, was born in Evansville.

In 1964, after his junior year, Sloan was drafted into the NBA by the Baltimore Bullets. But with no way of anticipating the 11-season professional playing career ahead of him, he turned down the offer, choosing instead to stay in school and finish his degree. The next year, after he graduated, he and Bobbye moved to Baltimore, where he played one year with the Bullets before the Chicago Bulls selected him first in the 1966 NBA expansion draft, earning him the nickname of “the original Bull.”

It was in Chicago where he launched the next chapter in his storied career. The two-time NBA All-Star would rack up a list of accolades and records before a knee injury would prematurely end his playing career in 1976. Two years later, the Bulls retired his No. 4 jersey, making him the first Bull to receive such an honor.

It was during the decade in Chicago that two more children would be born — Brian, now an emergency room physician in Indianapolis; and Holly, a stay-at-home mom and former schoolteacher and coach who lives outside of Chicago. And it was during this decade that Sloan traveled back and forth to Evansville for several summers to complete work on his master’s degree in education, convinced he’d need a job once his playing days were over. “I didn’t know I would play basketball that long,” says Sloan with a shrug.

Motivating him, too, to keep his ties to Evansville were the words of Coach McCutchan, who told him during his sophomore year of college, “You know, when you get done playing professionally, I want you to come back here and take my job.” Sloan followed suit when McCutchan retired in 1977. But right away, something didn’t feel right. After five days on the job as McCutchan’s successor, he left before ever coaching a single game. He’s hesitant to elaborate on his reasons, saying only: “It didn’t seem to be the right thing to do at that time.”

Sloan returned to Chicago, taking a job as a scout for the Bulls, but he kept in touch with his Evansville connections. A few months later, when Bobby Watson, who replaced him as head coach at UE, traveled to Chicago with the Aces to play DePaul University, Sloan was there to greet him. After suffering a crushing 23-point loss to DePaul, Watson asked Sloan to say a few words to the team. “Hang in there,” Sloan remembers telling the disappointed young men. “Things will get better. Keep your heads up.”

Ten days later, on Dec. 13, 1977, the Aces’ chartered plane took off from the airport in Evansville, bound for an away game against Middle Tennessee State University. Ninety seconds after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing 29 players and staff, including head coach Bobby Watson. Sloan was devastated by the event but dwells little on the fact that he could have boarded the plane on that fateful night. “I’ve always believed you never know when your time to die’s gonna be,” he says.[pagebreak]

TWENTY YEARS LATER, SLOAN found himself finishing his ninth season coaching the Utah Jazz when another blow struck. The Jazz had made the 1997 NBA finals, and after attending the first five games, Bobbye stayed home for the sixth (played at Chicago’s United Center) and watched the season’s final game on television. When the Jazz lost to the Bulls, ending the team’s hope for a championship, she turned off the TV, curled up in bed alone, and felt a sharp pain shoot through her chest. There was a lump in her left breast.

Although Bobbye had left her job as a nurse at the old Welborn Hospital after the Sloans’ first child was born, she hadn’t forgotten her medical knowledge. She knew cysts were usually liquid, while cancerous tumors were generally solid. “I was hoping it was a cyst or maybe something else,” she later told The New York Times, “but in the back of my mind I just kind of knew.” Days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 54.

Sloan says that watching his strong, marathon-running wife undergo major surgery, followed by a grueling round of chemotherapy, reshaped his own priorities. Work was no longer his main focus. He quit drinking and smoking. And, as he candidly admits, he realized he and his wife had been living parallel lives for years as he traveled around the country with the Jazz while she raised their three children. In an uncharacteristically personal interview with The New York Times the year after Bobbye’s diagnosis, Sloan said, “I guess that’s the biggest thing to come out of this. The situation she’s gone through has made us more aware of each other — a lot more.”

After decades of marriage, the pair rekindled the romance that brought them together, taking long walks and frequenting garage and yard sales to shop for antiques. Bobbye collected old dolls; her husband preferred John Deere tractors. “All it is is stuff,” he acknowledges, but he says the pair always joked, “One day, one of us is gonna get left with a mess.”

When Bobbye was told her cancer was in remission within a year after the initial diagnosis, they both hoped that day was far in the future. But six years later, when the Sloans’ children and grandchildren gathered at their McLeansboro home for Christmas, Bobbye thought she was coming down with the flu. Soon, she couldn’t get out of bed.

Her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer sent the family reeling. Faced with sobering odds for his wife’s survival — 75 percent of patients die within one year — Sloan wanted to quit coaching, but Bobbye refused to let him. Just six months after the couple had built their dream home amid the farm fields outside McLeansboro, she passed away on June 18, 2004. She was 61.[pagebreak]

EVEN AFTER LOSING HIS high school sweetheart and wife of 41 years, Sloan didn’t quit coaching, and true to his dogged work ethic on the basketball court, he didn’t quit living. Today, he’s happily remarried to the former Tammy Jessop, whom he quietly wed in a small ceremony in September 2006. Jessop, a former executive with Sysco Foods in Salt Lake City and the mother of a 12-year-old, is a private woman, but she’s been credited for bringing a sense of joy back into her husband’s life. Last year, just as the Jazz was picked for a playoff spot, USA Today sportswriter Greg Boeck noted that the legendary hard-nosed coach had seemed to emerge from his grief, having “relaxed his drill-sergeant tactics and shown patience with his youthful team.”

Among his interests now is the Indianapolis-based Bobbye and Jerry Sloan “Hand-in-Hand” Foundation that family and friends established in 2005. He serves as president and his three children serve on the board, with the eldest, Kathy Sloan Wood, overseeing the foundation’s operations.

The foundation’s focus is primarily on projects that mobilize the caring power of communities in the places the Sloans lived in and loved. “When my mother passed away, we wanted to continue the giving she did,” says Wood. “Once we decided to do it, it helped our healing process.”

Typical of the projects the foundation funds is the “Kids’ Kingdom” playground project in McLeansboro, which expanded and transformed an old city park into a mecca for the town’s children. The foundation put up $100,000 for the project and invited the townspeople to help build the playground. More than 2,000 volunteers signed up. McLeansboro Mayor Dick Dietz, who went to high school with Jerry Sloan, credits the project for inspiring “a spirit in this community that we’d never seen” and notes that its aftermath includes a network of volunteers who’ve already been tapped for other community projects. “People have been asking, ‘What can we do to help out?’ ” Dietz says. “No pun intended, but it’s been a hand-in-hand situation.”

Also typical of the foundation’s focus is the Habitat house it’s funding in the New Haven subdivision in Evansville, built by volunteers for families who lost their homes to the deadly 2005 tornado that claimed 25 lives. The foundation’s Aug. 9 event at the University of Evansville benefits both the Vanderburgh Humane Society (Bobbye Sloan’s children describe her as an “animal whisperer”) and C.J.’s Bus, a kind of playground on wheels created by Kathryn Martin, whose 2-year-old son, C.J., was among the tornado victims.

For his part, Jerry Sloan declines to accept much praise, turning attention instead on the people whose labor makes the projects the foundation funds possible. “You see how hard people work here,” he says of his neighbors in McLeansboro, “and the rewards aren’t very good sometimes.”

All too soon, the business of basketball will take over his daily life again, but for as long as he can this summer, he’ll seek refuge in the small town life of his youth and the events that have been slated in coming weeks to raise money for his family’s foundation. “You can eat, sleep, and breathe basketball,” he says of his life back in Utah. “This,” he says of his simpler life back home, “gets me away from it all.”
 

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