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'He never blew out someone's candle to make his brighter'

  • The Jerry Sloan Gymnasium was named for the McLeansboro native in December of 2012. Sloan graduated from McLeansboro High School in 1960 and played collegiately at Evansville and professionally for the Chicago Bulls. After his playing days, Sloan coached Evansville, Chicago and was a longtime coach with the Utah Jazz.

    The Jerry Sloan Gymnasium was named for the McLeansboro native in December of 2012. Sloan graduated from McLeansboro High School in 1960 and played collegiately at Evansville and professionally for the Chicago Bulls. After his playing days, Sloan coached Evansville, Chicago and was a longtime coach with the Utah Jazz.
    SPYDER DANN | mdann@dailyregister.com

 
By Spyder Dann mdann@dailyregister.com
updated: 5/22/2020 1:48 PM

To fully appreciate Jerry Sloan you have to understand what he means to southern Illinois.

Sloan is among the region's most famous native sons, yet it is hard to find physical examples of that recognition. The gymnasium at Hamilton County High School, where Sloan first realized basketball could be his future, is named for him.

But that's about it.

His childhood best friend David Lee says there is a reason for that.

"He didn't go out and seek (fame)," Lee said. "He didn't care about the notoriety. He never blew out someone's candle to make his brighter.

"His candle is southern Illinois and it will always shine bright."

The NBA Hall of Famer and former Utah Jazz head coach passed away Friday at the age of 78, due to complications from Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia, the Jazz announced.

Sloan was best known recently for his success as the coach of the Jazz, but he was a two time All-Star and six-time All-Defensive selection during a playing career that lasted from 1965 through 1976.

In 1965 he was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets and a year later was traded to the new Chicago Bulls franchise, where he spent the rest of his playing career. Nicknamed "the Original Bull," Sloan was known for his tenacious defense, and for leading the Bulls to their first and only division title before the Michael Jordan era.

His #4 Bulls jersey hangs from the rafters in the United Center, the first retired jersey in franchise history.

Sloan graduated from the then-McLeansboro High School in 1960 and married his high school sweetheart Bobbye Irvin. The couple had three children together. Bobbye Sloan died in 2004 of pancreatic cancer.

After a stellar prep career with the McLeansboro Foxes, Sloan played for the University of Evansville. Baltimore used their #4 pick in the 1965 NBA draft to take him.

After a series of knee injuries, Sloan retired in 1976. He quickly got into coaching, at first taking the Evansville job but withdrawing after five days. On Dec. 13, 1977, the entire Evansville basketball team -- which included Eldorado's Mike Duff and Kevin Kingston -- and coaching staff were killed when their plane crashed on takeoff at the Evansville Airport.

Sloan rejoined the Bulls as an assistant coach in 1978 and was head coach from 1979-1982. In 1985, he became assistant coach of the Utah Jazz and then head coach in 1988. He retired in 2011.

For all of his success as a player and coach, Sloan never stopped being the kid from Gobbler's Knob (also known as Tuckers Corner).

"He was always a southern Illinois guy," said Harrisburg head coach, friend and McLeansboro native Randy Smithpeters Friday morning. "Twenty-four hours after the Jazz lost in the playoffs, Jerry was back in McLeansboro, on the farm. He felt 100 percent comfortable in work clothes and hat, working on an old tractor. McLeansboro was someplace he enjoyed coming back to. It was home."

Sloan and Lee were born about a year apart, growing up 25 miles from the nearest post office. Sloan was the youngest of 10 children and Lee was the youngest of 12. They both attended a one-room school and played basketball together at McLeansboro.

After the Bulls let Sloan go in 1982, he and his son Brian moved back to McLeansboro where Brian was a part of the 1983-84 McLeansboro state championship team coached by Lee.

Sloan, meanwhile, "spent a lot of time with us (coaches) in the gym and on scouting trips," Smithpeters noted.

Smithpeters said what he learned in those years, and what he learned from Sloan in particular, he still uses to prepare his Harrisburg teams today, even after more than 27 years courtside.

"He brought the flex offense to us from Chicago," Smithpeters said. "Some of his ideas, drill work and mentality of the game are the things we ran at McLeansboro all those years back and still run to this day.

"He had a major impact on not only me as a person, but as a coach. He was a hard-nosed guy, but really dealt with people well and that's evident by his NBA success."

He remembers the McLeansboro championship season, when Sloan would sit at the top of the gym, under the lights, back in the corner.

"Media people would approach him for quotes and comments," Smithpeters said. "He would politely tell them, 'Tonight is all about the guys down there.' He would deflect all the attention back on the Foxes and I just remember thinking how genuine that was of him to do."

Asked what he thinks Jerry Sloan's legacy will be, Lee, now 77, said Sloan needs to be remembered for where he came from and what he accomplished. The two go hand-in-hand, he argues.

"His legacy should be that he's one of the best athletes to come out of southern Illinois (and) that he always stood by McLeansboro. He was always loyal and that's how he was with the Utah Jazz. He's just a loyal person and a down to earth great guy.

"Not only was he a great coach and great player, but he was a great person and I'm going to miss my best friend."

• Spyder Dann covers prep and college sports for the Southern Illinois LOCAL Media Group. Follow him on Twitter: @spydieshooter.

 
 
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