Deron Williams Gambled In His Jerry Sloan War. He Lost.

You knew he always had your back when you stepped out on the court. (Deron Williams)

If Deron Williams was going to have his best game of the season four years ago, if he was going to return to the place where he was both hero and goat, if he was going to pull a Deron Williams 2008 throwback game out the hat and be mentally tough and withstand the boos and heckles and f**k you D-Will you’re garbage, if he was going to remind people that once upon a time he was better than Chris Paul and better than Russell Westbrook and better than Steph Curry, then a spring night in Salt Lake when the Mavs needed to win to lock up a playoff berth was the perfect time for Deron Williams to be Deron Williams. It was the perfect time to break the Utah Jazz heart. It was the perfect time to remind everyone who he used to be when he played here.

No one was fooling themselves about what Deron Williams did when he was the rebellious son to Jerry Sloan the father. It was ugly. And then Williams was traded. The precipitous and surprising tumble Deron Williams took after he left Utah and fell down the NBA cliff didn’t disappear beneath 23 points, 56% shooting, 6 assists, and a Mavs date with the San Antonio Spurs. It was just one game.

Williams was never able to recover who he was when Jerry Sloan was coaching him and so this one game didn’t bathe Williams in anything other than a glow of the moment. He left Utah and his career fell apart. It wasn’t supposed to be like that.

The 3rd pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, Williams didn’t thrive with coaches named Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins. Only Jerry Sloan. Jerry Sloan brought Deron Williams from a 20-year-old college player to NBA All-Star. Sloan’s toughness, competitive fire, knowledge of the game, experience as a player, allowed Williams to thrive under his nurturing.

In Utah, Williams averaged 17.3 ppg, 9.1 assists, 47% fg, three straight PER 20.7 seasons. He was an All-Star his last year in Utah and the season he was traded. He was an Olympian. Many thought Williams was a better player than Chris Paul; he usually won the head to head battle. And nearly all expected Deron Williams in the Hall of Fame.

The year Deron Williams soured on his coach, he was trapped in a bubble of his own perception and self-aggrandizement. He was a physical point guard who could defend and drop 25 and 13. His playoff battles with the Lakers were epic but his team just didn’t have the talent power of a Kobe-Shaq. But when the game mattered the most, Deron Williams delivered in the clutch.

You can talk about how Deron Williams forced his way out of Utah. You can hold his ego against him in his fight with Jerry Sloan. You can blame him for Jerry Sloan resigning. You can throw shade at how he folded in Brooklyn. You can correctly make the point that he wanted the star money but not the star burden and not the star critique. You can say he checked out mentally and his teammates isolated him. You can say he devolved into a better than average point guard who used to be great and was heading for the Hall of Fame but arrogance got in the way You can say he was a coach killer and that he brought Jerry Sloan’s illustrious career to its knees. You can brand him with all the Deron Williams baggage until the cows come home.

But for 7 years he was the second-best point guard in the league. It was Williams. Or, it was Chris Paul. On many nights Deron Williams won the argument. He executed Sloan’s meticulous offense with perfection.

Deron Williams in Utah was beautiful until it was ugly. Until Jerry Sloan quit and Deron Williams was blamed.

2.

I’m as competitive as anyone that’s played this game and I’ll fight you all night long. But I won’t turn back. I’ll look you right in the face and take it right down the pipe and that’s what I expect my players to do. (Jerry Sloan)

In the park, in the playground, at the gym, if there’ s a pick-up basketball game you’ll hear the trash talk and inevitably someone will say to a player on the court drenched in sweat, driving through traffic, getting fouled and not caring, subsisting on will until he scores, or misses and grabs the rebound, you’ll hear someone say, “that’s a tough motherf***er.”

Jerry Sloan the NBA player? He was a tough motherf***er. At only 6-5 he averaged nearly 8 rebounds a game. One season, he averaged 9 rebounds. He liked to say he learned the game on “bent rims and dirt yards.” He was a country boy who had a relentless work ethic honed by his upbringing. Farm kids know the routine. You get up before dawn when it is still bleeding black outside and you do the chores. In the cold. In the snow. In the rain. Then the walk to school, perhaps in the blistering heat.

Drafted by the Bulls in the expansion draft of 1965, Sloan and Chet Walker were the best defensive backcourt of their era. Sloan was an All-Star his first season. They won but because they didn’t have a center they could only go so far. But Sloan and Walker could guard anyone. Sloan was tenacious on the court. He defined the term hard-nose. Injuries slowed him down and stopped him altogether.

Sloan’s jersey was the first to ever be retired by the Chicago Bulls, and before Michael Jordan, Sloan was the Bulls most beloved retired player.

A date with fate or destiny or God’s will happened after Sloan signed on to coach his alma mater, Evansville. He quit after 5 days. The new coach and the team took a plane ride to a game in December. Everyone was killed in a plane crash.

Sloan’s career started in the NBA as a scout for his former team, the Chicago Bulls. Then the CBA which was the apprenticeship for many NBA coaches. He coached the Bulls and seven years later when Frank Layden became the Utah Jazz team president he hired Jerry Sloan to coach a young Karl Malone and John Stockton. The offense he ran was particularly specific and detailed. It needed skill to run it and Sloan was blessed with another hard-nosed player like himself in Stockton.  The Jazz won their division six times. Sloan won 50 games ten times. He was in the Finals twice.

As was the case when he was a player, Sloan had a temper. He was suspended one game for pushing referee Bob Delaney. It cost him 7 games when he pushed Courtney Kirkland, another referee. When Jerry Sloan resigned he had been in turmoil with Deron Wiliams but Karl Malone mentioned that it was more of a GM Kevin O’Connor thing.

23 years with one franchise is a record and an amazing accomplishment. Utah is far from a large market. They aren’t a free agent destination for elite talent. But Sloan had 14 seasons winning 50+ games. Sloan had a system and he made it work. He was as stubborn as a coach as he was as a player and it rubbed Deron Williams the wrong way. Nevertheless Sloan had his admirers.

Phil Jackson noted how much coaches admired him. “It’s not easy to have a team in Utah. It’s not the biggest draw in the country as far as free agents to go there. And they were able to have a really great home record, play the kind of basketball that was admirable. So we all had admiration for him.”

3.

What if Deron Williams had stayed? What if Jerry Sloan hadn’t resigned? What if Sloan never contracted Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia? What if Sloan hadn’t tried to kick Rasheed Wallace’s ass for trying to scramble Thurl Bailey’s brains? What if Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams had won a title together, would that have healed the relationship, would they have been able to build a bridge? Would it have taken years for them to reconcile?

Sloan’s beloved wife Bobbie who died of cancer 16 years ago once said about her husband, “He said I can never consider my career a success if I retire without winning a championship. I can never consider myself a success because I didn’t win it as a player and now as a coach. Why else would you play? How else do you judge my record?”

Jerry Sloan was inducted into the Hall of Fame and it didn’t matter that he never won a title. It didn’t matter his break-up with Deron Williams. It didn’t matter he couldn’t slay Michael Jordan and he couldn’t slay Shaq. He had an impact on the game, on his players, and the sport itself. He was what he loved the most about adulting, consistency. He always showed up. He always came back. He had some brutal defeats and there he was starting all over again.

It’s what made the Deron Williams drama so heartbreaking. When you think of all the things Jerry Sloan had been through, his father dying, the Bulls losing to Kareem and Oscar and Jerry West, the plane crash, not coaching for 7 years, the sheer misery of being in the Finals and losing (twice), his wife’s cancer death. That a 26-year-old would be part of the reason Sloan quit felt as if the game was being robbed because of a family fight.

Jerry Sloan won 1,223 games for the Utah Jazz. Deron Williams won 261 games for the Utah Jazz. 3,376 days after their split, Jerry Sloan succumbed to Parkinson’s and Lewy’s Body Dementia, and Deron Williams is a retired NBA player who has a 9.5% chance at the Hall of Fame. But one thing Deron Williams won’t have is guilt.

Two years ago, the two men met at Sloan’s home and reconciled the past. Even though Sloan’s health was in decline Williams recalls that Sloan remembered the “good, bad and ugly.” Sloan remembered everything.

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