To readers: For some reason I don’t know, this column made the Internet/Facebook rounds this week (April 2017) some seven months after its publication in Chicago Tribune affiliates. I do not know if it was archived, even at my http://www.theeditor50.wordpress blog. But here it is again; for those who asked.
By David Rutter
He seemed a man among children. Quiet, confident, never self-focused. He acted like you always thought men were supposed to act. He was Lou Gehrig and Atticus Finch.
He wore John Deere caps when no one looked. He was shy.
He never sought to seem what he wasn’t.
If you admire grand souls, you would have liked him.
So, even now, I never mourn when athletic superstars fail as human beings, because I never thought of them as heroes. They had skill. Do not comingle the two.
But I gave myself one exception to that cool, intellectualized appreciation. Just one.
Now Sloan faces the last steps of his life, and last week he told us all goodbye while he still could, because a moment awaits just up ahead when that will be denied him.
He is dying.
Admirers gave him a surprise 74th birthday party last week in his rural Salt Lake home. He has good days. They said he seemed himself, just as always. Warm, gentle, funny. He was always the guy who would be your best friend if you were lucky enough.
How long remains for him, no one can say.
He suffers advancing Parkinson’s disease, but he also contracted “Lewy body” dementia, the second most common form after Alzheimer’s. It drove Robin Williams to suicide.
Lewy dementia steals the mind and installs hallucinogenic terrors. About 1.4 million Americans have it.
These two evils will kill Jerry Sloan sooner or later. He wants friends to remember only who he was as a man, not who he’ll become in his last hours.
Even when I first encountered Sloan, I knew he was different. He was a basketball star at the University of Evansville, and I was a hometown high school kid trying to figure out life and my tenuous place in it.
The writers who became colleagues in another five years had already nicknamed Sloan. They called him “The McLeansboro Fox” after his Illinois hometown’s sports teams, and for his wily survival skills.
=In truth, he was born and raised in Gobblers Knob, 15 miles south of McLeansboro, but writers couldn’t figure out how to safely use “Gobblers Knob” in a nickname.
He was the youngest of 10 raised by a single mom after his dad died when Jerry was 4. He did farm chores at 4:30 a.m., and then hoofed almost two miles to school for 7 a.m. basketball practice. He was a tough farm kid with a gentle heart. Not perfect, but real.
He led — willed, actually — the Aces to an undefeated national title in 1965, forever sealing his legend there. Then he introduced himself to Chicago as a 10-year Bulls star and then to the Utah Jazz as a spectacular coach. His Jazz won 1,221 games and made the playoffs 20 times before he quit in 2011.
But that’s just sports stuff. Admire it, or not. Those milestones merely gave him a place to work while he lived an admirable, humble life.
After watching him — knowing him briefly as he passed by — I learned the Essential Sloan. He was a quiet man, inside and out. He let others triumph. He stood quietly at their side and, when they suffered, they never faced the pain and fear alone. He was always there.
He was revered as a person.
He was devoted to his three children and when he finally lost beloved wife Bobbye to cancer in 2004, I feared it might crush him.
They had been twin forces of nature. She had almost physically forced him out of the shadows after he quit the University of Illinois in his freshman year. She made him come to Evansville and leave the farm, at least until he proved to himself he was not running away out of fear.
Then he made himself a permanent, unequivocal superstar.
Her death did not crush him, though her decade of fighting multiple cancers had tortured them both. He became more somber.
He survived with his children and became the luckiest man ever. He and Tammy Jessop found each other, and they wed in 2006.
She saved him as Bobbye had done decades earlier.
In the course of his 55 public years, no one doubted his honesty, compassion or integrity. He never demanded more than he gave. He was dignified and courageous.
He mostly lived the way we all would, if we were better people.
He soon will go from us as he has lived. Quietly.
A significant soul will be gone.
And when that day comes, I will be as sad as I have ever been.