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Be Like Jerry

On the day after the generally acknowledged toughest guys in sports, hockey players, announced a plan for ending their season with a tournament (the near-the-bottom Blackhawks somehow qualify to play), I find my thoughts turning to Jerry Sloan one more time. The Southern Illinois native who became the first Bull to have his number retired at the end of his stellar, 10-year playing career that included 10 years on the West Side, died last week at age 78.

Sloan went on to put together a Hall of Fame coaching career mostly at the helm of the Utah Jazz. And in so doing he became the best example in all of sports of how a coach should comport himself - displaying class and dignity every day but also flashing an ultra-deadpan sense of humor.

But the main thing I wanted to zero in on was that calling Sloan tough was almost insulting. He was ultimate tough, i.e., he refused to turn away from any worthy adversary in any situation. Even when he was in his 60s coaching still-successful Jazz teams, he would not back down from any real threat. Ever.

On occasion he would walk away from a conflict, but that would only be because he knew the other guy was a pretender. If another ultimate tough guy like Kenyon Martin challenged Sloan's team, Sloan would Not. Back. Down.

Now it must be said that a decent number of guys like this meet their demise early in life and in team sports. The problem in life is that even ultimate toughness is no match for easy force, i.e., weaponry. And on a team, too frequently the other guys don't match the tough guy's fire and determination.

Fortunately for Sloan, he found competitive soulmates in John Stockton and Karl Malone. The coach and the two stars of so many of his great teams in Utah found themselves on the same page without even having to talk about it. Everything was sacrificed for the team.

The nature of basketball is that it is the ultimate team game but that sometimes a great, great individual player can tilt the playing floor more than he can in other team sports.

On the other hand, no one inspires more loyalty among players who are in the game for the right reasons than the guy who will have your back no matter what. And you can feel that sentiment in the many tributes Sloan has received since the announcement of his death last week.

Part of it was his upbringing but only a small part of it. Sloan was the 10th of 10 children and his dad died when he was four. He was the classic country kid who was up well before the sun to do his morning chores before walking to school for morning basketball practice. He grew up in a little region that isn't on maps - Gobbler's Knob - and went to school in McLeansboro, deep in Southern Illinois farm country.

And of course the last, key thing about ultimate toughness is never talking about it. Others have to do that for you. Hopefully we have done a good enough job here.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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