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Jerry and Phil: The Back Story

February 21, 2011

Although it starts in Utah, the story of Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson is one that pre-dates either’s arrival in Salt Lake City. It’s a story that goes back almost 60 years.

It starts with Utah native and 10th all-time winningest coach in NBA history Dick Motta, who is one of only a few NBA coaches in history that never played basketball in high school, college, or professionally.

Side Note: When he became the coach of the Chicago Bulls, Motta was also, at 5’7″, the shortest coach in the league.

Motta was an agriculture major at Utah State before switching to physical education during his sophomore year. After graduating in the mid-1950s, he got a job teaching at a junior high school in Idaho. One of his students was Phil Johnson. Phil ended up playing for Coach Motta not only in junior high school, but also high school (where he was the star player on the 1959 Grace High School state championship team) and college. Phil was the first person in his family to go to college, and his goal was to become a high school basketball coach one day. Motta eventually moved on to coach basketball at Weber State in the early ’60s, and Phil joined him as his assistant after graduating from Utah State. When Motta was named head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1968, Phil became the head coach at Weber State.

Motta joined the Bulls in Jerry Sloan’s 4th NBA season. At this point in time, there were no NBA assistant coaches, but Phil would go to Chicago and help Motta during training camps.

As recounted by Roland Lazenby in Stockton to Malone: The Rise of the Utah Jazz:

“When we had our first training camp, it took about 10 minutes to recognize that he was very special,” Motta said of Sloan. “There weren’t many players that had his intensity. I began to depend on him more out of necessity than anything. It was a natural evolution.

No coach and player had a relationship like Jerry and I had. It was very special. He was my sounding board, my assistant coach the first four years when I didn’t have an assistant coach. So I would bounce trades off of him. I bounced all of our deals off of Jerry. I felt it was more his team than it was mine. He was an incredible guy. He still is.”

“Nobody could quite figure out why we were so successful,” recalled former Bulls general manager Pat Williams, now [senior vice president of] the Orlando Magic. “Dick Motta used to say, ‘When people look at this team, they forget the one key ingredient–the size of Jerry Sloan’s heart.’ Jerry Sloan was just fearless. His body would take such a pounding. In all my 28 years in the league, the player I most admire is Sloan. I’ve never been around a greater competitor, a more focused guy, a guy who cared as much…There’s never been another Sloan. Never will be.”

Side Note: When the Chicago Tribune’s first Bulls beat writer, Bob Logan, told Motta that he wanted to write a book about the Bulls, Motta replied, “It should be about Jerry Sloan. He is the story of the franchise. He is the franchise.” (

After coaching Weber State for three seasons, Phil Johnson joined reigning NBA Coach of the Year Dick Motta in Chicago in 1971 as his top assistant and scout. It was Jerry’s 7th season in the league and 6th season with the Bulls, but Phil and Jerry were not particularly close. Phil spent a lot of time talking to other Bulls players, guys like Jimmy King and Norm Van Lier, that had interest in coaching down the line when their playing days were over, but never talked much to Jerry because Jerry was always entirely focused on playing.

In his third season as Bulls assistant coach (1973), Phil was offered the Kings head coaching job and left for Kansas City. Phil coached the Kings to a 44-38 record the next season and was named NBA Coach of the Year. Jerry played for Motta for two seasons after Phil left, but his career was eventually cut short by a series of knee injuries. Jerry and Motta left the Bulls together after the 1976 season: Jerry retired (2x All-Star, 6x All-Defense, first number retired by the Bulls), and Motta moved on to coach the Washington Bullets.

Jerry referenced Dick Motta (a Hall of Fame finalist this year) in his own Hall of Fame induction speech: “He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. Great teacher, fundamentalist, and a fierce competitor. His style of coaching seemed to fit my style of play…the long talks we had helped me formulate a lot of ideas we still use in coaching today.”

Jerry became a scout for the Bulls in 1977, and worked his way up through the ranks. After one year as a scout, he became assistant coach for the Bulls in 1978 and head coach in 1979. When he became head coach, Phil re-joined him in Chicago as his assistant. They worked together for 2+ seasons until Jerry was fired midway through the 1981-1982 season. Phil coached the next game as interim head coach, after which Bulls GM Rod Thorn took over for the rest of the season.

The next year, Phil got a job as Frank Layden’s assistant in Utah. Jerry joined the franchise one year later as a scout, but both of them left for [possibly] greener pastures shortly afterwards. Jerry had taken the head coaching job of the Evansville CBA team and was getting ready to start the season when Phil called and said that he was going back to Kansas City as head coach. Frank Layden had asked Phil for replacement candidates, and Phil had suggested Jerry. Frank asked Phil to call Jerry, and Phil did, telling Jerry that if he wanted the assistant job in Utah, to call Frank Layden.

Jerry came back to the Jazz as Frank Layden’s assistant in 1984. As fate would have it, Jerry’s first game as an assistant with the Jazz was against Phil’s Kings. This would be the closest Jerry and Phil ever came to coaching against each other.

Although Phil’s second head coaching gig with the Kings came to an end in 1987, he remained there as assistant coach. In 1988, Layden stepped down as head coach of the Jazz and Jerry was named head coach. The first thing that Jerry did after being named head coach was, as he mentioned in his HOF speech, “get permission to get Phil back with me.” Phil re-joined Jerry in Utah on December 11, 1988, and the rest truly is history.

Side Note: Dick Motta, who went on to coach Dallas for 7 seasons after 4 seasons with the Bullets, became Kings head coach in the 1989-1990 season.

As Karl Malone noted ten days ago, the Jazz lost TWO head coaches on February 10th, 2011. Phil is an accomplished coach in his own right, and had many opportunities to leave Utah for head coaching gigs. Other teams had been granted permission to talk to him and Jerry would’ve been happy for him to get the opportunity, but Phil never actively went after another job and always ended up taking himself out of contention when other teams approached him. For 20+ years, he always chose to stay with Jerry and the Jazz.

Last month, Phil told KSL: “There’s a couple of things [Jerry] knows. One is, I’m going to be honest with him and I’m going to tell him what I think. And second thing is, I don’t want his job. I’m not here trying to get his job. I never have been. I’ve always tried to be very honest with him.”

Jerry, meanwhile, noted in his HOF speech what Phil has meant to him through the years: “The guy that was by my side, coached me through all the ups and downs during those early years of coaching as well as the end of my career as a player was Phil Johnson.”

Side Note: As Jerry said during his HOF speech, Phil has been on the bench for the end of more games than himself “because I occasionally give the officials a little advice.” Can’t find the statistic, but I think Sloan is the NBA career leader in technicals despite Phil’s efforts to keep him away from the refs. Phil might have appeared to be pretty mild-mannered on the bench (it’s all relative), but he used to lead the league in technicals when he was head coach of the Kings. (sltrib)

And so, although Larry H. Miller had long made it known that if Jerry ever stepped down, the head coaching job would be Phil’s, Phil began feeling over time that when it was time for Jerry, it would be time for him too.

Phil on February 10, 2011: We have never discussed leaving together. … We’ll talk to each other, but we never had a plan for the both of us to leave together, ever, since we’ve been here. So that just happened, and as he decided to resign, I turned to him and said, “I’m going with you.” He looked at me very surprised, as a matter of fact, and said, “What?” And I said, “I’m going with you.” (KFAN)

As Karl Malone said: Loyalty, is what Phil Johnson did. That right there, was one of those things that who else would’ve did them. Those are the kind of friendships and buddies I like. If you done, I’m done. That right there to me is loyalty.

People say that there will never be the likes of another Jerry Sloan tenure in the NBA or even in professional sports, but there will also never be another relationship the likes of Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson in professional sports. I’m still #notOK with their departure, but the story of Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson–now that’s a feel-good story.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. C33 permalink
    February 22, 2011 5:40 am

    Complete with history, and well-timed, as Motta is up for the HOF (and should easily get in, IMO). You don’t see the likes of a Motta, Sloan, or Phil anymore; all were truly unique in their own right. Motta would get laughed out of the NBA today, since he has “no real experience in the game.” Biases and perceptions that only one who has played in the game at the highest level can be successful bother me tremendously. So many great minds are passed over for such silliness. Motta proves otherwise.

  2. RRR permalink
    February 22, 2011 9:12 am

    Frank played a little ball, but has Scott?

    He seems pretty sharp about the game.

    Great story Moni, thanks for sharing it with us.

    • February 22, 2011 9:48 am

      Looked it up for ya :)

      Scott was a New York state standout in high school and played all four years at St. Francis Univ. He captained the team in his senior year.


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