When I arrived at the Verizon Center for the Wizards/Jazz game Saturday afternoon, I was trying to convince myself that Jerry Sloan was not that intimidating. I’m a grown man, and he’s an older grown man, but for some reason his stature, his stare, his experience, and his reputation as a tough player and a tougher coach is enough to make even the hardest man have a few doubts about his confidence. Even so, I was determined to get in on his pre-game presser, to hear his take on the Jazz, the Wizards, and everything in between.
While I waited for Sloan, I sat courtside and watched the Jazz players go through their pre-game ritual. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer ran on the court together for their respective drills, and they joked around a bit, then got serious. Williams alternated between taking mid-range jumpshots and driving hard to the basket, while Boozer did the Mikan drill and other various post moves to get himself lathered for the game.
I remember thinking to myself how sweet it must feel to be a Jazz fan. They basically went from Stockton and Malone to Williams and Boozer, and although they missed the playoffs a couple of times during the transition, they are contenders once again. Part of that is a good front office, and another includes having the same coach for 22 years in Sloan. I didn’t dwell on this line of thought for too long because time was getting away from me, and I had to trek over to the Utah locker room for Sloan’s talk.
For approximately 10 minutes, I listened to Sloan cover a myriad of topics. He compared possibly losing Boozer after this season to losing Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley in past years. He praised his front office for getting him good players after Stockton and Malone left, and he talked about how fun it is to watch young players go from being inexperienced to seasoned.
While I was listening to this man take the media through a mini-trip down memory lane and back again, I again could only marvel at this consistency. How many coaches in any sport can speak about players who started in the 80s, 90s, and the current decade? And how many franchises can say they stayed championship contenders at the same time? Just as I allowed my mind to drift a bit to answer that question, it was rudely interrupted by the voice of another media member.
“You know Ernie[Grunfeld] is talking at 6:30 right?”
Instead of being afforded the right to continue my Utah Jazz stream of consciousness, I was violently jarred back into a Washington Wizards state of mind. Earlier in the day, Gilbert Arenas had avoided jail time but still been sentenced to a halfway house, probation, and a fine. As a result, Team President Ernie Grunfeld would be speaking to address Arenas’ future and all things Wizards-related.
Instead of speaking about continuity and waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days of past Wizards teams, Grunfeld had to discuss matters of a very different nature. He refuted reports that Arenas’ contract would be voided; he vowed to shake up the roster in free agency and via the draft; he spoke harshly about Andray Blatche’s treatment of Flip Saunders; and he spoke about why he was qualified to work for new owner-in-waiting, Ted Leonsis–assuming Leonsis is officially approved.
The tone of Grunfeld’s press conference was not all gloom and doom. Despite the Wizards’ 15 game losing streak, Grunfeld mentioned that he was more than pleased with the play of newcomers Shaun Livingston and Alonzo Gee (although Ridiculous Upside reported today, the Gee will sign will the Spurs now that his 10 day contract has expired). He explained that although it was tough trading Haywood, Butler and Jamison, the Wizards as a team had gotten stale, and their departure meant plenty of cap room–which is quite the commodity in the upcoming free agency bonanza of 2010 and maybe 2011.
But as I left Grunfeld’s press conference and headed to the court to watch the Jazz defeat the Wizards by 16 points, I could not help but notice the clear disparity between the two franchises. The Wizards’ best player is halfway house-bound; their current best player cannot be trusted; and next year’s roster and ownership are uncertain. The assumption is that head coach Flip Saunders is coming back, but that’s not a given. This was a far cry from the seemingly placid surroundings on the Jazz side of things I had visited just a few minutes earlier.
Of course, in a perfect world, the Wizards would draft Evan Turner or John Wall, welcome back an Arenas with a chip on his shoulder next year, pick up a free agent or two, build the confidence and game of JaVale McGee, Blatche and Shaun Livingston, and come back a contender next season. But those are wishes for a franchise that hasn’t seemed to be lucky as of late. Meanwhile the Jazz probably will have Sloan as head coach and Deron Williams running the point. And even if Carlos Boozer does decide to leave, they still have a formidable backup in Paul Milsap. That is still quite a foundation.
The best example of how comfortable, relaxed and at ease Coach Sloan seems to be with the Jazz came in the middle of his pre-game press conference. He had a birthday coming up at the time (he turned 68 on Sunday), and he was asked about it.
“Coach, tomorrow you turn 68. How do you feel?” the reporter asked.
“I feel with my fingers,” Sloan deadpanned.