Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan died this past week at the age of 78 and most of the articles written about the four-time All-NBA First Team Defensive player allude to his toughness on the court. And believe me it was a characterization that was well-earned. In 1974-75, I was working for the Kansas City-Omaha Kings and we posted a won-loss record of 44-38 on the season, just behind Sloan’s Chicago Bulls club at 47-35, with the Kings finishing as the runners-up to the Bulls in the Midwest Division.
There were just 18 teams in the NBA in those days and the league-wide scheduling format called for nine regular season games to be played against each team in the same division. The Kings won the nine game regular season series 5-4 and had real hopes of defeating the Bulls in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Chicago led in large part by the defensive efforts of Sloan, won the series 4-2, and eventually were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals.
Bulls Head Coach Dick Motta and Kings Head Coach Phil Johnson ran the same system on offense and defense, at least in part because Johnson was an assistant coach under Motta, first at Weber State (Utah) and then later with the Chicago Bulls. After the battles during the regular season, there were no surprises left to unveil by either team in the Playoffs.
The Kings offense was guard-oriented and relied heavily on eventual Hall of Famer Nate ‘Tiny’Archibald and his backcourt mate Jimmy Walker for scoring. Sloan, at 6-5 primarily defended against Walker, roughed him up in the Playoffs, and set the tone for the Bulls defensively on the court. Norm Van Lier guarded Archibald and held him six points below his scoring average in the regular season, allowing Tiny to shoot only .364 from the field. Both teams had outstanding passing centers who could rebound, Tom Boerwinkle for Chicago and Sam Lacey for K.C. The Bulls veteran frontcourt of Bob Love and Chet Walker were more experienced than the Kings starters Scott Wedman and Ron Behagen.
Sloan later became the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, where he had limited success. He earned his Hall of Fame coaching credentials with the Utah Jazz, where he coached Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone, compiling a total coaching record of 1221-803 (.603). His teams were a reflection of Sloan during his playing days, tough, smart, and really difficult to compete against.