Type "arch nemesis" with "Houston Rockets" into Google images and that photo below is the first relevant shot you get. Certainly, there were years when the Utah Jazz were a lowly stepping stone to Rockets championships. But John Stockton's celebration after what Jazz fans call "The Shot" became only the beginning of the Rockets comeuppance, exposing our superstar-crazed hubris at the time and unmasking our replacement stars' faults down the line.
I would like to say that since that moment, the Utah Jazz have been our Lex Luthor, our Joker, our Vader, Hans Gruber and Bill Laimbeer all rolled into one. Laimbeer aside, I'd be wrong. Heroes win, villains lose. After "the shot," the Rockets could no longer beat the Jazz. They were more like our kryptonite.
Or better yet--and I know its hard to re-cast oneself (or the home team as it were)--maybe the Rockets were the villains. Blessed in the T-Mac & Yao era with supernatural talent but hindered by faults so quintessentially human--the very essence of being the villain--it was the Jazz who prevailed over and over again. They were led by a plucky young hero with tough-as-nails sidekicks and, of course, their mighty leader, Jerry Sloan. He was a nemesis so diabolical that he effectively turned our poor, huddled Rockets into villains. Or, maybe he was just a damn good coach.
Perhaps more than any other team in the NBA, the Utah Jazz were an extension of their coach. Sloan represented everything it meant to play Jazz basketball both as a player (for the Chicago Bulls) and as a coach. Toughness, toughness and more toughness. You cannot be a die-hard Rockets fan without hating the Utah Jazz but you were forced to respect them. They exposed Houston's weaknesses like no other team in the last 10 years inasmuch as they simply displayed the resolve the Rockets did not possess.
While the face of the Houston Rockets has changed dramatically over the years from Hakeem to Barkley to Stevie Franchise to T-Mac and Yao, from Rudy T to Jeff Van Gundy to Rick Adelman, the Jazz have remained ever stalwart. While Houston even now tries to reinvent itself, the Jazz were the Jazz, all due to Coach Sloan.
That is until yesterday's announcement that Sloan and assistant coach Phil Johnson were resigning immediately. It was a shock to everyone, even Deron Williams, with which Sloan reportedly had a rocky relationship. Speculation has run wild since the duo's very publicized and heated exchange during halftime of the game played just before Sloan's announcement.
Despite the controversy, however, it doesn't matter what led to this seemingly premature departure. Sloan is riding off into the sunset, without fanfare, without a hero's farewell and yet still, it seems apropos. Because it was on his terms. He never did it for the glory. So, unlike some coaches who retire only to return, I actually believe that Sloan will never come back to the NBA. His is a bygone era, sad as that might be. As much as anyone could have hated his team, you could love what he stood for and how he coached. We need more coaches and teachers like him. In fact, I would love to see him pop up somewhere coaching high school ball.
Until then, happy trails, Coach Sloan. We won't miss you, but basketball will.