By Arnie Leshin
It was Friday the 13th, 1977, and Evansville College men’s basketball team from Indiana was boarding the plane that would take it take it to the University of Middle Tennessee for the Saturday afternoon NCAA Division II game.
One by one the players, the coaches, the team manager and the trainer checked in and waited for assistant coach Rob Watson. No cell phones back then and no word from Watson, so a call was made to former Evansville hoop star Jerry Sloan. In 1974, he had ended seven years playing in the National Basketball Association and was currently assisting the Purple Aces coaching staff.
But Sloan never answered the call, and by the time he received the phone message, disaster struck. Air International Flight 216 was getting set to depart from Evansville’s Regional Airport, but the Douglas DC-3 hit the runway in the rain and dense fog with a sputtering engine, and the head pilot make a quick decision to shut down the engine and apply the brakes.
But it was too late. He lost control and about 90 seconds later, the plane sped off and crashed into a nearby muddy hillside that had seen better days. There were 29 aboard and all were killed except for a reserve player who was kept overnight in the hospital but died two days later when he was hit by a drunk driver.
When Sloan heard the tragic news, he was beside himself. He later found out that the team was trying to contact him to take the trip due to the absence of Watson. He survived, but he never could forget this. He spent a few days attending wakes, masses and funerals, then took over as head coach until the athletic department later hired the junior varsity head coach to step in.
But Sloan was devastated, stopping coming to games.
But when he heard from the NBA’s Utah Jazz seeking a new head coach, he spoke with his wife and decided to fly to Salt Lake City for the interview. He was hired, not realizing it would almost be forever. He coached Utah and the one-two All-Star combo of forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton for 22 years and hung up a remarkable record of 1,223 wins and 805 losses.
As super as he was at McLeansboro High School in Illinois, and at Evansville College, he excelled as a coach, a successful head coach. The Jazz never won the NBAchampionship, but lost in two close finals behind Malone and Stockton. He ranks as theNBA’s fifth all-time winning coaches, as well as being only one of three to win 1,000 times with one only team.
This was exceptional. From the disaster he suffered to gaining unprecedented honors on the sidelines added to his reputation.
Before that Sloan was one of the nation’s top schoolboy players. He knew the game, was a pure team player, was a hard-nosed re-bounder, a tough defender, an inside and outside scorer, and a stellar team leader as McLeansboro High School twice won the state title and he was named All-State. Not much for traveling, he accepted a scholarship to bring his talents to near-by Evansville.
He was the star of the program that won back-to-back national tournaments, losing only twice in the 1963-64 season and going undefeated in 1964-65. In those two marvelous seasons that were capped by single-elimination post-season championships, number 52 Sloan was named to the All-America team, scored 19.7 points per game, brought down 13.3 rebounds a game, and was NBA ready.
He was first drafted by the Baltimore Bullets in 1966, then dealt to the Chicago Bulls when the league expanded in 1967, and he made the All-Star team his next four seasons. One of the original Bulls, the franchise retired his number 4.
He stood at 6-foot-5, was a premier shooter, driver, and penetrated as well as he shot from outside, was crafty with the ball, and was tough to defend. One of the nicknames pinned on him was “Spider,” and all these words matched the talents of the Hall of Famer.
The Purple Aces later became the University of Evansville. But it’s still at 800 Lincoln Avenue and will never forget Gerald Eugene Sloan.
One of his all-time friends was forward Herb Williams, his teammate and other star on the McLeansboro High state champions who was an All-NBA standout most exceptional as an offensive re-bounder and defender.
He and Sloan also met up in their NBA seasons, to which Williams always found praise for Sloan as a gifted player and always added that he was one of the greatest, most respected coaches.
RIP Jerry Sloan.