A year and a half ago when 60 year old Tom Watson came within a short putt of winning the British Open, I was deflated in a way that I never had been before as a sports fan. And I had no idea why.
For two days I had barely left my couch as I watched the old golfer contend for a major golf championship. It was unreal. It was a tournament that had never been won by anyone older than 46 (and even that was only done in the year 1867). And while men of his age regularly participate in tournaments like the British Open, they never actually competed. But there Tom Watson was, in the lead, and seemingly on his way to victory. As he approached the 18th green, I remember I was literally on my knees, crouched down in front of my TV in giddy anticipation.
At some point during that weekend, it stopped being about golf. Tom Watson was literally defying age, time, mortality, the certainty of death, whatever you want to call it. But he was doing it, and I was in awe. As Tom studied his final shot, I had my cell phone in my hand. I was anxiously preparing to call my dad to say “Did you see that?!” But I never made that call. As Tom pulled back his putter to take the winning shot, you could see the exact moment when it happened. You could see the precise millisecond when Tom Watson realized what he was doing, and the enormity of it all. It was the slightest of hesitations, but it was just enough for him to jerk the putt and leave the ball out of the cup.
And it was all over. You could tell. He had seemingly stared down the impossible all weekend, but then he blinked, and when his eyes opened reality was there. There was still a playoff since he finished tied for first, but you could see it in his wrinkled eyes—he had defied the undefiable for too long. And he was tired.
This is a really roundabout way to explain how I felt today when news broke that Jerry Sloan was retiring from basketball, but it’s one of the first things that popped into my mind (other than “Okay, this is clearly the apocalypse—where’s my gun?”).
When Jerry Sloan became the coach of the Utah Jazz I was five years old. So of course he always seemed like an old guy to me. He was old—so what? Age didn’t mean anything to Jerry Sloan, the most grizzled man in all of sports. To me he was the consummate man of grit that would never back down from a tussle; always dirtied his hands during his long day’s work, but always washed those hands before supper. He represented an era that I knew existed before me, but that I only saw on the History Channel or occasions when my grandpa felt like lecturing me about life. I respected him and what he stood for immensely, though I never fully understood him.
However, it finally hit me today that Sloan is old. He was tired. And that means something. He had been around for so long, was so consistent, and so dependable, that it became a given that he would always be around. Sure, I knew he would leave eventually, but it was inconceivable that he would do so without doing the one thing he ever really cared about—winning it all. Jerry Sloan was the John Wayne of basketball, and John Wayne did not quit.
But John Wayne was only ever an actor, and he died of cancer in 1984. So, as I listened to the press conference today, and as I listened to Jerry Sloan humbly submit to mortality, I felt the same way I did watching Tom Watson on the 18th green. I felt deflated. Only this time I knew why.
Despite my relative youthfulness, I felt the shadow of mortality that creeps on us all. As long as Jerry Sloan has been the Jazz coach I have related sports to the world around me. And now that he is suddenly gone, I am learning a lesson I’m not sure I want to learn. I’m learning of the cold reality that not all hopes are realized, not all dreams are fulfilled. Justice does not always prevail in the end. At least in this life.
Jerry Sloan deserved to win it all. And the realization that he won’t hurts.