Seriously, Folks, It's A Wonderful Life

Dec. 16, 1985
Dec. 16, 1985

Table of Contents
Dec. 16, 1985

Pro Football
Mixed Team Golf
Frank Layden
College Basketball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Seriously, Folks, It's A Wonderful Life

Hey, did you hear the one about Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden and Salt Lake City? It's a mutual admiration society, no kidding

Hear that noise in the background? It comes swelling from somewhere behind the radio announcer at courtside, an indistinguishable growl at first, then gradually building into cheers. The announcer, Hot Rod Hundley, the raspy voice of the Utah Jazz, is trying to do the intro to what he calls The Frank Layden Show (the title needs work), which stars none other than Layden himself, the coach and general manager of the Jazz. Hundley struggles to speak over the din. "Hoo-raaaaay," the voices are now yelling, "hoo-ray for Frank Layden. We looove Frank Layden. Love him."

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 1985 issue Original Layout

Hot Rod finishes his opener and thrusts the microphone toward the coach.

That's when Frank Layden puts down the rolled-up program he has been using as a megaphone to create the roar of his imaginary crowd. And he grins like a huge, conspiratorial elf, maybe the biggest elfin all pro basketball.

Layden has other good stuff, too. Such as when he shakes off his customary slouch and draws himself up to his full 6'1", something he does occasionally. Then he'll do a rather large, 285-pound pirouette, his arms held slightly out.

"I happen," he says, "to have an absolutely beautiful body." He studies the reaction of his audience. It's usually disbelieving.

"The only problem," Layden says, "is that it's inside this one."

All right, just one more. "I thought I'd discovered the ultimate way to lose weight," he says. "I went on the Rice Diet. It's Chinese. You eat nothing but rice, O.K.? And it was working fine. Except that in the middle of it, I got this uncontrollable desire to fold shirts."

But enough already, which is another familiar Layden line. Things are not quite what they seem here; there's more going on than meets the ear. In fact, that rapid-fire series of one-shots delivered in purest Brooklynese is merely something to hide behind, a sort of Henny Youngman fortress from which Layden can look out owlishly at the world he has created. As it turns out, Layden is more accurate than he realizes: There truly is another person hidden inside that round, shambling body. Who knows, maybe two.

If there's such a thing as the spirit of bigtime coaching—and why not?—Francis Patrick Layden, 53, has come to embody it. After 30 years of teaching the game—10 in high school, 10 in college and 10 in the pros, where since 1981 he has been head coach of the Jazz—Layden has at last become the Compleat Coach. And even if the team wins this season's championship—which is, repeat after me, unlikely—he would still be the best-liked guy in the game.

Well, at least the Jazz actually made it into the playoffs the last two years after going 45-37 and then 41-41. "If you don't get to the prom," Layden says, "you don't get to dance with the queen." The fact that they ultimately lost in the conference semifinals both years didn't matter all that much; Layden had already given Jazz fans grander times than they ever believed possible, with teams that hadn't exactly been ordered from the Van Cleef & Arpels catalog.

Which is part of the Jazz charm. One season earlier, in 1982-83, the Jazz had finished a dismal 30-52, the team's best-ever mark since moving to Utah from New Orleans in 1979. Heck, the Jazz had never won more than 39 games in one season, had never made a playoff and had suffered through a changing cast of owners and five coaches since being launched in New Orleans as an expansion team in 1974. They were often just as funny as one of Layden's monologues, losers for the first nine years of their existence, finishing dead last in their division four times and next-to-last five. "Time was," says Chicago Bulls coach Stan Albeck, "when we'd see Utah on the schedule and chuckle, 'Hot damn! that's a road win for sure.' " Says Layden, "Time was when admitting to being the Jazz coach was like saying you were the lookout at Pearl Harbor."

But no more. Layden was named both coach and NBA executive of the year in 1984. "That was the year of the underdog," Layden says, "the Cubs, Padres and the Jazz. If World War III had broken out, Norway would have won."

Even before that season, in the same year that had nine coaching changes, the Jazz had signed Layden to a 10-year contract, the longest ever in the game. And when it was all over, Layden had also come away with an honorary doctorate from Niagara University, his alma mater, and a silver-gray Mercedes 380 SL sedan, a gift from team owner Sam Battistone. All this plus a starring appearance at a special NBA roast where Layden was introduced as one of the sandbags left over from Utah's spring floods.

One roaster, Pat Williams, the 76ers' general manager, offered Layden yet another new diet—chocolate-covered lettuce—and then repeated a tale from Lay-den's childhood. "Frank went out for baseball," he said, "and while he wasn't very good, it wasn't a total loss. The coach used him as a pattern to draw the on-deck circle." But later, Williams added a postscript. "Layden is the only coach in the league," he said, "where all the other coaches were happy for him and rejoiced in his success. Now that's unusual for this gang."

Layden has a slightly different, and typical, perspective. "Imagine it," he says. "For a few years there, I was the worst coach in the NBA. Not only that, I was also the worst dressed, the sloppiest, the fattest and all that. Listen, our booster club? By the end of the season, they had turned into a terrorist group. Then, suddenly, like overnight, I became a bleeping intellectual. People started to ask me my opinion on politics, religion. There was a little talk of my running for Utah governor. Isn't it interesting how smart I suddenly got in one season?"

"Layden is the greatest motivator in the pro game today," says Jack Gardner, nicknamed the Fox, retired University of Utah coach and Hall of Famer, now a Jazz consultant. "Remember, this isn't the richest team in the league [the Jazz's estimated payroll of $2.9 million ranks at the bottom in the NBA], and it doesn't have a lot of big stars. But Frank has a special savvy with the players. He'll pray over them, and he'll feed them emotional sugar when they need it. And he'll kick them in the ass when they've got it coming. That's what does it."

So now the world is waiting to see what might do it this year. "Well," says Layden, "at least we've overcome any psychological hangup about never winning. I think maybe we could win, urn, 46 games this year, tops, and say 36 minimum. Now that's not as much fun as going 63-19, say, but that's the challenge in it. We've done the final eight. Now let's try the final four."

Layden chomps on one of his four-a-day cigars, clenched firmly in the middle of his mouth, and grins conspiratorially around it like the NBA's biggest elf.

What a strange sight, how incongruous, this large and very soft man stepping ponderously through a basketball play at the top of the circle. He's got the ball, and his players swirl all around him. The ones guarding him put their hands on him lightly and carefully so as not to hurt him. "Now do you see what I mean?" says Layden. When he's this intense, his accent becomes even more unmistakable: "What I mean is, you gotta put the presshuh on the dribbluh, get it?"

This is in the Salt Palace, the team's home arena, where the ceiling looks exactly like the bottom of the descending spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Layden's a devout believer in basketball as the purest of all games—he insists that it's simple and there are no secrets. Indeed, "it's like the ballet," he tells a friend on the sideline. "A form of theater, if you will. What you do, you've got to do good; everybody in the audience is a bleeping critic. Listen, they've seen all the routines before; they know them by heart. Don't ever count on making a small mistake and the crowd not knowing it."

In generally chewing out everybody on the team, he reveals his own ultimate game strategy—spelled out here for the first time anywhere—which rival coaches may now copy. The Layden secret: It's positively un-American not to go to the hoop. "We can't be fooling around out there in front of the U.S. flag," he tells the team. Is that pure enough?

Layden demonstrates: a little feint, then a swirl and a move to the basket like a giant water buffalo. "What am I talking, Chinese or something?" he growls. "I'm telling you to shoot. You've got to get the ball to the one man. Sheesh. You don't play defense. You can't rebound. How in hell do we ever win a game? I don't know."

But then, after watching the next series of plays, Layden dishes out warm praise and crisp pats on the fannies to several players. And from the sideline, it's perfectly easy to see two things:

1) Layden plays this team just as the organist plays the mighty Wurlitzer at the Radio City Music Hall. And....

2) The players love him for it.

And now it's free-throw time. Layden puts down his playbook, a red-leather-bound folder. On the cover it says "Radisson Hotel, La Crosse." And on the back it says "Do Not Remove From Hotel Room." He shuffles out onto the floor, fishing in the pockets of his baggy pants, then pulls out a dollar bill and lets it flutter to the floor. One by one, the players step forward: If they sink two in a row, they pick up the dollar. If they don't, the entire team must run the length of the court and back. This is a pretty tiring practice, and many of them miss, to groans from the rest.

This link between theater and sport, basketball in particular, has always dominated Layden's outlook on the game. It began taking shape at Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High, in the heart of the basketball-crazy neighborhood where he grew up. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by two older sisters and his dad, a tough, salty-talking former boxer whose attitude was, Layden recalls, "Hey, we all have to get behind Frank because he's got a shot at becoming somebody someday." By his senior year, Layden had hit 6'1" and 215 pounds. He was a feisty guard with theatrical flair. "Once my old coach, Phil Drucker, was asked to assess my playing style," Layden says, "and he put it this way: 'The kid can't play defense and he can't jump a bit and he shoots every time he gets his hands on the ball." But his style produced this arcane statistic: As a junior in 1949, Layden was also one of the hottest high school scorers in all Brooklyn, averaging 15 points a game.

More drama came in his last year at Fort Hamilton when a teachers' strike all but shut down the basketball program. Layden began doubling as student-coach and player in the Catholic Youth Organization. Not just for his own parish, which was legal, but for several parishes all over town. "He would use an alias for each team," says Barbara Layden, Frank's wife of 28 years. "He would pick the names of famous people out of the newspapers or the movies or the comics. This was in 1950, and he was Lash LaRue [an old-time cowboy star] on one team and Happy Daily on another and a lot of famous people on other teams, too."

Still, it led to a full-ride scholarship at Niagara, where Layden and Hubie Brown were roommates. And while the team did well, if not spectacularly, coach John (Taps) Gallagher saw something special in Layden. "In my junior and senior years," says Layden, "he asked me if I would coach the freshmen. I had sort of hoped to go on to become a lawyer. But I couldn't get accepted anyplace. I guess my basic mediocrity came out."

He's wrong, of course. It was more a case of a guy falling in step with his natural destiny. After graduating in 1955, Layden pulled some Army duty (playing baseball and basketball as a second lieutenant at Fort Monmouth, N.J.), then went on to coach at St. Agnes and Seton Hall high schools and later at Dowling College (then known as Adelphi Suffolk College), all on Long Island. He went back to Niagara in 1968 as head basketball coach, and in 1969 he became athletic director, too. In eight seasons, he had a 119-97 record with the Purple Eagles, producing one almost-champion, the No. 2 team in the 1972 NIT, and, along the way, introducing to the world one All-America, Calvin Murphy. So much for the college life. In 1976, Layden joined the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant to old pal Hubie Brown, and in '79 he moved to Utah as general manager.

Being married to a coach isn't necessarily a piece of cake, but Layden has been "a very lovely man, right from the start," says Barbara. Lovely? Barbara insists that it's absolutely true, from the evening they met at Maguire's Bar over in Rockaway, which is as romantic a spot as one could find anywhere, if one is a sports nut. Layden asked to drive her home, and they were wed a year later. The Laydens now have two sons, and a daughter. Scott, 27, was assistant basketball coach at Fairleigh Dickinson and is now an assistant on the Jazz. Explaining why Scott got the job, Layden said, "I didn't hire Scott because he's my son. I hired him because I'm married to his mother." Then there are Mike, 18, who was a .400 hitter at Skyline High in Salt Lake City and is now on a baseball scholarship at the University of Utah, and Katie, 15, who plays basketball and softball at Skyline High. Plus one close-cropped sheepdog named Samantha.

The round man polishes off the last of an enormous chefs salad and sips delicately at his Diet Coke, slice of lime. For starters there had been tomato soup, and for dessert there will be a fat apple turnover and vanilla ice cream. And now he looks around contentedly.

"When I won Coach of the Year," he says, "Pat Williams and the NBA guys sent me this big bouquet of lovely flowers. And he called me the next day and said, 'You get our flowers?' And I told him, 'Yeah, they were delicious."

Layden is at The New Yorker Club in Salt Lake City, and he is in good spirits. The team is off to a respectable start (13-10). "I told those guys," he says, "that they had been looking like so many maitre d's when what I wanted was bouncers. A maitre d' shows you to your table. A bouncer busts you over the head with it."

It's undiluted Layden: the Great Motivator at Work and Play. Utah will be his last team. The old Brooklyn shooter and Salt Lake City have fallen in love with each other, and if the team ever moves, Layden will stay put. "What I'm going to do when I stop coaching," he says, "is go back to college and study drama, the theater. Maybe I'll become a character actor. That sound right to you?"

About perfect. A lot of what Layden does right now is acting, in a way; it masks his intensity about the game. "So all right," he says, "in a game I have a tendency to crack a joke. But you can calm down a player that way and maybe save his career. And that's important to me. Look, artists get recognized only after they're dead. I want my guys to be recognized now."

And as quickly as it had appeared, his serious side vanishes again.

"So I saw Darryl Dawkins [of the Nets] last month," Layden says. "He's very proud of all his muscles and stuff like that. So I told him, 'Jeez, you're looking absolutely terrific. You been lifting weights all summer or something?' And Dawkins pulls himself up sort of proudly and says, yes, he certainly had. And so I told him, 'O.K., big guy, you want to lift me?' I'd like to have had him start the season with a hernia."

He grins again, a large graying man, his eyes owlish as ever behind thick glasses. No matter how he plays it, his sense of mission shines through. As Layden goes, so goes his team.

Maybe Barbara sums it up best. "This is a wonderful new life for us in Utah," she says. "But, sure enough, it's the same old Frank."

PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHThe Laydens at a home game: Mike, Barbara, Scott, Katie and their funny valentine.PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHLayden likens basketball to ballet, but his banter with Hundley is pure burlesque.PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHIt's a simple enough game, insists Layden, here exhorting the Jazz's Bob Hansen.PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN ARCHIVEThat svelte fellow sprawled on the floor is Layden, in his Niagara player's body.PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHAccording to Barbara, Frank has always been a "lovely man."PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHJohn Stockton listens to assistant Scott Layden, whose connections helped him land the job.PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHWhatever happens with the Jazz, Layden vows not to turn his back on Salt Lake City.