Moments before the Utah Jazz and the Celtics squared off Wednesday night in Boston, Frank Layden said, "We'll win." Layden was making his prediction—an erroneous one, it turned out—2,500 miles away in a Palm Desert, Calif., sports bar. Layden, who over 10 seasons—as general manager and coach—had built and coached the Jazz from nothing into a major NBA force, was staring up at the big-screen TV at one of the few Jazz games he hadn't seen in person since 1981.
When it became obvious that the Jazz would be whipped in Boston (final score: 112-104), Layden said of his former players, "They look a little sluggish. But that's only because they've been celebrating ever since I left." A guy at the bar laughed and said, "The NBA needs more guys like you."
"You're right," Layden responded. Then Layden, who was vacationing in Southern California for a few days before he would return to Salt Lake City to assume his new duties as president of the Jazz, left at the half in search of a plate of rigatoni.
The 56-year-old Layden—who had guided Utah to five straight playoff berths and had made the Jazz one of only six current NBA teams to go .500 or better for five straight seasons—stunned his team on Dec. 9 by suddenly resigning as coach. He quit even though this club was arguably the best he had ever had. Utah was atop the Midwest Division with an 11-6 record when he walked, but as of Sunday the Jazz, now coached by Jerry Sloan, had lost three straight road games and was 13-10, in fourth place.
December 26, 1988
Why did Layden quit when everything seemed to be going so well? "The game actually consumes you," he says. "You are no longer in charge of your life. After a while, the ball dribbles you. I decided I'd have more fun hitting golf balls in Palm Springs."
Says Jazz general manager Dave Checketts ruefully, "Finally, at last, we have built a team that has credibility and respectability, and the sucker bails out on me." Karl Malone, the Jazz's All-Star forward, told SI's Steve Rushin, "Frank is one of the greatest coaches and motivators in the game, and he just hangs it up. I already miss him. I dedicate the rest of my career to him." The Mailman is now wearing basketball shoes with FRANK printed on each heel.
For those digging a little deeper into why Layden quit, he provided some clues. Above all else, there was the matter of abuse from the fans. Layden tried to play this down, saying it was only one factor, but he admitted, "There is something happening with fans. There is a viciousness coming out. I don't know if it's because of the high salaries, the high price of tickets. But it's a little scary." Layden, who was making $250,000 a year, says he was spat upon at least half a dozen times in his eight seasons of coaching, most recently during a Dec. 3 game in Sacramento. Often he is the butt of jokes about his weight. He weighs around 315 pounds—"It just sort of snacked up on me," he says—and would not be svelte at 200. "You fat——" was often aimed at Layden. "I am heavy," Layden says. "Hell, I'm fat. But does that mean I don't have feelings? Does this mean I am supposed to accept verbal abuse?"
Layden's wife, Barbara, says, "One night Frank came home and asked me, "What happened to the dignity I had in this wonderful game? I'm so unhappy." Fans are really cruel. I just can't imagine getting so upset that you would spit on someone over a game."
Sadly, abuse by fans may be on the rise. Laker general manager Jerry West says, "It has gotten out of control. Until it stops and we get some reality back into the game, you are going to see more and more coaches doing what Frank did." Checketts says, "I shudder when I hear some of the things they yell."
Time was, fans cheered for the home team. Now increasing numbers of them seem to be going to events mainly to berate the home team and its coach should the team perform poorly. At Alabama a rock was thrown through the office window of football coach Bill Curry after a loss to Mississippi. Says Curry, "Sometimes it's not even good enough anymore to win. You have to look good doing it."
Layden may have contributed unintentionally to some of the rowdy behavior in Utah and other cities because of his colorful Brooklyn-honed vocabulary and his constant bantering with fans.
Especially painful to Layden was the booing inflicted on him by some home fans, particularly last year, when the team at one point was 18-22. "It hurt," Layden says. "A lot." Things got so bad, says Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley, who did a pregame television show with Layden, that "Frank didn't want to come out on the floor with all the fans booing him." So the live show became a taped show. Malone, asked last week about the boo-birds in Salt Lake, said, "My comment to those people is, 'I hope you're satisfied now, because you lost something that you're never going to get back.' "
The fact is, without Layden's unstinting effort, the team almost certainly would not have been as good as it was, nor would it even still be in Salt Lake City. Layden was, and is, more than a basketball coach. You have a group of five and need a free speaker? Call Frank. And there are very few local charities that don't have Layden's fingerprints on them.
The second major reason Layden quit is Adrian Dantley, which may seem strange considering that Dantley has been with Detroit since the start of the 1986-87 season. But before the 1984-85 season, Dantley wanted to renegotiate his Jazz contract, which still had a year to run at $550,000. He refused to come to training camp until it was done. Layden, taking a firm stand, said that inasmuch as he had a valid contract, Dantley would have to play, and then discussions could begin. Dantley missed camp, nine preseason games and six regular-season games. He showed up when Sam Battistone, then the club's owner, undermined Layden by acceding to Dantley's demands. Last week Battistone admitted, "I'm sure it was difficult for Frank."
Checketts says Layden "was never the same" after that. A year later the Jazz traded Dantley. Most Jazz insiders have little doubt that the Dantley deal was the beginning of the end for Layden, who felt he held the moral high ground and that it was ripped from under him. Current owner Larry Miller says that the Dantley experience "soured" Layden on the business aspects of pro ball.
The third principal reason Layden left is that he is, in Checketts's words, "the ultimate underdog." When Utah improved to the point of being considered a title contender, that was foreign territory for Layden. "Frank's philosophy is that it's better to surprise than disappoint," Checketts says.
After all, when Layden was appointed head coach at Seton Hall High School in Patchogue, N.Y., the school had had six losing seasons. He made it a winner. When Layden went to Niagara University in Niagara Falls, the Purple Eagles had had five mediocre seasons. He made them a winner, too. And years later, there he was, the Irish Catholic Democrat—if not an underdog, certainly an outsider—drinking and swearing in straitlaced, Mormon, Republican Salt Lake City. "At our parish we call the bingo numbers in Latin so the Mormons can't win," Layden says. Getting rid of Dantley, of course, made Layden more of an underdog. "If Frank just let Dantley sit, he could say, 'I don't have my best player, but watch us fight back,' " Checketts says. " 'You've got me, you don't need him. Somehow I will win with this group of misfits.' "
But the Jazz players are misfits no longer. Last season they carried the Lakers to the seventh game in a dramatic second-round Western Conference playoff series. Anything less than beating the Lakers next spring will be considered a shortfall. Jack Ramsay, the second-winningest (864-783) coach in NBA history, behind Red Auerbach, knows all about expectations. "Eventually they take their toll on your emotional reserves," says Ramsay, who resigned after his Indiana Pacers got off to an 0-7 start this season. Layden agrees with Ramsay: "If I had stayed, they might have been hanging me from the ceiling of the Salt Palace instead of championship banners." Layden may like being an underdog, but, obviously, that doesn't mean he likes to lose.
For all these reasons Layden had grown weary. Last August, Miller, Checketts and Layden agreed that this would be Layden's last season as coach. "Being a lame duck makes you lose your enthusiasm," Layden says. In truth, he knew on the day that training camp opened that he wouldn't make it all the way through the season. "I just didn't have the burning desire anymore," he says. He also was troubled by Chicago Bear Mike Ditka's heart attack and by the sieges that veteran NFL coaches Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Don Shula are under. "At my age, you either get sick or get fired," says Layden.
Layden doesn't blame burnout for his decision: "That is a cop-out—my job wasn't important enough to get burnout." Nor does he blame travel: "Oh, sure, it was hard having to fly first class, have a martini, be driven to the best hotel in town, then struggle up to a suite on the top floor. It's awful."
Chris Hill, the director of athletics at the University of Utah and a buddy of Layden's, says, "Enough is enough. Frank didn't want to go out with any negatives." Layden says he would have been a quitter only if the team were playing poorly and losing.
But Georgia basketball coach Hugh Durham views Layden's departure in a different way: "Layden is leaving just when the team chemistry got going. His players have been busting their asses since October. What if Malone came in and said he was under a lot of pressure and was taking a lot of abuse and was quitting?" Asked about that scenario, Layden says, "That would be fine."
Alas, at the end, even the winning was hollow for Layden. But true to his style, he left 'em laughing. "Basketball is not a complicated game," he says. "But I tell you, my 11 play is a stroke of genius on my part. Except when Malone's not in there, it doesn't work."