In the wee hours of most mornings, sometime between 7 and 7:30 or so, Frank Layden would walk onto the floor of the Delta Center.
The building would be silent, save for a few watchmen wandering the halls. He'd stand on the court just him, a ball and a couple of baskets. What more does anyone need?
Nothing, really, but a mind with no bounds.
Layden has that.
"One time one of the guards said, "Hey, Coach, who are you playing with?' Because it's dark no lights or anything," Layden said. "And I said, 'Pete Maravich.' "
Today, more than 20 years since he first joined the organization as general manager in 1979, there is lots more time for imaginary games with Pistol Pete, the late, great Jazz star who died way too soon: Layden, the Jazz president and former head coach, announced his retirement on Tuesday, closing an era that can only be called his own.
"He is a special person," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said.
"Really, truly, even with (franchise owner Larry Miller)," said the Jazz's star of today, Karl Malone, "Frank was that guy I associate the Jazz with more than anybody."
Layden has been off the Jazz bench and in the president's office for more than 10 years, having moved upstairs after resigning as coach and turning the team over to then-assistant Sloan on Dec. 9, 1988. Just as abruptly as he did that, the Brooklyn-born former high school coach called a halt to his career in pro basketball Tuesday - four days before the calendar reads 2000.
This, though, is actually something Layden has been pondering for about a year now.
He might have done it earlier, had his son, Scott, formerly the Jazz's vice president of basketball operations, not left the franchise this past offseason to take a similar job in the front office of the New York Knicks. And he almost certainly would have done it last week, had Tim Howells not chosen then to resign as general manager of the Jazz.
But by Monday it was time to tell Miller: There are more things to life than that which has consumed most of Layden's 67 years, and he's ready to delve headfirst into all of them.
"I don't think of myself as old mentally," he said, "but I also think it's time to move on."
It's not due to any health concerns, and it's not because he wants to slow down. In fact, Layden said, quite the opposite is the case on both counts.
"I don't look at it as quitting. I'm merely moving on to another stage in my life," he said. "There's other things I want to do that, right now, are just as important as basketball. And I thank the good Lord for giving me the health, and giving me the means, to be able to do it. You know, I'm able financially, because of basketball, to be able to retire and do some of the things I've been planning to do, like travel."
Or catch a stage show with his wife, Barbara. Perhaps even act some on his own, picking up where he left off with his part in a local theater company's production of "Love Letters."
There's that book to finish, the one that's darn-near done. Layton said he might even enroll in a class or two at the University of Utah. He may offer to help work with the NBA offices in New York, and will continue with his speaking engagements. And then there's the grandkids to see, both in Utah and New York.
So much to do. So little time.
"When you get to my age," he said, "time is precious.
"I didn't want to be like a lot of people I see: They work all their lives, and they finally retire, and then they're not able to either afford what they wanted to do, or health-wise they're not able to do them. And I didn't want that to happen. I've always thought of myself as a person who thinks young."
And he's always been someone thought of highly by those around him, including Miller. The franchise has no plans to name a new president, because Miller said, "I don't think you can replace him.
"We knew we had to replace Scott (Layden) with a person with like skills, and Kevin O'Connor has been, I think, an extremely good choice for us," Miller said. "With Tim (Howells), it's a similar consideration - where the job is fairly structured, and you need certain skills.
"With Frank, it's a different thing. Because Frank was not just a figurehead by any stretch. Anybody who thinks that doesn't recognize his personal dimension and his value to the team. His contact base, his whole personal approach to philanthropy ... was so good, and sometimes, publicly, because of the nature of what happened, he never sought the spotlight on this. But way more often, from behind the scenes, he would direct us: 'Be aware of this situation, somebody needs to do something here, we can do something to help here.' Sometimes little things, sometimes big."
Perhaps nothing (except for the 360 pounds he once carried, something he joked about Tuesday) was bigger than what Layden did for the Jazz early in his career here, at a time when the organization was floundering financially.
"I'm not sure we'd all be here if it wasn't for him," longtime Jazz publicist Kim Turner said.
"I was here when the thing wasn't going too good," said Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson, who went to work for Layden in 1982. "(Center) Mark Eaton was a fourth-round draft choice, and we had to sell Dominique Wilkins for Freeman Williams, John Drew and a million dollars."
The deal, orchestrated by GM Layden in September of '82, provided the franchise with enough working capital to keep it afloat.
Along the way, many saw Layden as the man responsible for some rather smooth sailing.
"His whole mentality was to market the Jazz, to get that name out there for the Jazz," Malone said. "Not for Frank Layden, but for the Jazz."
By the end, Layden went from coach to captain of a rather proud vessel. Even he, though, admits much of the hard work has been done by others in the recent past.
"Everybody knows: First of all, I don't have the passion that I used to have," he said. "I used to get up in the morning, and all I thought about was the Jazz and the job. And I'm starting to think more and more about other things in my life."
But there are also some things he will never forget, and those include his experiences in a career that started first as coach of a freshman high school basketball team in Long Island, N.Y., and later as coach of varsity team at Seton Hall High School.
"The most productive time, probably, was coaching high school," he said. "I really felt like I was having an impact on young people, and that was an important part of my life."
Preps, in fact, are responsible for what Layden called the toughest loss of his career: "To Cathedral High School, when we went undefeated and were one of the highest scoring teams in the history of high school basketball. The way they did it in Long Island, they had the top team play the last-place team in the first round of the brackets for the Catholic school championships. And Cathedral High School was a seminary school, and these young future priests beat the heck out of us on a Sunday afternoon. I should have known I was in trouble then."
Instead Layden went on to coach in college, including a stint at his alma mater, Niagara (N.Y.) University, and in the NBA, with both the Atlanta Hawks (as an assistant coach) and the Jazz.It was in Utah, to where the Jazz moved from New Orleans shortly after Layden joined the organization, that he gathered some of his fondest memories:
- "I remember the first game I coached, and we beat Kansas City (122-102, on Dec. 11, 1981). That was an exciting night."
- "I can remember the night we clinched our first playoff berth (in 1984), and the people demanded that the team come back. They wouldn't leave the arena, and we came back out in the floor. And I told the players: 'Applaud the fans. They're the ones that have been loyal to us.' And it seemed, from that point on that we never played before (small crowds) anymore."
- "The (1988) series against the Lakers - that was really something, because we were playing against the best in the world, maybe the best ever, that Laker team."
Along the way Layden dealt with some great players, including Malone, Maravich, Eaton, Adrian Dantley, Darrell Griffith and John Stockton. One name he brought up Tuesday, though, "might surprise you:
"If I had one shot to be taken, to win the championship or to save my life, I would have John Drew take it," Layden said. "I really mean that. He was a great guy."
Then there are the regrets. Like most mortals, Layden has a few.Comment on this story
The biggest: "I regret that we didn't win a championship.
"But it wasn't from a lack of effort," Layden said. "I would like to have been able to walk away saying we had a world's championship in our pocket. But I think we did everything we could to bring that to Utah - except sell our souls. Maybe we could won it if we had done some deals to bring in some bad guys ... but we didn't do that. We did it the right way."
Which is why Layden says he felt so good on the early mornings at the Delta Center, when it was just him and the memory of Pistol Pete playing a little one-on-one.
"I'd shoot around, look up at the flags, the (NBA Western Conference) championship flags and stuff, and the floor, and I felt good about it," he said. "You know, you can't take 20 years of your life and just throw them away."