Kristan Jacobsen, Deseret News
Maybe the best way to remember Frank Layden is to imagine him on those early mornings when he sneaked into the Delta Center and shot baskets in the dark, alone. There he was, a white-haired, bespectacled man in his 60s, fantasizing just as he did in his youth about games and situations.
He might put himself on the foul line with the game on the line or fire a three-pointer at the buzzer. "Who are you playing with?" a Jazz player once asked, peeking into the arena. His answer: "Pete Maravich." This was Layden's habit during the last three years, shooting baskets before going upstairs to his office. This was the quintessential Layden, taking a moment to enjoy himself. He always said, "You have to make life fun."
Layden made it fun for everybody, and now the party is over. On Tuesday afternoon he retired as president of the Utah Jazz, 20 years after he joined the franchise. He retires with his fingerprints all over the organization, one of the best in all of professional sports. Layden, the grand old gentleman of the game, known for his mirth and girth (now gone), IS the Jazz. There's hardly a part of the team, from uniforms to players, in which he hasn't played a major role. A week shy of his 68th birthday, he retired to spend more time on the other things he loves visiting family, studying theater in England, traveling, reading, acting, take classes at the U.
Layden, the third key member of the Jazz front office to leave in the past few months, didn't want a press conference, but owner Larry Miller insisted. There was no way a man who meant so much to the community and franchise was sneaking out without any fanfare. This is the father figure of the Jazz, the man who saved the team almost single-handedly and played a big part in making it what it is today and he always did it with a smile and a quip. On Tuesday, he left the same way he came, making them laugh.
"Frank, you were such a big part of the Jazz . . . ," a reporter began.
"You mean because I weighed 300 pounds?" Layden interrupted.
The only thing no one could figure out is what exactly this guy is retiring from? Is he going to play less golf? Sing at fewer Buzz games? Do fewer charity gigs? Cut back on nights out at the theater? Stop being the adopted state treasure?
Layden has been Salt Lake's Man About Town since he stepped down as the Jazz's head coach 10 years ago, and maybe nobody this side of Rick Majerus ever carved out a better lifestyle. As a sort of professor emeritus and ambassador for the Jazz, he kept loose hours in the office, which left him free to roam the state and the country spreading goodwill. Along with LaVell Edwards, Layden is probably the most beloved sports figure in the state.
"I've got a nice life," he once observed. "How lucky can you get?"
As roving ambassador he was able to do the things he loved. He attended the opera, ballet and theater, his first love. He and Barbara, his wife of 42 years, made trips to England to take Shakespeare classes by day and attend the theater by night. He read voraciously. He and Barbara performed in a Salt Lake play and co-hosted a radio show. He sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," during the seventh-inning stretch at Buzz baseball games. He served as a TV commentator for local college basketball and football games. He made annual trips to Cooperstown, where he and his longtime buddies gathered to hit fungoes and talk of the old days. He gave speeches and made commercials. Somewhere in there he helped run the Jazz, too.
"I want to earn my keep; ask me, if you need something," he told the Jazz.
Finally, Layden decided he didn't want to be shackled by any obligations; he didn't want to have to be somewhere at a certain time, even if it was the golf course. "I've got a lot of living to do yet," he says. "Time is precious."
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