It's been fun, Frank Layden

Grand old gentleman of the Utah Jazz has retired

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 29 1999 12:00 a.m. MST

Layden will continue to live in Utah, dividing his time between St. George and Salt Lake City. A Brooklyn-born-and-raised Irish Catholic, he once seemed a strange fit for Utah, but he quickly adopted Utah and Utah adopted him.

"This is home now," he says. "I'll be around."

Now that Layden is gone, Jazz watchers want to know who will replace him, but the real question is, where do we apply? The second question: Could anyone really bring Layden's combination of wit, humor, perspective, grace and intelligence to the job?

"You've got to recognize that he had the persona to pull it off," Miller says.

Layden used all of his charms to keep the Jazz in Utah (with considerable help from Miller). A month after he took over as general manager of the team in 1979, the team moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. It seemed like only a rest stop at the time. They played some "home" games in Las Vegas, trying to win more support. Layden thought the Jazz would last maybe three years. "Maybe we should rent," he told Barbara. But Layden, who had watched his beloved Dodgers leave his native Brooklyn for Los Angeles, wasn't about to let the team leave Salt Lake City without a fight. He told Jazz staffers, "We may not be able to get anyone to come see us because we're going to win, but we can get them to come because they like us."

With that, Layden sold the team to the public. He gave 100 speeches a year around the state. He handed out trophies at high school banquets. He made silly, low-budget commercials. And he used his comedic gifts to keep people laughing while the Jazz lost game after game, stalling until the team could get its act together.

"Frank saved the franchise," says Miller. "He was the whole show when the team wasn't so good."

Layden hired himself as head coach in 1981, taking over a team that had never had a winning season (or anything close to one) in seven years of existence. In his third year the Jazz were 45-37 and made the playoffs for the first time, and Layden was voted Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year. The Jazz haven't had a losing season since then.

Layden also played a big part in making the greatest back-to-back draft picks in the history of the NBA, taking John Stockton and Karl Malone from obscure schools in 1984 and '85, respectively.

During his years as coach, Layden became famous for being funny. He later would say the humor was designed to deflect criticism of his poor team, but funny things just naturally came out of his mouth anyway. Layden could do an hourlong standup routine without notes, and by the time reporters were done laughing, they didn't feel like writing about how bad the team was.

"A fan asked me what time the game started," Layden told them. "I said, 'What time can you be there?' "

Layden kept the humor coming. On a player who wasn't producing: "I asked him, 'Is it ignorance or apathy?' The guy looked at me and said, 'I don't know and I don't care.' "
  • On winning a divisional title the same year the Cubs won the National League East: "It was the year of the underdog. If World War III had broken out, Norway would have won."

  • "When I came here people asked, 'How long will it take to win?' My answer was, 'It'll take seven years.' People said, 'Seven years! The good Lord made the world in seven days!' I said, 'Yeah, but you don't want a team that's in the shape the world's in.' "

  • "I don't ski; I want to be sick when I die."
Often Layden made his appearance — namely, his 300 pounds — the butt of his jokes.

  • "I was standing on a corner wearing a blue suit and a yellow hat, and three people pulled over and dropped film in my pocket."

  • "I stepped on a scale that gives fortune cards, and the card read, 'Come back in 15 minutes. Alone.' "

  • On comparisons to Pat Riley: "We're both good-looking and we're both Irish. The only difference I can see is that he buys his clothes and I find mine."
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