Maybe no one has ever had more fun than Frank Layden. He even made coaching in the NBA fun, and when it became something else — when his weight ballooned and he was dyeing his hair and he was becoming angry and bitter about officiating and finally looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw — he quit. Life was too short for that, he reasoned. He let his hair go gray, dumped more than 150 pounds, became team president and general manager and gave the coaching job to Jerry Sloan.
In reality, the daily operations of the team were handled by others — Dave Checketts, Jay Francis, Randy Rigby, Scott Layden (Frank’s oldest son), Sloan — while Layden served as the face of the team, a roving ambassador who gave speeches and worked the community on behalf of the team. It was a job for which he was ideally suited, given his wide appeal, his standup comic’s repertoire of one-liners and his knack for stories.
There is never a shortage of stories. Scott, now assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, once described their golf games for columnist Alex Rodriguez this way: "We get up on No. 1 and all I have to do is say, 'Dad, how's it going today?' And for the next 18 holes, I don't say a word. He just tells stories. Growing up in Brooklyn. Funny tales. It's unbelievable."
It all served him well. The late Larry Miller, the team’s owner, credited Layden for playing a major role in saving the team during the early years when it came close to folding or leaving town, with Layden wearing many hats as coach, PR man, promoter and hustler. Famous story: Fan asks Layden what time the game starts and Layden says, “What time can you be there?”
Layden has regrets, but if you’re thinking they are basketball losses and unrealized championships you miss the mark. The Jazz had a tough break, he says, but he’s not referring to the team's losses to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.
“It’s Mark Eaton,” he says, referring to the team’s 7-foot-4 center. “If he hadn’t hurt his back and had his career cut short. For two years we lost to Houston and (Hakeem) Olajuwon (in the 1994 and 1995 Western Conference finals). We were better than that team. We could beat them. Mark could handle Olajuwon. We could’ve got one of those championships. Jordan was playing baseball. Then Jordan came back, and if we had had Mark we would’ve won one of those (against the Bulls), too. He was a big force defensively and an outlet passer.
"Look, we took the Lakers to seven games (in the 1988 Western Conference semifinals) and that might have been the best team ever, with Jabbar, Magic and Worthy. We gave them all they could handle. In the seventh game we never shot a foul shot in the first half. Someone asked me the next day if that was the toughest loss ever for me.
"No, my toughest loss was when I was coaching in high school. We were unbeaten and we lost in the first round to the last-place team. I had to walk into that locker room. That was the toughest loss. They’re not going to get another chance. I never feel sorry for the pros. They win every day when they get their paycheck.”
Layden was sometimes criticized for his ability to muster such equanimity after losses, but he never apologized for it. If his team gave its best effort, that was enough. “I tried to be a good loser and a good winner,” he says.
And that’s why none of the losses and foiled championship bids ranks as his biggest regret. His biggest regret is this: He wishes he had spent more time with his family during his professional career. He notes the painful irony that he was coaching everyone else’s kids, but not his own. During the four years that Scott played basketball for St. Francis University, Layden saw him play only two games.
“This is not dress rehearsal,” says Layden. “You only go around once, and some things you can’t get back.”
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