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It's been fun, Frank Layden

Grand old gentleman of the Utah Jazz has retired

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2002 12:40 p.m. MST

Frank Layden has retired to spend more time on the other things he loves. Frank Layden has retired to spend more time on the other things he loves. "You have to make life fun," he says. (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.
Frank Layden and Larry Miller share the spotlight one last time. Miller credited Layden for saving the Jazz franchise. (Kristan Jacobsen, Deseret News) Frank Layden and Larry Miller share the spotlight one last time. Miller credited Layden for saving the Jazz franchise. (Kristan Jacobsen, Deseret News)
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."
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."
Layden did funny, unusual things, too. He once fined Adrian Dantley 30 pieces of silver (citing the biblical reference) for ignoring his contract and holding out for more money. During a losing effort against the Lakers, he left the bench, walked out the door of the Forum and, while his team was finishing the game, ate a BLT in a hotel coffee shop.
His most famous coaching ploy occurred after the Jazz were blown out by the Lakers in Game 1 of the 1988 conference semifinals. Layden told the media the Jazz didn't have a chance against the Lakers. Fans and reporters were outraged that he was throwing in the towel. What they didn't know was that Layden told the Jazz they could win the series. They almost did, falling in seven games.
In a fraternity of trim men in Armanis, Layden was the class clown — suit rumpled, shirttail hanging out, tie askew, belly spilling over his belt. The problem was that Layden's clowning persona tended to obscure his talents as a fine basketball coach who possessed a keen eye for talent and a knack for working with and motivating players. He wanted to be known as a man of depth — which he is — not as a funny man.
"I never really looked at myself as a humorous person," he once observed. "But no one believes that. I walk into a room and people expect me to slip on a banana peel."
Layden's real secret to survival and personal success was that he didn't take basketball too seriously, and when he did he quit coaching — twice. As the team improved, the self-imposed pressure mounted. He overate and overdrank. Even the officiating bothered him, and the angry outbursts and fines grew more frequent. He coached the Jazz a little more than seven seasons, then gave the job to Sloan and became team president in 1988. In the end, he hadn't liked what he had become as a coach.
"When I quit coaching, I was dying my hair," he once said. "I weighed 325 pounds. Right after I quit, I started letting the gray come in."
A few years later he did something about the weight. He dropped his weight from 335 pounds to 160 in 1996, and has remained slim since then.
A couple of years ago, Layden became head coach of Utah's WNBA team, but he quickly fell into the same trap, taking the game too seriously, and quit again after only 15 games on the job.
"I was getting angry," he says. "Life's too short for that."
Layden calls his coaching career "an accident." If he had to do it all over again, he would be a lawyer. His real passion lies in the arts and literature. He took passages from his reading and left them on his answering machine, a different one each week. For example: "F. Scott Fitzgerald said, 'Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.' Now, what have you got to say for yourself."
Or: "I am ready to meet my Maker; whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter. Those are the words of Winston Churchill. Now, what have you got to say for yourself?"
On Tuesday, Layden left the final recording on the answering machine at his office. "The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes. Those are the words of Frank Lloyd Wright. Now I am waiting to see if Frank Lloyd Wright was right! Look forward to talking to you. Thanks for being our friend. We're retiring now. This is Frank Layden signing off."

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