The gag line Utah Jazz President Frank Layden uses to illustrate how bad things were in the early years goes like this: A fan calls one afternoon and says, "What time is the Jazz game tonight?" Layden pauses, then answers: "What time can you be here?"

Whether the story is true is irrelevant. The struggles of the Utah Jazz were real. So real that the team came within a heartbeat of moving to Minnesota or Toronto, or anyplace else people wanted NBA basketball. Real enough to cause debt restructuring and ownership changes. And real enough to force them to trade a sure-fire All-Star, Dominique Wilkins, in order to get enough cash to keep the franchise afloat.But that was long ago and far away. As the Jazz enter their 12th season in Utah, they are among the rising franchises in the league; one that some say could even win the NBA championship. The Jazz have won over 50 games in each of the last two seasons and sold out 80 straight games. Next October, a new 22,000-seat, $66 million arena, complete with luxury suites, will be finished.

Championship or no, Layden says he'll never forget where they came from. Nor will anyone else who was there to see the awkward, lurching beginnings of NBA basketball in Utah.

The first year for the Utah Jazz was as nightmarish as one might expect. The five-year-old expansion franchise, which had never won more than 39 games and never been to the playoffs, fled New Orleans in hopes of making a clean break in Salt Lake City.

It was like leaving Beirut for Baghdad.

If ever there was a laughable franchise, this was it. Commentators and writers not only delighted in the ineptitude of the team and the shallowness of the operation; they jeered at Utah's keeping the name "Jazz" after the move. It was, they pointed out, as appropriate as rhinestones at a funeral.

Wherever they went, the Jazz got no respect. Layden was introduced at early banquets as the coach of the Utah Stars. Everyone in Utah seemed to remember the defunct ABA team, but had somehow forgotten that the Stars had locked their doors one night, never to return.

Almost before the Jazz moved into their Salt Palace offices there were money problems. The club was invited in the summer of 1979 to enter a float in the Days of '47 Parade, but the offer was turned down for financial reasons - the Jazz couldn't afford the $1,500 it would cost to enter.

Paying bills was a constant problem. When they made money, it immediately went to take care of an overdue invoice. Then they would turn around and charge services with someone else. Media guides were printed at a different place each of the first few years, because the previous printers hadn't been paid and wouldn't release the old page dummies. Travel and other services were paid off in season ticket packages. Office staffers were even asked to bring paper from home to print media game notes on.

Dave Allred, now the team's V.P. for Public Relations, was making $10 a game when he came on as an intern in 1981. Of necessity, Allred also found work as a night watchman. One morning as he watched television at 3 a.m., a Jazz commercial came on. "We were advertising `Jacket Night' and we were giving away these cheap plastic jackets. But the only air time we could afford was late at night," says Allred.

"The ad came on and (former media relations director) Dave Fredman and (team announcer) Hot Rod Hundley were on talking about the promotion. One of them was saying `Jacket Night!' and the other was saying, "Did you say `Racquet Night?' It must have cost us all of $50 to produce. It was s-o-o-o bad."

The same could be said of the franchise. Utah's first year in the NBA produced a miserable 24-58 record and attendance was low (7,821 per game). The following two years things worsened, as even fewer fans came. Layden instructed ushers and security guards to open the doors and let fans sneak in. "I said maybe if they liked what they saw, they'd come back and pay the next time," says Layden.

Utah had acquired Adrian Dantley from the Lakers in 1979 and Darrell Griffith - the NCAA's Player of the Year - in the 1980 Draft. But those two weren't nearly enough. Utah followed the awful first year with records of 28-54, 25-57 and 30-52.

Promoting the Jazz on their own merits was an impossible task. Instead, they based most of their promotion efforts on incoming players - Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, etc.

The Jazz's ineptitude did generate a certain amount of interest, in and of itself. Shortly after coming to Utah, Layden began receiving calls from middle-aged athletes who thought they could make the team. "We'd have guys 40, 50 years old fly in here. They'd say, `I saw you on TV and I know I'm better than what you've got. . . I've got a great set-shot,"' says Layden.

"But what was really a bummer," Layden continues, "was when a guy got cut from the team. If you couldn't play for the Jazz, you couldn't play for anybody."

John Brown, who lasted four games with the Jazz in 1979, was a case in point. He became so distraught at being cut in the middle of a road trip that he left during halftime of a game in Cleveland.

If there was any consolation, it was that the rest of the league was hurting, too. Before Bird and Johnson arrived in 1979-80, most of the league's calling cards had become dog-eared. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain were in the books. Kareem was making the transition from Afro-Sheen to Turtle Wax. Dr. J. was already cutting back on house calls. Bill Walton was harvesting kumquats. Michael Jordan was still in high school.

The league had the growing reputation as a haven for thugs and drug users. Utah, though tucked serenely against a a Wasatch mountains backdrop, didn't escape the fallout. Bernard King was traded after pleading guilty on two counts of attempted forcible sexual abuse. Terry Furlow died in a car crash with reports of alcohol and drugs on his person. Bill Robinzine died of carbon monoxide poisoning in what was an apparent suicide in 1982. And John Drew - who accompanied Freeman Williams and $1 million in cash to Utah in exchange for first-round draft choice Dominique Wilkins in 1982 - was lost for eight weeks during the 1982-83 season for violating the league's drug policy.

It all added up to trouble. League officials wondered aloud if Utah and NBA basketball belonged together. One night Layden sat at a pre-game meal with Phoenix G.M. Jerry Colangelo, who said bluntly, "Frank, just where are you guys going? What are the Jazz doing?"

Most officials believed the Jazz were waiting for someone to buy the team; a chance to move to another city or; the Grim Reaper.

Not surprisingly, many felt that any of the choices would be best for the league. When Dave Checketts told Boston's Red Auerbach that he had become the new Jazz Executive V.P. in 1983, Auerbach threw back his head and howled, "Do you know any good jokes? You'll have to be very good at telling jokes to get anybody to come to games there."

Several months before being offered a job with the Jazz, Checketts was asked by David Stern, then an executive V.P. for the league, what he thought of the franchise. Said Checketts, "It's the worst franchise in all of sports."

It was hard to decide what the Jazz were better at - losing games or money. In a stop-gap move, they announced plans to play selected games during the 1983-84 season in Las Vegas. Perhaps Las Vegas could bring in more fans (read: dollars) to the 22,000-seat Thomas and Mack Center than Salt Lake did to the Salt Palace.

But Las Vegas is a city built on tables, not courts, and the experiment failed.

Those unlucky few in Las Vegas who actually paid for tickets found them at a trailer that served as a ticket outlet. The Jazz used it because it was rent-free.

In the absence of cash they did what they could. They traded game tickets for everything from airline tickets to gym shoes to hotel rooms. Two-thousand season tickets were once traded for life insurance polices on upper management and Dantley.

Dantley, of course, was the team's prize possession. The most oft-told story of the early years had officials holding their paychecks until Dantley's cleared the bank. Dantley's contract stipulated that he be paid in large sums, six times a year.

Says Jazz veteran Darrell Griffith, "I've heard that story. All I know is my checks never bounced."

"Only me and Brad Barnett (then the team's controller) held our checks more than once," says Checketts. "We couldn't cash ours until his (Dantley's) came through. I didn't tell my wife, though. I had left a good-paying job and moved back from Boston, and now I was in a place where you couldn't cash your payroll check."

But somehow, the Utah Jazz stayed.

Despite themselves.

Layden, who has served as coach, general manager and now as president, was the constant through the years. He was offered many other jobs but refused out of plain stubbornness, even though he was the lowest-paid G.M. or coach in the league. "Actually, I've always kinda liked the underdog role," says Layden.

Layden seemed to revel in the team's lowbrow image. He compared himself to dapper Lakers' Coach Pat Riley by saying, "We're both Irish and we're both good looking. The only difference I can see is that he buys his clothes and I find mine."

"I remember the first time I saw Frank Layden," says Checketts. "I look out in the parking lot, and here comes the head coach driving this beat up Toyota wagon with the license plates falling off. It looked like it had over 100,000 miles on it. He gets out of this thing - it looks like some gypsy's wagon - and it was riding way down low, because Frank was real heavy back then. I thought, Oh no, what did I get myself into?"

Although the Jazz lacked cash, they had a fortune worth of free publicity in Layden. In order to divert attention from the grim situation at hand, Layden set about becoming the league's comic laureate. The only way to keep people from laughing at the team was to keep them laughing at him.

Layden appeared regularly in the "Quote of the Week" sections of newspapers and magazines. He explained that the reason he didn't jog was "because I want to be old and sick when I die, not young and healthy." He fell on the court when Morganna, the Kissing Bandit, bussed his cheek. He theatrically fined Dantley 30 pieces of silver for being a "Judas." He told a player who got only one rebound in a game, "Congratulations, son, you just got one more rebound than a dead man." He appraised his weight by saying, "In India they would worship this body."

Layden accomplished what he set out to do. The Jazz got publicity, and their fans laughed through their tears. However, most of the publicity was about Layden, not the team. His act become so popular that one night in Portland he discovered it was his name on the marquee promoting the game. "That's the first time I ever saw a coach's name on the marquee," he says.

As team president, Layden is now largely a marketing figurehead. He represents the team on the NBA radio network and makes several speeches a week. He visits hospitals and does television commercials. Layden is invaluable to a team that is rarely on national television or in national magazines.

Even so, Layden says the image he created as a coach may have hurt his career.

"If I changed anything, it would be my role as a funny guy," he says. "That wasn't my role in college or (as G.M.) in Atlanta. That was all here. I tried to be Casey Stengel to take the pressure off the team by making quips. But I think it hurt me. People wouldn't take me seriously."

Some did. Layden was the NBA's Coach and Executive of the Year in 1984. He also received the prestigious Kennedy Award for outstanding contributions to the community. But wherever he goes, he still elicits laughs. Fans recognize him in Europe and Italy and, he says, crowd around awaiting a joke. "In New York and Chicago people still say they remember me from the CBS halftimes and the `Bloopers' tapes."

Perhaps that will change. One thing is certain: With the addition of guard Jeff Malone to an already formidable lineup, the Jazz are nothing to laugh at anymore.

Eventually the Jazz became successful, but how? Was it Larry H. Miller's stepping in and buying the team, lock, Stock(ton) and barrel? Certainly his declining to sell the team for a reported $100 million gave the club added security.

Was it the arrival of mega-star Karl Malone in 1985? The vision of Dave Checketts? A community that desperately wanted to be considered big league? The steady guidance of Layden?

Probably all of the above.

The Jazz won their first Midwest Division title in 1984, and four players led the league in individual statistical categories. The next year auto dealer Miller bought out 50 percent ownership in the team; he bought the rest two years later, giving long-term stability to the franchise. Meanwhile, the Jazz steadily improved through shrewd draft selections, taking Thurl Bailey at No. seven in the 1983 draft, stealing John Stockton at No. 16 in 1984 and Malone at No. 13 the following year.

Layden says other factors included a population shift in Salt Lake City that brought in out-of-towners with a love of pro basketball. Also, he says, Utahns began to take pride in winning, thanks in large part to BYU's national football championship in 1984.

Those factors were coupled with the phenomenal rise of the NBA. Television contracts, both local and national, brought in badly needed revenues. With Magic, Bird, Barkely, Jordan, Olajuwon and Malone leading the way, the NBA suddenly became haute entertainment. It wasn't just a guy with a ticket and a beer. It was Arsenio Hall and Dyan Cannon, Live at the Forum.

"There became a mystique about going to professional basketball games," says Layden. "Jack Nicholson was there. It was dinner and then the ballgame in L.A. But it caught on here, too."

Indeed it did. Now there is a waiting list for front-row seats at the Salt Palace that go for $120 each. (Last year they turned away one fan who offered $25,000 for four front-row seats.) Officials had to cut off season ticket sales this year in order to allow a few fans to buy seats on a per-game basis.

The team looks like a title contender and Miller believes the new arena will ensure the franchise's success in Salt Lake City for years to come. It appears the days of opening the doors and letting them in free are long gone, lost with the fading memories of overdue bills and bad TV commercials, when the Utah Jazz were nothing more than a good laugh.

*****

(Additional story)

Layden's view

Frank Layden looks back at some of the more colorful names in Jazz history:

- Lucy Harris, who was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977, but was pregnant: "A two-for-one deal. There were 10 rounds in the draft and the Jazz got 11 players."

- Pete Maravich: "One of the few players who single-handedly carried a franchise. One of the few players in history who you would get up in the morning and say, I've got to get up and pay money to see him play. He, Michael Jordan and Dr. J. were in a class by themselves - Showmen."

- Billy "The Whopper" Paultz: "The ultimate pro. Also a good luck charm. In 16 or 17 years in the league, he was in the playoffs every year."

- Adrian Dantley: "A Hall of Famer. Best player the Jazz had until the Karl Malone-John Stockton era. In fairness to A.D., he got shuffled a bad hand. He was a great player at the height of his career, and he gets sent to the Jazz."