What better candidate for a diet-food company pitchman than the old Frank Layden at 350+ pounds?

But he didn't get the job."SlimFast, the food people, talked about doing an ad with Tommy Lasorda," said Jazz and Starzz president and new Starzz coach Frank Layden. "I went to New York and met with them. And they said I was too heavy! Imagine the SlimFast people saying I was too fat. I didn't understand it.

"I said, `Gee whiz.' I said that I'd take the SlimFast, I'd lose the weight, and we'd get it on TV, and it would be great," said Layden in a WNBA media teleconference Thursday.

"They said, `But what if you don't lose the weight? What if you drop dead on us? You'll kill the company, and you'll kill the product.'

"So I said, `Wow, these people aren't willing to bet some money on me,' "

That was the last in a line of motivators, starting with the death of overweight baseball umpire John McSherry, that finally persuaded Layden to make the lifestyle change that has him healthy enough now, at age 66, to go back to coaching. "I saw him die," Layden says.

Also, a friend asked him how many people he knew older than 60 who weighed more than 300 pounds. "I went home and thought about that, and when I made the list, I was the only one on it," Layden says.

Layden, the meat-and-potatoes-and-pasta king who also like to drink, became a vegetarian, began exercising and drinking a lot of water, ate only at active times of the day and shed 180 pounds and 33 inches around the waist. "I'm not a laughing stock any more. People used to laugh at me, and they thought I was laughing with them, but actually, I was crying on the inside," he said.

"By the way, there's a spiritual side to it," Layden added. "I prayed very hard for the strength to do it. It's denial. I had to deny myself all the things I liked. One of those things was alcohol; one was dessert."

OFFICIAL BUSINESS: On the teleconference, Layden said it was more his bouts with NBA referees than concern for his health that made him retire as Jazz coach 10 years ago. "I let the officials drive me out of the game and, you know what? It wasn't their fault. It was mine. I couldn't handle it, and that was too bad. After I left, I found out that usually they were right in their calls."

TRADING PLACES: Layden was asked if the presence of himself and Orlando Woolridge, who was named Friday as the new coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, who play Utah in the Delta Center Saturday night, will bring more NBA coaching personnel to the WNBA. "I hope so," Layden said, noting K.C. Jones coaching in the rival ABL. "I think, yes, there will be people stepping into this league, and I think that will be terrific," he said. But he added he'd rather see more women coaches and that he thinks some day women will coach in the NBA. "I think that time will come. Maybe they'll start as assistants, I don't know, but why shouldn't they?" Layden said.

WELCOME BACK: Two things topped Layden's list in his Monday Starzz coaching debut in the Delta Center. "I looked up, and I saw signs saying, `Welcome back, Frank.' That was wonderful. That broke the ice."

The other defining moment was his players' joy in the locker room after beating Phoenix. "There was a genuine feeling of satisfaction. This is the way sports should be," Layden thought to himself. On Tuesday, when Houston visits, tickets will be $1 as the Starzz try to really welcome Frank back with a full house.

NEW HONORS: The WNBA is adding two postseason awards worth $5,000 each to the winners. They are for newcomer of the year and rookie of the year. The rookie award goes only to 1998 college graduates. The newcomer goes to those with other experience but in their first WNBA year, like Utah's 7-foot-2 Polish center Margo Dydek.

Other established awards are WNBA MVP, $25,000; All-WNBA first-team, $10,000, and second-team, $5,000; defensive player of the year, $5,000; and sportsmanship award, $5,000.