SALT LAKE CITY — Back when the Jazz were outliers in a league of established teams, Frank Layden and Mark Eaton took a chance and made Utah their home. It remains so nearly four decades later.
Their friendship is lasting as the granite cliffs of the Cottonwood canyons.
This week, Layden was presented the NBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In typical self-deprecating style, he said his career reached “a high level of mediocrity” and concluded, “on behalf of all C students in the world, I’m going to take it anyway.”
Frank never needed a laugh track, but he can be equally serious and poignant. He passionately speaks to students about the importance of academics, seeking a career they love and serving their country. He quotes Jackie Robinson’s epitaph: A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
Frank means it because he lives it. He spoke three times to college journalism classes I taught. He didn’t ask for anything in return, except a bottle of water. Students were engrossed the entire two hours.
That’s not easy with a generation raised on smartphones.
Practically every time I see him, he asks if I’m still teaching.
“Put me down on your calendar,” he’ll say.
In a business that’s all business, the former Jazz coach always was a welcome diversion. When fans on the road would shout that the Jazz stunk, Layden would respond, “At least I didn’t pay to get in here!”
His most beloved line involves a fan calling to see what time the Jazz were playing that night.
“What time can you get here?” Layden said.
Few know his history better than Eaton, whom the Jazz drafted after an obscure career as an auto mechanic, followed by a largely unnoticed college basketball foray.
“He gave me an opportunity to play when a lot of other coaches maybe wouldn’t have,” Eaton said.
As both coach and general manager, Layden fashioned Eaton into an impenetrable wall and an All-Star center. The plan was to employ physical defense, overplay the wings and get easy points off fast breaks. John Stockton and Karl Malone arrived and things were, yes, off and running.
Especially important was that the team eschewed individual statistics. In Eaton’s rookie season, the Jazz went 30-52. The next year, with Eaton a starter, they went 45-37 and won the division.
When Layden became head coach in 1981, prevailing wisdom in the NBA was to take 15 shots a game, average 20 points, and negotiate a pay raise at season’s end.
“He told us if you stop competing with each other so much and start cooperating a little more, and trust each other, individual accolades will follow,” Eaton said.
Eaton’s book, “The Four Commitments of a Winning Team,” points out that no team has had four individual stat leaders in the same season, except the Jazz (Rickey Green, Adrian Dantley, Darrell Griffith and Eaton).
Thanks to his personality, Layden made all the hard work look easy. He starred in a sponsor video featuring himself in a bodybuilder shirt, smoking a cigar and jogging near the Great Salt Lake with the soundtrack to “Chariots of Fire” playing. But there was method in his madness. In 1988, the Jazz got obliterated by the Lakers in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. Afterward, he told players he was closing the locker room to the media. That was an automatic $10,000 fine.
“You guys are gonna shower and go out the back door to the bus,” he conspiratorially said. “I’ll tell the press the Lakers are the greatest team ever, and we have no business being out there.”
Players waited for the punchline, not saying a word.
“We were looking at each other like, ‘OK, he’s finally lost it,’” Eaton said.
But the coach followed up with this: “Then we’re gonna come back on Tuesday and kick their (expletive).”
The media went crazy over Layden’s “defeatist” quotes, but the Jazz came back to win Game 2.6 comments on this story
Eaton says Layden gets overlooked for his coaching skills — and his life-coaching skills — because of his comedy fame. But both are first-rate.
“My fondest memory of him was when I first came to town, he drove me home after practice a couple of times,” Eaton said. Layden inquired about his mother, and reminded him to thank his high school coach and tend to the things that matter more than basketball.
“I always had great respect and admiration for that,” Eaton said.
The NBA couldn’t agree more.