Just like the first time he left, Frank Layden did it abruptly. It was early in the season, but the schedule stretched ahead, and he found himself dreading the prospect. So he quit, saying it was time to move on, that he wanted to spend more time with his wife, that he felt good about the decision.
"I'm at the stage in life you're all going to reach," he said Monday. "And that's when you buy a pair of socks, you know they're going to last you for the rest of your life."There were laughs all around. The man who gave us "NBA Bloopers and Blunders" was exiting, stage left, with the perfect gag line. The only things missing were the cigar and the fake nose and glasses.
If this sounds familiar, that's because we've been here before. When he resigned as coach of the Utah Jazz in December 1988, he left as one of the league's most quotable figures. But it wasn't all laughs on the inside. He informed Barbara as they were driving to a game at the Salt Palace. Both shed tears of relief. Eleven years later, the similarity is uncanny. So what if it is only four games into the season? So what if he only coached a total of 15 games? The man's never worried about keeping up appearances. Remember the plaid jackets he used to wear?
"I think this is all I can do," said Layden. "I've given it all I've got."
Why he chose to step down in early season, with the Starzz showing potential, is something only he and his team know for sure. His quick response is that time is precious, and former assistant Fred Williams is a capable successor. When Layden resigned as Jazz coach, he openly complained the travel had become a grind. He reiterated that point on Monday. He has often said basketball isn't the most important thing in his life; there are plays to watch, books to read, movies to see. In the past, he would spend a week in July attending the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City. As the Starzz coach, all he had to look forward to was another trip to Detroit.
The realization that he was again spending too much time and energy with basketball came over the weekend. He had filled the off-season with speeches and appearances. He put in countless hours scouting college games or working as a TV analyst for Jazz games.
And that was during his off-season.
Still, there were other factors Layden didn't address. Despite his contention that this was his most enjoyable coaching experience, he clearly wasn't having fun. This wasn't the comedian who fell on the court after being smooched by Morganna the Kissing Bandit. With the Starzz, you could watch an entire game and never see him smile.
He took over one of the league's worst teams, but a year later had things looking better. He added several excellent players from the ABL, making the team deeper than ever. Still, the Starzz are just 2-2 on the new season, which only makes them mediocre.
It is no secret Layden had problems with some players. Whether it was his coaching style or the players' attitudes is up to conjecture. Some wanted a female coach on staff. Others didn't like his angry remarks in the heat of a game, and privately felt he had embarrassed them. It was his first shot at coaching women, which may have been a difficult transition for both parties. Also, there was a generation gap. When Layden was hired, there were players who didn't even know he had coached in the NBA.
International players arrived late for camp and struggled with his system. One player, Elena Baranova, purposely missed a flight and was held out of the first game. For his part, Layden was angry and tense in the last week, and even stayed out of a practice session. But asked if there was a conflict with the players, he replied, "No, not at all. It's the same as the men, in that teams that have everyday relationships have challenges. When you have 11-12 players working together there are going to be happy and sad moments and disagreements. That's just the way it is."
If there was any serious conflict, the Starzz did their best to cover it. They walked in during Monday's news conference and stood somberly in one corner. Nobody stared daggers at Layden. Then again, nobody cried, either.
In any case, the combination of things finally built up and Layden was out the door. He knew the routine well. Because if there's anything he's learned over the years, it's that when the time comes, you make a clean break, you don't look back. And most of all, you figure out a way to leave 'em laughing.