Delighted by the opportunity to be really teaching again, Utah Starzz coach Frank Layden couldn't wait for the 1999 WNBA season to begin. He planned team excursions to the movies, got tickets to a concert for his players and began a library of books for them, hoping to introduce them to his beloved arts.
He'd forgotten the long road trips on commercial carriers, the infuriating officiating, losing, the phone calls from player agents demanding perks he couldn't possibly give because they were strictly prohibited by WNBA rules, the long hours of two-a-day practices and film sessions, the time away from wife and family, the frustration of not getting a point across to players.In the first eight days of the campaign, all those things came together with a rush job trying to integrate three international players, two of them starters from last year's Starzz. Layden snapped at players, especially newcomers, for not learning quickly.
And then he realized it wasn't fun, even when winning. He resigned Monday, leaving things to assistant Fred Williams, now the third Starzz coach in less than two seasons.
After Monday's press conference, Williams directed a 90-minute Starzz practice at the Delta Center.
Players seemed mostly happy that Layden found peace, but center Margo Dydek began to tear up when talking about Saturday's incidents in which Layden berated her for not checking in as she entered the game (she said she had checked in) and for going to the wrong spot on the floor. She said he did not tell her what he wanted; Fred Williams said Layden did tell her. It was lost in translation.
Dydek felt Layden tried to publicly make her seem "stupid." Dydek is a bright woman who speaks five languages and interprets English for herself and Lara. She couldn't say any more, emotionally disappearing into the locker room. "She's very sensitive," said Williams, who later talked with her and said she would be fine.
"It's huge for him to know when to step down instead of dragging it out through the year," Starzz co-captain Natalie Williams said of Layden. "He always said from the beginning if he wasn't doing the best job he could he would step down. I'm happy for him. I love the support (he gave) to improve women's basketball."
She added, "It was too much. When you become frustrated constantly, you need to step back and say, 'What's wrong with this picture?' "
"You've got to support him for doing what he has to do," said point guard Debbie Black. "We'll move on. We're professionals. I'm happy for him. He's a good guy, and it's hard to do that -- just walk away." Black said she found herself trying to do too much on the court. "I wanted to do almost everything for him," she said. "Maybe we thought too much instead of played."
Third-year Starzz player Elena Baranova of Russia, the 1998 World Championships MVP who arrived from Moscow late on June 11, was a target of some of Layden's terse words. She had nothing but good to say about him.
"I am a little bit sad because Layden is a very good coach and a very good man. I don't know the reason he leave our team," Baranova said. "He talked things about life. I like him. He is for me like a grandfather who teaches us to live."
Of his terse words, Baranova said, "It's OK. I understand him. If I was coach, I would do the same thing. It was me." But she also said, "I understand just one half of what he was talking about."
Following the '99 European Championships in Poland that ended June 6, Baranova faxed a letter to Layden asking that the Starzz fly her fiance-interpreter and her ill mother to and from Utah for the season. It was a request he couldn't grant because of league rules. To keep costs down, the WNBA owns and negotiates all player rights and contracts. Layden said her request was reasonable but forbidden. The team paid a staff member to interpret for Baranova the past two seasons, but she said he had trouble interpreting some basketball lingo. Her fiance is president and coach of a Russian junior team and could interpret basketball philosophy.
Baranova was to arrive in Salt Lake City on June 10 but called to say she missed the flight, then arrived the next night. She did not dress for the June 12 season opener but started the June 14 game at Minnesota and June 17 game at Houston.
Dydek, a second-year Utah player, arrived in Salt Lake City June 8 with Polish teammate Krystyna Lara after winning the Euro title. Dydek started the Houston game but played just 14 minutes against the league's best team.
It offended some players who'd been in camp two-a-days for a month to sit while the newcomers started. Layden was short with Lara, Baranova and Dydek for not understanding the system. They pleaded fatigue and language difficulties.