SALT LAKE CITY — Frank Layden, the former coach and face of the Utah Jazz, picked up the phone one day and heard the voice on the other end say: “I’m looking for Frank Layden. Is he still alive?”
Yes, he is, albeit a little grayer, a little heavier, but as humorous, philosophical and gregarious as always. It’s been 15 years since he formally retired from the front office of the Jazz and 25 years since he stepped down as head coach, and yet he still is recognized everywhere, as much for his outsize personality, humor and graciousness as for his basketball exploits.
He recently returned from a monthlong cruise in the South Pacific in which the ship’s captain asked him if he would do an interview-style show for the other guests. “Sure, but do you think anyone will come?” he asked. The theater was packed. He’ll be walking on the streets of his native New York or down an airport concourse and people will call out to him, “Hey, Coach, how ya doin’?” The other day a man asked if Layden would pose for a photo with his family. When they were finished, he said, “Thanks, LaVell.”
“As the years go by, that happens more and more,” says Layden, smiling. “They know they know you from somewhere.”
He’s 82 years old and living a fantasy-camp retirement. Golf in the summer with his wife of 48 years, Barbara, and his son Michael; winters in sunny climes, usually Florida and Arizona, where he can take in baseball spring-training games; trips to New York once or twice a year to get his Broadway fix; annual trips to Cooperstown with old friends; outings with his grandchildren; speeches and emcee gigs for various events.
“I may be retired, but it seems like the opposite,” he says.
Layden has made Utah his home in retirement, which is surprising given his roots in the East, particularly his native New York. He has the means to live anywhere, but after 35 years in Salt Lake City, he never could leave. He considered Florida and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He chose the heart of downtown Salt Lake City instead, surrounded by malls, streets and people.
“This is a great place to live,” he says. “There are good people here, and they have been good to me. We have fun here.”
This is where he raised two of his three children, both of whom settled here. This is where he prospered and found a national stage and was embraced by everyone from fans to media and management. This is where he finds numerous golf courses and ballgames and cultural events, all more readily accessible than in, say, New York City.
He makes the round of local minor league baseball games — Salt Lake Bees, Ogden Raptors, Orem Owlz (he still sings “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Bees games). “When I go to a baseball game,” he says, “I go ‘whew!’ I lay back and enjoy it.” Before he flees winter, he sees Utah State, Utah, BYU and Weber State basketball games.
He’s a regular patron of the Hale and Pioneer theaters. He still takes in Jazz games. He finishes each day sitting on the balcony of his apartment, listening to the BBC. He goes to bed late, reading mysteries until the wee hours, and wakes up early.
“One thing I try to emphasize is it should be fun,” he said as he ate a sandwich in a Salt Lake bagel shop. “Anything you do. If you go to school, it should be fun; if you go to work, it should be fun. And then you work and each day there should be some satisfaction that you accomplished something.”
Maybe no one has ever had more fun than Frank Layden. He even made coaching in the NBA fun, and when it became something else — when his weight ballooned and he was dyeing his hair and he was becoming angry and bitter about officiating and finally looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw — he quit. Life was too short for that, he reasoned. He let his hair go gray, dumped more than 150 pounds, became team president and general manager and gave the coaching job to Jerry Sloan.
In reality, the daily operations of the team were handled by others — Dave Checketts, Jay Francis, Randy Rigby, Scott Layden (Frank’s oldest son), Sloan — while Layden served as the face of the team, a roving ambassador who gave speeches and worked the community on behalf of the team. It was a job for which he was ideally suited, given his wide appeal, his standup comic’s repertoire of one-liners and his knack for stories.
There is never a shortage of stories. Scott, now assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, once described their golf games for columnist Alex Rodriguez this way: "We get up on No. 1 and all I have to do is say, 'Dad, how's it going today?' And for the next 18 holes, I don't say a word. He just tells stories. Growing up in Brooklyn. Funny tales. It's unbelievable."
It all served him well. The late Larry Miller, the team’s owner, credited Layden for playing a major role in saving the team during the early years when it came close to folding or leaving town, with Layden wearing many hats as coach, PR man, promoter and hustler. Famous story: Fan asks Layden what time the game starts and Layden says, “What time can you be there?”
Layden has regrets, but if you’re thinking they are basketball losses and unrealized championships you miss the mark. The Jazz had a tough break, he says, but he’s not referring to the team's losses to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.
“It’s Mark Eaton,” he says, referring to the team’s 7-foot-4 center. “If he hadn’t hurt his back and had his career cut short. … For two years we lost to Houston and (Hakeem) Olajuwon (in the 1994 and 1995 Western Conference finals). We were better than that team. We could beat them. Mark could handle Olajuwon. We could’ve got one of those championships. Jordan was playing baseball. Then Jordan came back, and if we had had Mark we would’ve won one of those (against the Bulls), too. He was a big force defensively and an outlet passer.
"Look, we took the Lakers to seven games (in the 1988 Western Conference semifinals) and that might have been the best team ever, with Jabbar, Magic and Worthy. We gave them all they could handle. In the seventh game we never shot a foul shot in the first half. Someone asked me the next day if that was the toughest loss ever for me.
"No, my toughest loss was when I was coaching in high school. We were unbeaten and we lost in the first round to the last-place team. I had to walk into that locker room. That was the toughest loss. They’re not going to get another chance. I never feel sorry for the pros. They win every day when they get their paycheck.”
Layden was sometimes criticized for his ability to muster such equanimity after losses, but he never apologized for it. If his team gave its best effort, that was enough. “I tried to be a good loser and a good winner,” he says.
And that’s why none of the losses and foiled championship bids ranks as his biggest regret. His biggest regret is this: He wishes he had spent more time with his family during his professional career. He notes the painful irony that he was coaching everyone else’s kids, but not his own. During the four years that Scott played basketball for St. Francis University, Layden saw him play only two games.
“This is not dress rehearsal,” says Layden. “You only go around once, and some things you can’t get back.”
He made up for some of those lost moments. He took Scott to training camps, let him mingle with the teams and meet legends and get a behind-the-scenes look at the game. Scott wound up working alongside his father with the Jazz for a couple of decades, first as a scout, then as an assistant coach and finally as director of player personnel and vice president of basketball operations. Together they brought John Stockton and Karl Malone to Utah and built a team that was among the best in all of professional sports. Later, after Frank Layden had retired from the Jazz and Scott was general manager of the New York Knicks, he worked for his son as a consultant for the Knicks.
“To see him grow and get the respect, it was wonderful,” says Layden.
Layden’s retirement has enabled him to spend more time with family and friends, another reason he remained in Utah. He took his grandchildren to a movie the other day — he thinks there are 11 grandkids, but isn't certain. “I’ll have to ask Barb," he says. "There are a whole bunch of girls, I know that.”
He and Barb also have dinner with Sloan and his wife each month and maintain contact with a circle of friends from the Jazz years (he attends a few Jazz games each season, but don’t ask him for a scoop. “People think I have some inside connection,” he says. “The Jazz don’t ask me for advice and I don’t offer it. My knowledge of the Jazz comes from you. I read the papers. I listen to the radio.”)
Each year he travels to his alma mater, Niagara University, where he coached and played ball, to spend time with friends from the old days; each spring he meets another group of old pals at Cooperstown, New York, to wander the Baseball Hall of Fame and go to dinner and tell their old stories — or, as he puts it, "lies about how great we were."
“When I first moved out there, (former St. John’s coach) Lou Carnesecca told me, ‘Don’t forget your friends and where you came from,’ ” he says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
He has another regret: He wishes he had pursued theater in high school and college. He played basketball and baseball for the school instead. He was middle age when the theater department at Niagara asked him to play a part in a stage production of “That Championship Season.” He was hooked. In retirement, he and Barb spent a month studying theater at the University of London, and Layden took an acting class at the U. The Laydens also had acting roles in a production of “Love Letters,” which played about 50 performances and raised money for charity. He has done several commercials and had bit parts in movies (he still carries a Screen Actors Guild card). What he lacked in formal training as an actor he picked up from teaching and coaching, he believes.
“When you’re teaching or coaching, you’re acting, you’re communicating, you’re motivating people,” he says. “Think about those halftime talks. There were times I showed anger and got after a team, but I wasn’t really angry. I was acting. I wanted to make a point.”
Looking back, he says: “I wish I had expanded myself and done other things like theater in college and high school. I never would have done it for a living. It’s too hard. It’s harder to be an actor than a basketball player. But I would’ve done it in college. I get a kick out of being on stage. That helped me later with interviews.”
When he quit coaching, Layden did color work for TV broadcasts of Ute games and halftime shows for the Jazz. He received inquiries for a national gig from ESPN, but it would have required a move to the East Coast. He did two years of radio work for NBA broadcasts, but grew weary of the travel.
The truth is life simply isn’t long enough for a renaissance man like Layden, a voracious reader and devotee of theater and the arts, a baseball aficionado, a world traveler, a family man. It is easy to forget that he began as a high school history teacher, performing all the mundane duties that come with it — homeroom duty, study hall, marking papers, bus and lunchroom duty, teaching six classes, coaching three sports.
“I realized the gymnasium was the most important classroom in the school because the kids came to you,” he says. “They’d do anything for sports.” He never could shake the role of teacher. Even when he was the Jazz coach, he started a team book club and urged his players to return to school. He would give them books to read and later, when their reading assignment was complete, they would discuss them.
Given Layden’s rich life, it isn’t surprising he has been approached about writing a biography. He had an agent, a ghost writer and a publisher, but after meeting with the latter, Layden got cold feet.
“They wanted the inside story,” he says. “Who’s a racist, who’s gay and so forth. I concluded that if I wrote a book, I’d hurt somebody. I don’t want to do that.”
When Layden formally retired, Barbara announced, “It’s time to pay back.” By then she had already gone back to school, eventually earning her second four-year degree, this time in counseling. She counsels the indigent with substance-abuse issues and refuses to accept a fee. For his part, Layden rarely declines invitations to speak, whether they are high school basketball awards banquets or charity functions.
“You do these things,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do. Every day, everybody you meet, you try to make them feel better."
As Layden looks back on his life — the family, the career, the travel, the many friends, the adoring public — he arrives at this conclusion: "I've been fortunate; I've been blessed."