One of the biggest reasons the state of Utah has a franchise in the National Basketball Association — one that is about to start its 43rd season in Salt Lake City when the Utah Jazz host the Denver Nuggets in Vivint Arena on Oct. 19 — is relaxing in a leather recliner in the condominium he shares with his wife Barbara high above the city he adopted 43 years ago.

Frank Layden turned 90 this year. “We’re getting old, we can’t stop that,” says the man who, speaking of things you can’t change, once quipped, “You can’t coach height.”

He turns in his chair, looks at Barbara and says, “She’ll always be 16 to me.”

He has an ailing back and uses a walker to get around, but the patter and the wit and the Brooklyn accent he imported with him to Utah haven’t lost a step. Frank, he sounds 16. Pull up a chair and prepare to be entertained. Every paragraph a story. Every sentence a punch line.

The kind of patter that could sell coal to Newcastle — and professional basketball to a small-market college basketball town in the 1970s.

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It’s hard to conceptualize with Vivint Arena full or mostly full even when the team sucks, chokes or tanks, with courtside seats going for $1,000-plus a game and a waiting list to buy them, with a franchise that sold for $1.6 billion two years ago (and that was just for 80%), with downtown streets named for Stockton and Malone.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Forty-three seasons ago, Sam Battistone, then the earnest but cash-strapped owner, brought the team to Salt Lake from New Orleans because he was a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and because pro basketball was no match for Bourbon Street, and not in that order.

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In the five years the franchise was in New Orleans they never had a winning season. Their marquee player was “Pistol” Pete Maravich who hurt his knee and lost his mojo. Their most memorable front office move was trading a first-round draft pick to Los Angeles for fading veteran guard Gail Goodrich — which is how Magic Johnson became a Laker.

They left the Big Easy in the summer of 1979 for one of the smallest TV markets in all of professional sports, a place where college basketball (these were the days of the Danny Ainge-led Cougars and the Danny Vranes-led Utes) owned the Utah sports scene more than anytime before or since.

It was into these circumstances that Battistone sent his newly hired general manager Francis Patrick Layden to convince the natives that Jazz in Utah was a good thing.

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Nobody mistook the cigar-smoking Irish-Catholic New Yorker for a local.

“One of the things I heard when I came here was, ‘You won’t last two months when they get your act,” Frank recalls, “and I said, ‘I’m going to do everything I can’ and I did.”

He was under no illusion it was going to be easy. “I remember answering the question when people asked, ‘What do you think about getting the Jazz job?’ and I said, ‘Well, the Lakers didn’t ask me.’ You don’t get good jobs, you get bad jobs, and you gotta make the most of them.

“One thing I never did, and I haven’t shared this with a lot of people, is I never worried about losing my job. That’s No. 1. And I never worried about how much money I made.”

Through the sheer strength of personality he made friends and sold tickets. He gave speeches anywhere and everywhere, with a disarming self-deprecating humor. His weight was a favorite topic and target. “I happen to have an absolutely beautiful body,” he would say, spinning his near 300-pound frame around for his audience, “The only problem is that it’s inside this one.”

A year into the Jazz experiment he added head coach to his GM title. By the fourth year the Jazz were in the playoffs for the first time in their history and Frank was named NBA Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, in addition to coaching the West team in the 1984 All-Star Game and winning the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award — a single-season quadruple honor feat that will last at least as long as Stockton’s assist record.

The next year, with Battistone out of money and out-of-state buyers expressing interest, local Toyota dealer Larry H. Miller bought the franchise.

Larry saved the Jazz from leaving Utah. Frank was why they were still here.

Layden stayed on as head coach until 1988, after which his No. 1 was the second to be retired by the franchise (Maravich’s 7 was the first). He stayed on as GM and president until 1999.

Evidence of the swath he cut during the Jazz’s first 20 years surrounds him in the condo he shares with Barbara. Behind him are paintings of Stockton and Malone, Jazz icons Layden calls “Ruth and Gehrig, you know what I mean.”

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He has stories for every piece of memorabilia — stories full of Layden-esque detail. One of them, about Malone, helps illustrate what Frank Layden meant and means to the Jazz family.

Here’s Frank in his own words:

“We had just lost when what’s his name (that would be Michael Jordan) made the tough shot (to beat the Jazz for the 1998 NBA championship). The following Saturday I’m in bed and I get a phone call. ‘Hey coach, what are you doing, I want you to see my new house.’

“I said ‘Barbara get dressed, we’re going up to Karl’s new house.’ So we get up there and he shows us the pool and the cigar place and the wine thing and another place where he has computers for his kids and all these things that’s wonderful. When we’re done and we’re leaving, I open the door and there’s a car out there with a big bow on it. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, I almost forgot, happy Father’s Day.’” 

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After a beat, Frank adds, “It was a Toyota. And Barbara’s still driving it.”

As has been the case ever since they moved here, Frank and Barbara are active in the community. They indulge their lifelong love of theater. Frank goes to dozens of Bees baseball games every summer, where he sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Harry Caray style, every time he’s asked — which is every time he’s there.

As for the Jazz? “We end up going to maybe one game a year,” says Frank. “Somebody will say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to dinner and a game?’ Otherwise we’ll watch it on TV.”

It seems the franchise may have moved on from a man whose name is in the rafters, a man you’d think would be paraded at center court every game. Because the truth is, Frank Layden wouldn’t be here without the Jazz, and the Jazz wouldn’t be here without Frank Layden.

A signed photograph of Frank Layden and Irvin “Magic” Johnson hangs on the wall among numerous other sports memorabilia at the home of Frank and Barbara Layden in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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