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Douglas S. Looney
December 26, 1988
Coach Frank Lay den, who made a poor NBA team a good one, quit because the game ceased being fun
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December 26, 1988

Tired Of All That Jazz

Coach Frank Lay den, who made a poor NBA team a good one, quit because the game ceased being fun

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Layden may have contributed unintentionally to some of the rowdy behavior in Utah and other cities because of his colorful Brooklyn-honed vocabulary and his constant bantering with fans.

Especially painful to Layden was the booing inflicted on him by some home fans, particularly last year, when the team at one point was 18-22. "It hurt," Layden says. "A lot." Things got so bad, says Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley, who did a pregame television show with Layden, that "Frank didn't want to come out on the floor with all the fans booing him." So the live show became a taped show. Malone, asked last week about the boo-birds in Salt Lake, said, "My comment to those people is, 'I hope you're satisfied now, because you lost something that you're never going to get back.' "

The fact is, without Layden's unstinting effort, the team almost certainly would not have been as good as it was, nor would it even still be in Salt Lake City. Layden was, and is, more than a basketball coach. You have a group of five and need a free speaker? Call Frank. And there are very few local charities that don't have Layden's fingerprints on them.

The second major reason Layden quit is Adrian Dantley, which may seem strange considering that Dantley has been with Detroit since the start of the 1986-87 season. But before the 1984-85 season, Dantley wanted to renegotiate his Jazz contract, which still had a year to run at $550,000. He refused to come to training camp until it was done. Layden, taking a firm stand, said that inasmuch as he had a valid contract, Dantley would have to play, and then discussions could begin. Dantley missed camp, nine preseason games and six regular-season games. He showed up when Sam Battistone, then the club's owner, undermined Layden by acceding to Dantley's demands. Last week Battistone admitted, "I'm sure it was difficult for Frank."

Checketts says Layden "was never the same" after that. A year later the Jazz traded Dantley. Most Jazz insiders have little doubt that the Dantley deal was the beginning of the end for Layden, who felt he held the moral high ground and that it was ripped from under him. Current owner Larry Miller says that the Dantley experience "soured" Layden on the business aspects of pro ball.

The third principal reason Layden left is that he is, in Checketts's words, "the ultimate underdog." When Utah improved to the point of being considered a title contender, that was foreign territory for Layden. "Frank's philosophy is that it's better to surprise than disappoint," Checketts says.

After all, when Layden was appointed head coach at Seton Hall High School in Patchogue, N.Y., the school had had six losing seasons. He made it a winner. When Layden went to Niagara University in Niagara Falls, the Purple Eagles had had five mediocre seasons. He made them a winner, too. And years later, there he was, the Irish Catholic Democrat—if not an underdog, certainly an outsider—drinking and swearing in straitlaced, Mormon, Republican Salt Lake City. "At our parish we call the bingo numbers in Latin so the Mormons can't win," Layden says. Getting rid of Dantley, of course, made Layden more of an underdog. "If Frank just let Dantley sit, he could say, 'I don't have my best player, but watch us fight back,' " Checketts says. " 'You've got me, you don't need him. Somehow I will win with this group of misfits.' "

But the Jazz players are misfits no longer. Last season they carried the Lakers to the seventh game in a dramatic second-round Western Conference playoff series. Anything less than beating the Lakers next spring will be considered a shortfall. Jack Ramsay, the second-winningest (864-783) coach in NBA history, behind Red Auerbach, knows all about expectations. "Eventually they take their toll on your emotional reserves," says Ramsay, who resigned after his Indiana Pacers got off to an 0-7 start this season. Layden agrees with Ramsay: "If I had stayed, they might have been hanging me from the ceiling of the Salt Palace instead of championship banners." Layden may like being an underdog, but, obviously, that doesn't mean he likes to lose.

For all these reasons Layden had grown weary. Last August, Miller, Checketts and Layden agreed that this would be Layden's last season as coach. "Being a lame duck makes you lose your enthusiasm," Layden says. In truth, he knew on the day that training camp opened that he wouldn't make it all the way through the season. "I just didn't have the burning desire anymore," he says. He also was troubled by Chicago Bear Mike Ditka's heart attack and by the sieges that veteran NFL coaches Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Don Shula are under. "At my age, you either get sick or get fired," says Layden.

Layden doesn't blame burnout for his decision: "That is a cop-out—my job wasn't important enough to get burnout." Nor does he blame travel: "Oh, sure, it was hard having to fly first class, have a martini, be driven to the best hotel in town, then struggle up to a suite on the top floor. It's awful."

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