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Moments before the Utah Jazz and the Celtics squared off Wednesday night in Boston, Frank Layden said, "We'll win." Layden was making his prediction—an erroneous one, it turned out—2,500 miles away in a Palm Desert, Calif., sports bar. Layden, who over 10 seasons—as general manager and coach—had built and coached the Jazz from nothing into a major NBA force, was staring up at the big-screen TV at one of the few Jazz games he hadn't seen in person since 1981.
When it became obvious that the Jazz would be whipped in Boston (final score: 112-104), Layden said of his former players, "They look a little sluggish. But that's only because they've been celebrating ever since I left." A guy at the bar laughed and said, "The NBA needs more guys like you."
"You're right," Layden responded. Then Layden, who was vacationing in Southern California for a few days before he would return to Salt Lake City to assume his new duties as president of the Jazz, left at the half in search of a plate of rigatoni.
The 56-year-old Layden—who had guided Utah to five straight playoff berths and had made the Jazz one of only six current NBA teams to go .500 or better for five straight seasons—stunned his team on Dec. 9 by suddenly resigning as coach. He quit even though this club was arguably the best he had ever had. Utah was atop the Midwest Division with an 11-6 record when he walked, but as of Sunday the Jazz, now coached by Jerry Sloan, had lost three straight road games and was 13-10, in fourth place.
Why did Layden quit when everything seemed to be going so well? "The game actually consumes you," he says. "You are no longer in charge of your life. After a while, the ball dribbles you. I decided I'd have more fun hitting golf balls in Palm Springs."
Says Jazz general manager Dave Checketts ruefully, "Finally, at last, we have built a team that has credibility and respectability, and the sucker bails out on me." Karl Malone, the Jazz's All-Star forward, told SI's Steve Rushin, "Frank is one of the greatest coaches and motivators in the game, and he just hangs it up. I already miss him. I dedicate the rest of my career to him." The Mailman is now wearing basketball shoes with FRANK printed on each heel.
For those digging a little deeper into why Layden quit, he provided some clues. Above all else, there was the matter of abuse from the fans. Layden tried to play this down, saying it was only one factor, but he admitted, "There is something happening with fans. There is a viciousness coming out. I don't know if it's because of the high salaries, the high price of tickets. But it's a little scary." Layden, who was making $250,000 a year, says he was spat upon at least half a dozen times in his eight seasons of coaching, most recently during a Dec. 3 game in Sacramento. Often he is the butt of jokes about his weight. He weighs around 315 pounds—"It just sort of snacked up on me," he says—and would not be svelte at 200. "You fat——" was often aimed at Layden. "I am heavy," Layden says. "Hell, I'm fat. But does that mean I don't have feelings? Does this mean I am supposed to accept verbal abuse?"
Layden's wife, Barbara, says, "One night Frank came home and asked me, "What happened to the dignity I had in this wonderful game? I'm so unhappy." Fans are really cruel. I just can't imagine getting so upset that you would spit on someone over a game."
Sadly, abuse by fans may be on the rise. Laker general manager Jerry West says, "It has gotten out of control. Until it stops and we get some reality back into the game, you are going to see more and more coaches doing what Frank did." Checketts says, "I shudder when I hear some of the things they yell."
Time was, fans cheered for the home team. Now increasing numbers of them seem to be going to events mainly to berate the home team and its coach should the team perform poorly. At Alabama a rock was thrown through the office window of football coach Bill Curry after a loss to Mississippi. Says Curry, "Sometimes it's not even good enough anymore to win. You have to look good doing it."