The 1983-84 Utah Jazz has redefined the term "new look." Coach Frank Layden, who ended last season weighing 280, dropped 70 pounds over the summer. Then the Jazz, whose chances of winning games last season were pretty slim—they were 30-52—became heavy favorites for NBA Surprise Team of the Year honors.
After victories last week over the Houston Rockets and Kansas City Kings, Utah's Midwest Division-leading record was 22-12, third best in the league, behind only Boston and Philadelphia.
If that isn't radical enough—last season the Jazz didn't win its 22nd game until March 3—try this one on for size: If the NBA All-Star Game were held this week instead of on Jan. 29, guess who would be calling the shots for the West team? Not the Portland Trail Blazers' Jack Ramsay, or the Los Angeles Lakers' Pat Riley, or the Dallas Mavericks' Dick Motta. Layden would be the man.
"That would be quite a thrill," says Layden, who until recently had been more noted for his wit and width than his coaching ability. "It would screw up my weekend socially, but I guess that's O.K."
And Layden wouldn't be the only Utah representative among the All-Stars. After missing 60 games last season because of torn ligaments in his right wrist, forward Adrian Dantley has already locked up the NBA Comeback Player of the Year award while averaging a league-leading 30.8 points a game. In the 116-111 defeat of Houston last Wednesday in the Jazz' Las Vegas home away from home, Dantley sank 28 of 29 free-throw attempts to tie Wilt Chamberlain's 22-year-old mark, set in his 100-point game, for the most foul shots made in a regular-season game. Dantley wound up with 46 points, one shy of his season high. But the Jazz is no one-man band. Substitute forward John Drew, who sat out 37 games last season while undergoing drug rehabilitation, at week's end was averaging 20.3 points per game; high-flying guard Darrell Griffith was leading the league in three-point goals while averaging 18.6 points per game; point guard Rickey Green was atop the NBA in steals (2.97 a game) and was fifth in assists (9.6); and Mark Eaton, the 7'3�", 290-pound center, was the No. 1 NBA shot blocker, with a 4.15 average.
"Before the season, many people had serious doubts about our players. Now we've shown that we're a much better team than we were given credit for, and everyone's getting his just deserts," says Layden, who since his weight loss through starvation diet is largely partial to food for thought. "People finally have to seriously ask things like, 'Isn't Rickey Green one of the best point guards in the league?'"
Although the answer to Layden's question is yes, until this season it was hard to take anything about the Jazz seriously. Since the team's birth in New Orleans in 1974-75, the Jazz has never made the playoffs. Last year's 30 victories were the most since the franchise moved to Salt Lake City in 1979.
Much of the credit for Utah's surprising success belongs to Layden, who has swung the high-scoring Dantley between small forward and guard while continuing to give enough minutes to Griffith. Add Green's direction and Eaton's improved defense, rebounding and outlet passing, and Utah has a fast-break offense that at week's end was averaging 120.2 points a game, second only to the production of the Denver Nuggets.
Layden must now be looked upon as more than just a sought-after after-dinner speaker. "That was my image—the fun-and-games coach—and I worked hard at it," Layden says. "My role was to make people forget how bad what they were seeing out on the floor was."
Before this season, the Jazz had to resort to gimmicks to draw fans to the Salt Palace. Last year, for example, $30 got you a courtside VIP seat as well as a pair of ducats elsewhere in the arena, which seemed like a good idea until security officials espied the VIPs scalping their extra seats.