Which is part of the Jazz charm. One season earlier, in 1982-83, the Jazz had finished a dismal 30-52, the team's best-ever mark since moving to Utah from New Orleans in 1979. Heck, the Jazz had never won more than 39 games in one season, had never made a playoff and had suffered through a changing cast of owners and five coaches since being launched in New Orleans as an expansion team in 1974. They were often just as funny as one of Layden's monologues, losers for the first nine years of their existence, finishing dead last in their division four times and next-to-last five. "Time was," says Chicago Bulls coach Stan Albeck, "when we'd see Utah on the schedule and chuckle, 'Hot damn! that's a road win for sure.' " Says Layden, "Time was when admitting to being the Jazz coach was like saying you were the lookout at Pearl Harbor."
But no more. Layden was named both coach and NBA executive of the year in 1984. "That was the year of the underdog," Layden says, "the Cubs, Padres and the Jazz. If World War III had broken out, Norway would have won."
Even before that season, in the same year that had nine coaching changes, the Jazz had signed Layden to a 10-year contract, the longest ever in the game. And when it was all over, Layden had also come away with an honorary doctorate from Niagara University, his alma mater, and a silver-gray Mercedes 380 SL sedan, a gift from team owner Sam Battistone. All this plus a starring appearance at a special NBA roast where Layden was introduced as one of the sandbags left over from Utah's spring floods.
One roaster, Pat Williams, the 76ers' general manager, offered Layden yet another new diet—chocolate-covered lettuce—and then repeated a tale from Lay-den's childhood. "Frank went out for baseball," he said, "and while he wasn't very good, it wasn't a total loss. The coach used him as a pattern to draw the on-deck circle." But later, Williams added a postscript. "Layden is the only coach in the league," he said, "where all the other coaches were happy for him and rejoiced in his success. Now that's unusual for this gang."
Layden has a slightly different, and typical, perspective. "Imagine it," he says. "For a few years there, I was the worst coach in the NBA. Not only that, I was also the worst dressed, the sloppiest, the fattest and all that. Listen, our booster club? By the end of the season, they had turned into a terrorist group. Then, suddenly, like overnight, I became a bleeping intellectual. People started to ask me my opinion on politics, religion. There was a little talk of my running for Utah governor. Isn't it interesting how smart I suddenly got in one season?"
"Layden is the greatest motivator in the pro game today," says Jack Gardner, nicknamed the Fox, retired University of Utah coach and Hall of Famer, now a Jazz consultant. "Remember, this isn't the richest team in the league [the Jazz's estimated payroll of $2.9 million ranks at the bottom in the NBA], and it doesn't have a lot of big stars. But Frank has a special savvy with the players. He'll pray over them, and he'll feed them emotional sugar when they need it. And he'll kick them in the ass when they've got it coming. That's what does it."
So now the world is waiting to see what might do it this year. "Well," says Layden, "at least we've overcome any psychological hangup about never winning. I think maybe we could win, urn, 46 games this year, tops, and say 36 minimum. Now that's not as much fun as going 63-19, say, but that's the challenge in it. We've done the final eight. Now let's try the final four."
Layden chomps on one of his four-a-day cigars, clenched firmly in the middle of his mouth, and grins conspiratorially around it like the NBA's biggest elf.
What a strange sight, how incongruous, this large and very soft man stepping ponderously through a basketball play at the top of the circle. He's got the ball, and his players swirl all around him. The ones guarding him put their hands on him lightly and carefully so as not to hurt him. "Now do you see what I mean?" says Layden. When he's this intense, his accent becomes even more unmistakable: "What I mean is, you gotta put the presshuh on the dribbluh, get it?"
This is in the Salt Palace, the team's home arena, where the ceiling looks exactly like the bottom of the descending spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Layden's a devout believer in basketball as the purest of all games—he insists that it's simple and there are no secrets. Indeed, "it's like the ballet," he tells a friend on the sideline. "A form of theater, if you will. What you do, you've got to do good; everybody in the audience is a bleeping critic. Listen, they've seen all the routines before; they know them by heart. Don't ever count on making a small mistake and the crowd not knowing it."