In generally chewing out everybody on the team, he reveals his own ultimate game strategy—spelled out here for the first time anywhere—which rival coaches may now copy. The Layden secret: It's positively un-American not to go to the hoop. "We can't be fooling around out there in front of the U.S. flag," he tells the team. Is that pure enough?
Layden demonstrates: a little feint, then a swirl and a move to the basket like a giant water buffalo. "What am I talking, Chinese or something?" he growls. "I'm telling you to shoot. You've got to get the ball to the one man. Sheesh. You don't play defense. You can't rebound. How in hell do we ever win a game? I don't know."
But then, after watching the next series of plays, Layden dishes out warm praise and crisp pats on the fannies to several players. And from the sideline, it's perfectly easy to see two things:
1) Layden plays this team just as the organist plays the mighty Wurlitzer at the Radio City Music Hall. And....
2) The players love him for it.
And now it's free-throw time. Layden puts down his playbook, a red-leather-bound folder. On the cover it says "Radisson Hotel, La Crosse." And on the back it says "Do Not Remove From Hotel Room." He shuffles out onto the floor, fishing in the pockets of his baggy pants, then pulls out a dollar bill and lets it flutter to the floor. One by one, the players step forward: If they sink two in a row, they pick up the dollar. If they don't, the entire team must run the length of the court and back. This is a pretty tiring practice, and many of them miss, to groans from the rest.
This link between theater and sport, basketball in particular, has always dominated Layden's outlook on the game. It began taking shape at Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High, in the heart of the basketball-crazy neighborhood where he grew up. His mother died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by two older sisters and his dad, a tough, salty-talking former boxer whose attitude was, Layden recalls, "Hey, we all have to get behind Frank because he's got a shot at becoming somebody someday." By his senior year, Layden had hit 6'1" and 215 pounds. He was a feisty guard with theatrical flair. "Once my old coach, Phil Drucker, was asked to assess my playing style," Layden says, "and he put it this way: 'The kid can't play defense and he can't jump a bit and he shoots every time he gets his hands on the ball." But his style produced this arcane statistic: As a junior in 1949, Layden was also one of the hottest high school scorers in all Brooklyn, averaging 15 points a game.
More drama came in his last year at Fort Hamilton when a teachers' strike all but shut down the basketball program. Layden began doubling as student-coach and player in the Catholic Youth Organization. Not just for his own parish, which was legal, but for several parishes all over town. "He would use an alias for each team," says Barbara Layden, Frank's wife of 28 years. "He would pick the names of famous people out of the newspapers or the movies or the comics. This was in 1950, and he was Lash LaRue [an old-time cowboy star] on one team and Happy Daily on another and a lot of famous people on other teams, too."
Still, it led to a full-ride scholarship at Niagara, where Layden and Hubie Brown were roommates. And while the team did well, if not spectacularly, coach John (Taps) Gallagher saw something special in Layden. "In my junior and senior years," says Layden, "he asked me if I would coach the freshmen. I had sort of hoped to go on to become a lawyer. But I couldn't get accepted anyplace. I guess my basic mediocrity came out."
He's wrong, of course. It was more a case of a guy falling in step with his natural destiny. After graduating in 1955, Layden pulled some Army duty (playing baseball and basketball as a second lieutenant at Fort Monmouth, N.J.), then went on to coach at St. Agnes and Seton Hall high schools and later at Dowling College (then known as Adelphi Suffolk College), all on Long Island. He went back to Niagara in 1968 as head basketball coach, and in 1969 he became athletic director, too. In eight seasons, he had a 119-97 record with the Purple Eagles, producing one almost-champion, the No. 2 team in the 1972 NIT, and, along the way, introducing to the world one All-America, Calvin Murphy. So much for the college life. In 1976, Layden joined the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant to old pal Hubie Brown, and in '79 he moved to Utah as general manager.