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Hear that noise in the background? It comes swelling from somewhere behind the radio announcer at courtside, an indistinguishable growl at first, then gradually building into cheers. The announcer, Hot Rod Hundley, the raspy voice of the Utah Jazz, is trying to do the intro to what he calls The Frank Layden Show (the title needs work), which stars none other than Layden himself, the coach and general manager of the Jazz. Hundley struggles to speak over the din. "Hoo-raaaaay," the voices are now yelling, "hoo-ray for Frank Layden. We looove Frank Layden. Love him."
Hot Rod finishes his opener and thrusts the microphone toward the coach.
That's when Frank Layden puts down the rolled-up program he has been using as a megaphone to create the roar of his imaginary crowd. And he grins like a huge, conspiratorial elf, maybe the biggest elfin all pro basketball.
Layden has other good stuff, too. Such as when he shakes off his customary slouch and draws himself up to his full 6'1", something he does occasionally. Then he'll do a rather large, 285-pound pirouette, his arms held slightly out.
"I happen," he says, "to have an absolutely beautiful body." He studies the reaction of his audience. It's usually disbelieving.
"The only problem," Layden says, "is that it's inside this one."
All right, just one more. "I thought I'd discovered the ultimate way to lose weight," he says. "I went on the Rice Diet. It's Chinese. You eat nothing but rice, O.K.? And it was working fine. Except that in the middle of it, I got this uncontrollable desire to fold shirts."
But enough already, which is another familiar Layden line. Things are not quite what they seem here; there's more going on than meets the ear. In fact, that rapid-fire series of one-shots delivered in purest Brooklynese is merely something to hide behind, a sort of Henny Youngman fortress from which Layden can look out owlishly at the world he has created. As it turns out, Layden is more accurate than he realizes: There truly is another person hidden inside that round, shambling body. Who knows, maybe two.
If there's such a thing as the spirit of bigtime coaching—and why not?—Francis Patrick Layden, 53, has come to embody it. After 30 years of teaching the game—10 in high school, 10 in college and 10 in the pros, where since 1981 he has been head coach of the Jazz—Layden has at last become the Compleat Coach. And even if the team wins this season's championship—which is, repeat after me, unlikely—he would still be the best-liked guy in the game.
Well, at least the Jazz actually made it into the playoffs the last two years after going 45-37 and then 41-41. "If you don't get to the prom," Layden says, "you don't get to dance with the queen." The fact that they ultimately lost in the conference semifinals both years didn't matter all that much; Layden had already given Jazz fans grander times than they ever believed possible, with teams that hadn't exactly been ordered from the Van Cleef & Arpels catalog.