Frank Layden shares memories of bringing jazz to Utah

One of the main reasons Utah State has a franchise in the National Basketball Association — one that’s about to start its 43rd season in Salt Lake City when the Utah Jazz host the Denver Nuggets in Vivint Arena Oct. 19 — relaxes in a leather recliner in the condo he shares with his wife Barbara above the town he adopted 43 years ago.

Frank Layden turned 90 this year. “We get old, we can’t stop that,” says the man who, speaking of things you can’t change, once joked, “You can’t train height.”

He turns around in his chair, looks at Barbara and says: “She will always be 16 for me.

He has a bad back and uses a walker to get around, but the gab, wit and Brooklyn accent he brought with him to Utah haven’t lost a beat. Frank, he sounds 16. Grab a chair and get ready to entertain. Each paragraph a story. Each sentence a punchline.

The kind of role model who could sell coal to Newcastle – and professional basketball to a small college basketball town in the 1970s.

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It’s hard to conceptualize with Vivint Arena full or nearly full even when the team sucks, stifled or tanked, with $1,000 plus one-game fieldside seats and a waiting list to buy them, with a franchise that sold $1.6 billion two years ago. (and that was only 80%) of downtown streets named after Stockton and Malone.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Forty-three seasons ago, serious but cash-strapped then owner Sam Battistone brought the team to Salt Lake from New Orleans because he was a faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ. of the Latter Day Saints and because professional basketball was no match for Bourbon Street, and not in that order.

In the five years the franchise was in New Orleans, they never had a winning season. Their star player was “Pistol” Pete Maravich who injured his knee and lost his mojo. Their most memorable front office move was trading a first-round pick to Los Angeles for declining veteran guard Gail Goodrich — which is how Magic Johnson became a Laker.

They left the Big Easy in the summer of 1979 for one of the smallest television markets in all of professional sports, a place where college basketball (this was the days of the Cougars led by Danny Ainge and the Utes led by Danny Vranes) owned the Utah sports scene more than ever before or since.

It was under these circumstances that Battistone sent his newly hired general manager Francis Patrick Layden to convince the natives that Jazz in Utah was a good thing.

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No one mistook the cigar-smoking Irish-Catholic New Yorker for a local.

“One of the things I heard when I got here was, ‘You won’t last two months when they get your act,'” Frank recalled, “and I said, ‘I’m going to do whatever I can” and I did.”

He had no illusions that it would be easy. “I remember answering the question when people asked, ‘How do you feel about getting the Jazz job?’ and I said, “Well, the Lakers didn’t ask me.” You don’t get good jobs, you get bad jobs, and you have to make the best of them.

“One thing I’ve never done, and haven’t shared with a lot of people, is I’ve never been afraid of losing my job. It’s number 1. And I never worried about how much money I made.

Through the strength of his personality, he made friends and sold tickets. He gave speeches anywhere and everywhere, with a disarmingly self-deprecating humor. Her weight was a hot topic and target. “I happen to have an absolutely gorgeous body,” he would say, twirling his nearly 300-pound body for his audience, “The only problem is he’s inside of it.”

A year into the Jazz experience, he added head coach to his general manager title. By year four, the Jazz were in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and Frank was named NBA Coach of the Year and Manager of the Year, in addition to coaching the West team. in the 1984 All-Star Game and win the J Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award – a quadruple honorary achievement in a single season that would last at least as long as Stockton’s attendance record.

The following year, with Battistone strapped for cash and out-of-state buyers showing interest, local Toyota dealer Larry H. Miller purchased the franchise.

Larry saved the Jazz from leaving Utah. Frank was the reason they were still there.

Layden remained as head coach until 1988, after which his No. 1 was the second to be retired by the franchise (Maravich’s 7 was the first). He remained CEO and Chairman until 1999.

Evidence of the tape he cut in the Jazz’s first 20 years surrounds him in the condo he shares with Barbara. Behind him are paintings of Stockton and Malone, the jazz icons Layden calls “Ruth and Gehrig, you know what I mean.”

He has stories for every memory – stories full of Layden detail. One of them, about Malone, helps illustrate what Frank Layden meant and meant to the Jazz family.

Here is Frank in his own words:

“We had just lost when what’s his name (it would be Michael Jordan) did the heavy hitting (to beat the Jazz for the 1998 NBA championship). The following Saturday, I’m in bed and I get a phone call. “Hey coach, what are you doing, I want you to see my new house.”

“I said ‘Barbara get dressed, we’re going up to Karl’s new house.’ So we go up there and he shows us the pool and the cigar room and the wine thing and another place where he has computers for his kids and all those things that are wonderful When we’re done and we leave , I open the door and there’s a car over there with a big bow on it. I said, ‘What is that?’ He said, “Oh, I almost forgot, Happy Father’s Day.”

After a moment, Frank adds, “It was a Toyota. And Barbara is still driving.

As has been the case since moving here, Frank and Barbara are active in the community. They indulge their lifelong love for the theater. Frank attends dozens of Bees baseball games each summer, where he sings “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Harry Caray-style, whenever asked, that is. whenever he is there.

As for Jazz? “We end up going to maybe one game a year,” says Frank. “Someone will say, ‘Hey, do you want to go out to dinner and play?’ Otherwise, we will watch it on TV.

It seems like the franchise has gone from a man whose name is in the rafters, a man you’d think would be paraded on center court every game. Because the truth is, Frank Layden wouldn’t be here without Jazz, and Jazz wouldn’t be here without Frank Layden.

A signed photograph of Frank Layden and Irvin “Magic” Johnson hangs on the wall among many other sports memorabilia at Frank and Barbara Layden’s home in Salt Lake City on Monday, September 12, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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