Frankly Speaking - Installing a Winning Attitude
Originally published in Utah Jazz HomeCourt Magazine in November 1995.
Installing a Winning Attitude
by Frank Layden
When it comes to the start of the season, and what you do to prepare, Vince Lombardi put it very well when he said that losing and winning are not a sometimes thing. If you tolerate losing in the preseason, then you’re liable to become a loser. So, right from the beginning, you want to instill a winning attitude.
There have been different theories on whether we should train at home in Salt Lake City and get the players used to the local atmosphere; let them look for apartments and get settled; or if we should go out of town. We’ve done both. My personal feeling is that I like to go away. I like to be in an academic atmosphere of a college campus. I like the small towns. I think the players have less chance of getting in trouble, and I think that when they leave their loved ones, and what I call the ‘peripheral people,’ behind, they can get down to work. By going away to a college campus, you usually can have classrooms and show films and have an excellent facility to train in. I think isolation is very important because you have to focus on what you goals are, and there has to be tremendous concentration.
One of the things I always tried to do was get the young players in early. I think it’s important for them to understand the nomenclature, the terminology. Basketball is a universal language, but guys coaching in high school are going to use different terminology than coaches at the college level, or in the pros. In the pros, there are a lot of new terms and there are a lot of new rules, and the meshing of personalities is very important.
I remember a very interesting incident one season when I knew we were going to have a good team. We were at Dixie College in St. George and had ended practice. I had the players all around me, and I was telling them what the schedule was for that evening, and what we were going to work on. One of our rookies was talking to another rookie, harmlessly chatting about where they were going to go to lunch. Thurl Baily, a veteran, looked at them and said, “Listen to what the man has to say. He’s going to help us win.” When I heard that, I knew we were going to have a good team. This was a veteran stepping forward. We’ve been very fortunate to get old players who have been leaders; who have conducted themselves in a way that shows that the Jazz are very serious about the business of basketball.
Most teams have “rookie traditions” which I think are good. A rookie, no matter how much confidence he has, or how high he was drafted, or how much money he’s making, still comes into an experience that he has probably waited for all of his life. He’s in an atmosphere that’s foreign to him, with new coaches and new teammates, and he’s coming into a different game. So I think the traditions break the tension between the veteran players, coaching staff and the rookies. Some of the traditions include carrying the luggage of the veterans and helping the trainer with the equipment. Another tradition is when a rookie is in the training room getting taped, a veteran can come in and kick him off, with the veteran getting priority on taping. At any time, a veteran goes before a rookie. One of the funniest things that I’ve seen done, and something they’ve done with a lot of the Jazz rookies, is that a rookie is named honorary captain before an exhibition game and when the team is introduced, the veterans indicate to the rookie that the captains go out first. They give the rookie the ball, he’s expecting to lead the team out, but no one else follows and he ends up going out to the middle of the floor by himself. Then he realizes what a jerk he looks like out there on his own. We have a tradition at the end of the training camp where we have a party and make the rookies sing their school songs. That means a lot of them have to remember where they went to school, and then have to find out what their school song is! With the exception of Thurl Bailey, I don’t think we’ve ever had a rookie with the Jazz who knew the whole song, and/or had a good voice. At that time the rookie knows he has made the team.
When John Stockton came here, the players liked to play jokes on him. We had guys like Billy Paultz and Rich Kelley and other veterans like them on the team. The coach’s seat on the bus, in all sports, is always the right front seat. Even now, Jerry Sloan sits there, and no matter who else gets on the bus – myself, Larry H. Miller, anyone – we always sit in another seat because that’s the coach’s seat by tradition. When I was coaching, I got on the bus as we were getting ready to go to a practice and there was John Stockton sitting in the right front seat. Now, I immediately knew what was going on, because I could hear the players in the back of the bus kind of laughing. Stockton was all dressed up, with a tie and a shirt on, and we were just going to a scrimmage. I said, “What are you doing in my seat?” and he said, “The other players told me this is where I should sit.” He got that from the captains, Paultz and Kelley, who were not only teammates, but also a pretty good comedy team. So think I said, “And what are you doing all dressed up? You look like you’re a little parochial school kid.” And he said, “Well, that’s what I hear, too – that rookies had to wear a jacket and a tie.” I threw him off the bus, and we started to drive off without him, but then we stopped and got him back on.
Billy Donovan, the great three-point shooter from Providence, was with us one preseason, and at that time, we had the big “Chocolate Thunder,” Darryl Dawkins, who was also a great kidder. Well, Darryl drove this kid nuts. He would call up the front desk and have them change Billy’s wake-up call, or have them wake him up three hours early and tell him coach wanted to see him. Then, when Billy would go down to the lobby all dressed at four o’clock in the morning, no one would be there. Billy used to be late all the time, so, just as he would get down from his room and get to the bus, we would pull out and leave him standing in front of the hotel. You can imagine that, as a rookie, he was probably ready to have a heart attack, trembling at missing the bus. But we’d go around the block and pick him up. He’s done well for himself. He’s the new head basketball coach at Marshall University, and he’s one of the youngest head coaches in Division I.
We had another interesting player by the name of Keith Webster, son of a college coach up in Connecticut, who we drafted in the seventh round out of Harvard in 1987. We brought him in and he was terrific. Our public relations director at the time, Bill Kreifeldt, introduced him once as being from Howard University because Bill couldn’t believe a player this good could come out of Harvard and play in the NBA. In the last game of the exhibition season, I started him against the Bulls. He played very, very well, and he should have made our team. But we let him go because we had signed some other players to guaranteed contracts, and he was a victim of circumstances. I get letters from him to this day, and I know that he’s very proud of the fact that he got a shot in the NBA, even though he never got any farther than getting per diem.
I remember another occasion when we were training in St. George. I got the players all dressed and told them that we were going for a secret workout. We rolled out of town on the bus and we went to Mesquite, Nevada. Our trainer, Don Sparks, had arranged for a place for the players to get swimsuits, and some of them went swimming and some of them gambled. They were expecting a hard day of work, and instead we wanted to break the tension and just take a day off. The basketball playoffs were going on and some of us sat around watching games. Then we had a big meal, got back on the bus and returned to St. George around midnight. The players had some fun and so did the coaches.
I feel sorry for the rookies because all of their lives they have gotten everything they’ve wanted, and suddenly, they find themselves in a situation where they’ve got to compete day in and day out. It’s a frightening experience for them, so I think a little humor, a little fun, helps. I also think a little humor, a little fun, helps. I also think how a player handles the ribbing shows his character. I really believe you have to have a sense of humor. You think of some of the guys in the league – the trash talker, the jerks – they very seldom have a sense of humor. I’ve seen how rookies handle the kidding and if they’re surly and can’t get into the spirit of it, you’re able to read into their character a little bit. Frankly, it’s had something to do with how mature they are.
The other important thing that happens during training camp is that it’s a chance for all of our scouts and coaches, the owner and the general managers to get together and get to know what’s going to happen that year. Also, reality starts to set in, because I think you can evaluate just how good your team is going to be. You know if it’s a team that’s going to be able to contend for the championship, or if it’s a team that’s going to struggle to make the playoffs. I’ve been in both situations. I’ve started camp when I know the team would never be in the playoffs. Then on the other hand, I’ve had teams that I thought had a shot at going all the way.
I always thought there should be fun, like having the rookies carrying the veteran’s bags or rookies singing their school song at the dinner after the last player cut was make. I liked traveling on buses. I liked the idea that we would be playing in small towns, and I liked seeing the players work really hard because no matter how good they were, they still weren’t sure what their position was with the coach and with the team. In fact, in all my professional basketball experiences, I enjoyed preseason camp and exhibition games more than anything else.