For Frank Layden, the 2019 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award means ultimate validation

Known for his self-effacing humor, Layden was a disciplined competitor

TORONTO — Frank Layden was best known during his NBA coaching days as a not-so-distant relative of baseball’s Max Patkin, ostensibly the head coach of the Utah Jazz but famous more so as a clown prince of basketball.

At a time in the 1980s when the Lakers’ Pat Riley was turning the NBA sideline into a runway for GQ models in Italian suits, Layden was keeping it as real with the Utah Jazz as a thrift store and the Borscht Belt. Heck, even Layden himself would crack of the impeccably dressed and coiffed Riley: “He buys his clothes. I find mine.”

And yet, with Layden being named 2019 recipient of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award presented by his peers in the National Basketball Coaches Association, his long and varied career in basketball gained ultimate validation.

This isn’t the Friars Club we’re talking about, that fraternity of comedians known for their bawdy roasts; these are serious X&O men who have honored previous winners — Jack Ramsay, Lenny Wilkens, Tom Heinsohn, Al Attles, Dick Motta, Jerry Sloan and Riley, among others — for their basketball achievements and acumen.

The award is named in honor of the former Detroit Pistons coach and two-time NBA champion, and is selected by a committee that includes respected NBCA members Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Billy Cunningham, Bernie Bickerstaff, Joe Dumars, Donnie Walsh, Riley and Wilkens.

That’s why it means so much to Layden, whose resume already earned him induction into seven assorted Halls of Fame in his past. The one in Springfield, Mass., hasn’t called, but winning the Daly award sounds like the next best thing to a man who, somewhere inside that soft, round body that longtime NBA fans remember, hid a driven, disciplined competitor.

It’s like Bill Murray getting his Oscar nomination for “Lost in Translation,” no matter how loudly moviegoers howled at “Ghostbusters.”

Leave it to Layden, though, to revert to form. The presentation was scheduled to take place before Game 2 of the 2019 Finals Sunday at Scotiabank Arena.

“I don’t really believe I deserve this award,” Layden, 87, said upon learning of the honor. “But having come from Brooklyn and having reached a high level of mediocrity in the coaching profession, on behalf of all the C students in the world I’m going to take it anyway.”

It was the second most impressive moment of Layden’s weekend — he and wife Barbara celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary Saturday — but it validated his life, in fact their lives, in sports, in coaching and in teaching.

Layden was NBA Coach of the Year in 1984

Scott Layden, the couple’s oldest son and currently general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said the Daly award reminded of the 1983-84 postseason, when his father was voted NBA Coach of the Year, NBA Executive of the Year and recipient of the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award all at once.

Layden, who coached the Western Conference All-Stars that season, became the first person to win the Coach and Executive awards in the same year. He still is one of only four — with Red Auerbach, Larry Bird and Riley — to receive both in their career.

“I was so proud of him and excited for him,” said the son, 25 years old at the time, “because it accentuated him as more than just a funny guy who was a coach. There was so much substance to him in how he is as a leader, how he is as a person and how he is someone who cares about people.”

After Layden’s decorated season, longtime Philadelphia and Orlando exec Pat Williams said: “Layden is the only coach in the league, where all the other coaches were happy for him and rejoiced in his success. Now that’s unusual for this gang.”

Peer validation is important to most of us, but in a coach’s case, player affirmation matters even more. Layden seems to have checked that box, too.

“Coach Layden joked a lot and people took his joking as ‘maybe he wasn’t good at coaching.’ I beg to differ,” said Karl Malone, the Jazz’s Hall of Fame power forward. “He was an unbelievable coaching mind. But no matter what he did as a coach, as a husband and a father and a best friend, coaching was just a blip on the radar.

I absolutely love Coach. He’d jump your ass when you needed it, and he was blatantly honest. Like ‘Some of you guys should back up to the pay window. You’re [bleeping] stealing!’ To me, when you’re straight up with me and hit me right between the eyes, that’s what I love and that’s what he did.”

Or as NBA coach-turned-broadcaster Hubie Brown said: “He coached the way you’re supposed to coach.”

Brown would know. The two men met as freshmen athletes at Niagara University in 1951, where they played basketball and baseball with fellow future NBA coach Larry Costello. By their junior season, coach John (Taps) Gallagher convinced Layden to take over as coach of the school’s freshmen squad.

That led to a career path that, after serving in the military (and running an all-Army hoops tournament) at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, saw Layden coach in high school and college, eventually at his alma mater from 1968 to 1976. His most notable player during that time: Calvin Murphy, who became a Naismith Hall of Famer with the Houston Rockets.

He coached the way you’re supposed to coach.

Hubie Brown

Brown, who broke into the NBA with Costello in Milwaukee, was hired in 1976 by the Atlanta Hawks and called Layden to be his assistant. On the limited staffs in those days, the lone assistant would handle advance scouting, so Layden frequently used New Orleans as his base to scout upcoming Hawks opponents. He built some friendships with Jazz personnel and wound up in 1979 being approached by that rag-tag team about a job.

The first hitch: He was asked whether he preferred to be coach or general manager. Layden’s instinct was to say, “Both.”

“Red Auerbach told me, ‘If you want to have success in the pros, you’d better be the guy who signs the checks.’ The players will have respect for you then,” Layden said a few years ago in a podcast for the Jazz’s Web site.

“I told them, ‘This team was awful. You could hire Johnny Wooden, it wouldn’t make a difference. This is going to take an overhaul, this is going to some patience. So I’ll take the job as general manager. It’s too nerve-wracking to be a coach here.’ But I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to get players and scout and everything else.”

The second hitch in Layden’s job switch was the Jazz’s relocation from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in the offseason of 1979. It was a bad team getting worse when it moved, and simply getting fans into the old Salt Palace arena was a priority and a chore.

So they sold some tickets for as little as $1.50. Ushers were instructed to open the arena doors after halftime to “let in anyone who wanted to wander in,” Layden said, with the hope they might come back as paying customers.

And that urgency to market the team launched Layden as a busy ambassador, selling the sport, the league and the franchise throughout the region through speaking engagements and media appearances. The only pro basketball tradition in the Utah area had come via the ABA Utah Stars from 1970 to 1976.

That meant jokes, that meant one-liners (“We’re America’s team. America just doesn’t know it.”) Anything to get fans’ feet in the Jazz’s doors. He dialed up his humor after he replaced Tom Nissalke, the last Stars coach, on the Jazz sideline in December 1981.

“We weren’t very good so if I could slip on a banana and fall on the floor and people remembered it and it helped to bring them back, then so be it, ya know?” Layden said after Utah gained respectability.

His wisecracks made him a popular interview around the league, as instantly recognizable as his frame that ballooned beyond 300 pounds for much of his coaching tenure. Among them:

— “Time was when admitting to being the Jazz coach was like saying you were the lookout at Pearl Harbor.”

— Greeting writers from the East Coast: “You must be glad to breathe some air you can’t see.”

— Explaining why one of his players walked off the bus backwards: “He heard someone say, ‘Let’s grab his seat when he leaves.’”

— On being gifted as a young baseball player with a new bat: “But two weeks later it flew away.”

— Layden claimed he was impressed to hear that his father-in-law was a diamond cutter “until he learned he mowed the grass at Yankee Stadium.”

— Of his battle with weight, Layden cracked: “It just snacked up on me.”

— And when he acquired XXXL NBA big men Darryl Dawkins and Mel Turpin in the same year, he said it was to balance the bench: “I was tilting it one way.”

In a 2014 Salt Lake City interview, a long-retired Layden acknowledged his lighthearted approach was more than just hucksterism. “One thing I to emphasize is, it should be fun,” he said. “Anything you do. If you go to school, it should be fun. If you go to work, it should be fun. And then you work and each day there should be some satisfaction that you accomplished something.”

“In my lifetime,” Brown said, “he is the funniest, most spontaneous person I’ve ever met. I always tell everybody, he, Tommy Lasorda and P.J. Carlesimo’s father [Pete] have done more Communion breakfasts, more [speaking appearances] ‘on the arm’ – for nothing – for the Catholic church than any three guys in the country. He’s very, very funny, an after-dinner speaker for high schools, colleges, corporations all over the country.”

Layden built interest in basketball in Utah

Layden had made the Jazz’s ill-fated 1981 trade that sent Dominique Wilkins to Atlanta, but the Utah franchise needed the million dollars included in the deal to settle ownership debts. But he also traded for Hall of Fame scorer Adrian Dantley and later drafted both John Stockton (No. 16, 1984, Gonzaga) and Malone (No. 13, 1985, Louisiana Tech).

In 1983-84, the Jazz jumped from 30 victories to 45 and began a run of 20 consecutive playoff appearances that lasted through 2002-03. But Layden was on the bench for only the first five. In December 1988, he abruptly stepped down as coach and moved into a new role as Jazz team president. His lead assistant, Sloan, took over.

“What happened with me was, I got tired,” Layden said. “I regretted that I spent more time with other people’s kids than my own. Scott, for instance, he was the captain of the St. Francis [University] team his senior year, and I only saw two games. [Life] is not a dress rehearsal. You can’t get it back.”

Layden complained too at the time he resigned as coach about NBA crowds that were getting nastier in their comments and behavior toward the players and coaches, both home and road. Also, those who know him felt he more enjoyed, and was better suited to, building a team and coaching an underdog.

The Jazz, when he handed them over to Sloan, were on their way as a Western Conference power, in sync with Stockton’s and Malone’s careers. “[Sloan] took us to another level that I don’t think I would have, to be honest,” he said.

Layden’s NBA coaching record of 277-294 included a 102-79 in his final two-plus seasons. He was in the front office when the Jazz reached the Finals in 1997 and 1998, and he believes if not for an injury to massive center Mark Eaton, Utah could have beaten Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston teams in 1994 and 1995 and possibly won one of its matchups with Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

Malone remains a true believer in his first NBA coach. Reached by phone in Louisiana on Saturday, he told NBA.com: “Coach Layden always told me how good I could be if I dedicated myself. ‘First thing you need to do is learn to shoot free throws. I can bring in all the shot doctors in the world to help you fix your free-throw issues. But heck, you know you’ve got ‘em. Go work on ‘em! Get better!’

“That’s what I wanted to hear. Don’t tell me you’re throwing a pity party for Karl Malone and you’re bringing in a shot doctor. He said, ‘Put your big-boy pants on and get out there and learn to shoot free throws. Or I can’t keep your ass on the floor, because people are gonna foul you. You want to play? You want to become an All-Star? Learn to shoot free throws!’”

Malone went from a raw-boned rookie who missed more than half his foul shots to a 76 percent shooter his final 16 seasons, as well as a 14-time all-NBA selection, two-time MVP and first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Layden, in being presented with the Daly award, once again gains acceptance from the colleagues and rivals he respects.

“When I was growing up,” Scott Layden said, “my dad’s best friends were coaches. He was all about promoting coaching, promoting teaching. It was about Lou Carnesseca and Hubie Brown, and on and on about what was important in the profession. He idolized Coach [John] Wooden and Coach [Dean] Smith. It was such a rich fraternity, and he was so proud of being in that fraternity.

Layden spent a decade in the Jazz’s front office and even coached one season for the WNBA’s Utah Starzz. When his son went to New York to be GM of the Knicks, Layden served as a consultant. And no, Scott said, he never felt shorted of his father’s time.

“Hardly,” the younger Layden said. “The highlight of my life was, we worked together for 25 years in Utah and New York. When it was Coach Sloan and my dad and I, it was the greatest time of my life. It was the friendship and the kinship that we all shared.”

Layden’s retirement has been busier than many people’s careers. He and Barbara live in downtown Salt Lake City, staying close to family, grandchildren, friends and Jazz fans. They travel, including trips to New York to scratch their Broadway theater itch and, for him, visits to Cooperstown with old buddies to re-visit the Baseball Hall of Fame.

They traveled to London to take acting lessons, then put them to use on stage appearing in a Niagara Falls, N.Y., production of “Love Letters.” It ran for about 50 performances, raising money for charity.

The Daly award reaches back to a sliver of Layden’s fascinating career, about 10 years as an NBA coach in between his many other roles. But it’s the one for which he’s best known and arguably most appreciated.

Just ask Malone.

“Coach Layden said something I’ve used a thousand times, including my own family,” the former Jazz strongman said. “He said, ‘Let me explain something to you, young man. Either you can take constructive criticism or you can’t. You shouldn’t be worried when I’m jumping your ass, young fella. You should be very worried when I stop coaching you.’ I’ve never forgot that.

“This [award] could not have gone to a better person, and someone I can call my friend and my hero. He got us going and I never forgot it,” Malone added. “Got to war for him? I would kill for him.”

So now the Mailman’s got jokes, just like his old coach.


Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.