Frank Layden shares memories of bringing jazz to Utah

One of the biggest reasons Utah has a privilege in the National Basketball Association — one that’s about to kick off its 43rd season in Salt Lake City when the Utah Jazz hosts the Denver Nuggets at Vivent Arena on October 19 — is lounging in a leather chair in the condominium he shares with His wife, Barbara, is high above the town he adopted 43 years ago.

Frank Leiden Turned 90 this year. “We’re getting old, we can’t stop it,” said the man of things you can’t change, once sarcastically, “You can’t train height.”

He turned around in his chair, looked at Barbara and said, “You’ll always be sixteen.”

He has a sick back and uses a walker to get around, but the crackling, wit, and Brooklyn accent he brought with him to Utah haven’t lost a stride. Frank, he sounds 16. Pull up a chair and get ready to entertain yourself. Each paragraph is a story. Every sentence line punch.

The kind of crackling that could sell coal to Newcastle – and professional basketball to a small-market college basketball town in the ’70s.

• • •

It’s hard to imagine a Vivint Arena full or mostly full even when the team sucks, chokes or scrambles, with stadium seats for $1,000 plus a game and waiting list to buy, with a franchise selling for $1.6 billion two years ago (and that was 80% only), with downtown streets named after Stockton and Malone.

But it wasn’t always this way.

Forty-three seasons ago, serious but cash-strapped owner Sam Battiston brought the team to Salt Lake from New Orleans because he was a loyal member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and because professional basketball was not. A match for Bourbon Street, not in that order.

In the five years the franchise has been in New Orleans they haven’t had a winning season. they The marquee player “Pistol” was Pete Maravich Who injured his knee and lost his magic. Their most memorable move in the front office was trading a first-round draft to Los Angeles in exchange for fading veteran guard Jill Goodrich — which is how Magic Johnson Laker became.

They left the Big Easy in the summer of 1979 for one of the smallest television markets in all of professional sports, which is where college basketball (these were the days of Danny Engcougars and Danny Frans-led Utes) have owned the sports scene in Utah more than at any time or since.

Under the circumstances, Battiston sent his newly appointed general manager Francis Patrick Layden to convince the natives that jazz in Utah was a good thing.

• • •

No one mistaken the Irish Catholic cigar smoker of the New Yorker to be a local.

Frank recalls, “One of the things I heard when I came here was, ‘It won’t last two months when they get your representation,’ and I said, ‘I’ll do everything I can’ and I did.”

He had no illusion that it would be easy. “I remember answering the question when people asked, ‘What do you think of getting a 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 most of it.

“One thing I’ve never done, and I’ve never shared with a lot of people, is that I never worry about losing my job. That’s number 1. I’ve never worried about how much money I’ve earned.”

Through the sheer strength of his personality, he made friends and sold tickets. He gave speeches anywhere and everywhere, with a disarming sense of humor. His weight was a preferred subject and target. He would say, “I happen to have a very beautiful body,” circling his nearly 300-pound frame to his audience, “The only problem is that he’s inside that body.”

One year into his jazz experience, he added a head coach to his GM title. By year four, the Jazz were in the playoffs for the first time in their history, and Frank was named NBA Coach of the Year and Executive Director of the Year, as well as coaching the West’s 1984 All-Star Game and winning the J• Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award—an achievement The honor quartet for one season lasts at least as long as the Stockton assists record.

The following year, with Battistone running out of money 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 stayed here.

Leiden remained as head coach until 1988, after which his number one was the second to retire due to the franchise (Maravic 7 was the first). He remained as GM and President until 1999.

Surrounding him is evidence of the patch he cut during the first twenty years of jazz in the apartment he shares with Barbara. Behind him are the paintings of Stockton and Malone, jazz icons Leyden calls them “Ruth and Greg, you know what I mean.”

He has stories for every memorabilia piece – stories full of Leiden details. One of them, on Malone, helps explain what Frank Leyden means and what he means to the jazz family.

This is Frank in his own words:

“We just lost when what’s his name (would be Michael Jordan) made a hard shot (to beat the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Championship). Next Saturday I’m in bed and I got a phone call.” Coach, what are you doing, I want you to see my new home .”

I said ‘Barbara gets dressed, and we’re going to Carl’s new house. So we get in there and he shows us the pool and the cigar place and the wine thing and another place where he has computers for his kids and all that cool stuff. When we’re done and we leave, I open the door and there’s a car with a big arch. I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Oh, I almost forgot.’ , happy Father’s Day.”

After a moment, Frank adds, “It was a Toyota. And Barbara still drives it.”

As has been the case since they moved here, Frank and Barbara are active in the community. They indulge their enduring love of theatre. Frank goes to a dozen baseball games each summer, where he sings Harry Carrey style “Take Me Out to a Ball Game,” every time he asks—and it’s every time he’s there.

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

The franchise seems to have moved on from a guy named in the rafters, a guy you think will be featured on the 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.

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An autographed photo of Frank Leyden and Irvin Johnson “Magic” hangs on the wall among several other sports memorabilia at Frank and Barbara Leyden’s home in Salt Lake City on Monday, September 12, 2022.

Scott J Winterton, The Desert News

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