Sullivan: Layden passing on Jordan doc, for now

Jerry Sullivan

Niagara legend Frank Layden has been sheltering in place at his home in downtown Salt Lake City for the last two months. He and his wife, Barbara, will celebrate 63 years of marriage in June. He says he’s been watching a lot of “Law and Order.”

But how about “The Last Dance,” the highly praised ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan’s last year with the Bulls?

“I’ll bet you’re the fourth person today who asked on the phone if I watched it,” Layden said Wednesday. “No, I haven’t seen it yet.

“I lived it.”

Layden’s career in the NBA roughly paralleled Jordan’s. He was head coach and general manager of the Utah Jazz from 1981-89, then served as team president for 10 more years. He retired from the NBA in 1999, a year after Jordan left the Bulls.

He was both NBA coach and executive of the year in 1984, the year Jordan was picked third overall in the draft by the Bulls. Frank had a pretty good draft, too. He took a future Hall of Famer named John Stockton with the 16th overall pick.

The Jazz were consistent winners in Layden’s time. Between that 1983-84 season and his final year as president in 1998-99, Utah made the playoffs 16 years in a row. They reached the NBA Finals in consecutive years in 1997-’98, losing in six games to Jordan and the Bulls both times.

Maybe Layden will take time to watch the last two episodes of “The Last Dance.” Then again, he might not want to be newly tormented by Jordan. His 88-year-old heart might not withstand another replay of Jordan pushing off Byron Russell before making the jumper to win the title in 1998.

“We should have beat them when he was playing baseball (in 1994-95),” Layden said. “We lost to Houston. We had them on the run once and Mark Eaton got hurt. We had a good solid team. Those were the good old days.”

Everyone lost to Jordan in those days. Patrick Ewing never won an NBA title because of him. Charles Barkley, same thing. Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller. Stockton was a great pick, but Layden knew Chicago was getting something special when the third choice fell to them in ’84.

“I knew about Jordan,” Layden said. “One of my closest friends was Dean Smith. We were in constant contact. He told me, this guy is going to be the best player that ever lived. He said, ‘You know, he loves the game. He loves to practice. He’s a tough competitor.’

“People forget how good Jordan was on defense. He was a good athlete. So he could defend, he could pass, and he had a tenaciousness about him. I don’t think he would have tolerated load management.”

Layden, a master of the one-liner who was in high demand as a banquet speaker in his day, got a good laugh at that one. With his wife sitting next to him, he said there should be a statute of limitations on marriage.

He was fortunate to face Jordan only twice a year in an East-West crossover back in the day. So what was it like preparing for him, Frank?

“I tried to put my toughest guy on him,” Layden said, “and I said ‘Go out there and use all of your fouls.' I remember I had a guy named Bobby Hansen, who was a very good player from Iowa. He’d go out there and I’d say, ‘Bobby, when you come back, have blood on your shirt.'

“So one night he came back and sure enough, I looked and he had some blood on his shirt. So I said, ‘That’s what I like, Bobby, you got blood on your shirt!’ He said, ‘Coach, it’s mine! This guy (Jordan) is beating the hell out of me.'”

Hansen, a 6-6 guard, finished his career in Chicago in 1992, the year Jordan and the Bulls won their second title.

“I remember Jordan telling me later on that was the best trade we ever made,” Layden said. “He said, ‘He was one of the toughest guys who guarded me my whole career.’”

Layden remembers trading Hansen to the Bulls. Actually, he traded him to Sacramento, who shipped him to Chicago. But hey, it’s still a good story. Frank still has a mind like a whip at age 88, and talking with him is one of the job’s great pleasures.

Back in Layden’s heyday in the 1980s, I talked to him a couple of times a month when I first covered the NBA at Newsday. I was a nobody and he was a coaching icon, but it didn’t matter. The guy was a joy and always willing to chat.

He hasn’t changed over the decades. Layden treasures all the relationships he’s made over the years. During a half hour, he talked fondly of his old roommate Hubie Brown, who brought him to the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks in the '70s.

Layden said he keeps in touch with some Niagara coaches — Pete Lonergan and Jack Armstrong and Joe Mihalich. He’s very high on Greg Paulus. Did you know that Al McGuire introduced him to Barbara? Were you aware that his son Scott, now general manager of the Timberwolves, played in the backcourt at Niagara Catholic with current Park School coach Rich Jacob?

The man could go on forever, and I could listen. Layden was at Niagara in the glory years of Buffalo basketball. He and Hubie Brown roomed together, played basketball and baseball together. Larry Costello was a year ahead of them.

Costello played and coached in the NBA. He was on the 1967 Sixers team that won the title with Wilt Chamberlain. He was head coach of the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks team that won the championship with Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson.

It’s astonishing to think of. On the same Niagara basketball team, under Taps Gallagher, there were three guys who went on to be successful coaches in the NBA: Costello, Layden and Brown.

Layden played baseball and basketball on Monteagle Ridge. He coached the baseball team and the freshman basketball squad. Imagine that, a current player as a college coach.

After a stint in the Army, Layden became head coach at Niagara in 1968 and AD a year later. He led the Eagles to a 119-97 record in eight seasons. That included the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth with Calvin Murphy in 1970.

But when he closes his eyes, what’s his dearest Niagara memory?

“Graduation,” he said. “You know why? It was so important to my family. I was brought up by a single parent, my dad. And I had two older sisters. My mother died in my childbirth. So to go to a school like Niagara and play and graduate, it was very important.”

Layden said Niagara is never far from his mind. He calls the school at least once a week during the school year. “I talk to the athletic director, Simon Gray,” he said. “I talk to Father Maher, the president.”

Five years ago, Father James Maher and Niagara dedicated the basketball court at the Gallagher Center to Frank and Barbara Layden. When Maher asked Frank for permission, he wanted Barbara’s name on there, too, because she coached the family. Two years ago, Niagara gave her an honorary degree.

Layden never left Salt Lake. As Barbara said at the height of his coaching days, her husband had found “a wonderful new life” in Utah, though it was “the same old Frank.”

“I couldn’t be any more in the center of town if I was Brigham Young,” Layden said. “People ask me about it. I say, ‘I miss the ocean. I’m from Brooklyn, I used to go to the beach, and my wife loved it’. But our kids grew up here in Salt Lake.

“My grandchildren are here. It’s a new life. We’re watching the kids play sports. I saw more girls soccer games the last couple of years I could have imagined in my life. How many grandkids do we have, Barbara? You’re always telling me. I think we have 11. One boy and the rest are all girls.”

He keeps busy at 88. Layden’s first love is baseball. He and Barbara go to spring training in Arizona every year to watch the Angels, whose Triple-A team is in Salt Lake. But they had to come home early this year because of the pandemic, and they’ve been sticking in the house ever since.

Layden said his grandson gave him his first haircut in two months the other day. “I looked like George Washington,” he said. They order out for food a lot, watch a lot of movies and television. He likes the old shows.

One of these days, he’ll get around to “The Last Dance”. He already knows how it ends.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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