Paul Millsap blew past the hapless defender, who stood flat-footed in the lane, extending his hand only to bother the shot, not block it. Devin Harris flew by, then Al Jefferson … Gordon Hayward … Jamaal Tinsley … Derrick Favors … DeMarre Carroll.
Scott Layden, who punctuated the layup parade at the start of practice the other day by enthusiastically clapping his hands and yelling encouragement, isn’t much of a defensive stopper, but … the man loves his life and his job as a Jazz assistant coach, even the menial parts of it.
“One of the things you have to do as an assistant is you have to be no-maintenance,” Layden says. “You have to be hard-working and extremely loyal. That’s the whole thing right there. I enjoy it.”
Moments earlier, dressed out in a gray long-sleeve T-shirt and dark-blue shorts, he moved nearly unnoticed around the floor at the Jazz’s practice facility while reporters and cameras focused their attention on Tyrone Corbin and various players. When Kevin O’Connor walked by, a throng of microphones and notebooks homed in.
Layden quietly took his position under the basket, holding and bouncing a ball and waiting for practice to begin, for the players to go up over him as they warmed up.
That position seemed a world away from the one Layden occupied 13 years ago, when he sat atop the Jazz’s organizational pyramid. He held O’Connor’s position, essentially running the team as general manager and vice president of basketball operations. The franchise enjoyed more regular-season and playoff wins in his day, including its two famous Finals appearances, than it ever had before or has had since.
Back then, Layden spearheaded the club’s biggest decisions. Now, he’s a humble foot soldier, charting deflections, advising Corbin when called upon, preparing scouting reports on Jazz opponents. He does some of the same work he did three decades ago, when his father, Frank, hired him out of St. Francis College, first as an administrative assistant and then as an assistant coach.
Between the then and the now, Layden was lured to New York for four years, converting that substantial success in Utah during the John Stockton and Karl Malone years into what was believed to have been a $28 million deal to run the Knicks.
That management experience never resulted in consistent wins or success. By the end of it, shouts of “Fire Layden” regularly broke out at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks found themselves in an unenviable circumstance, losing games even though they had the highest payroll in the NBA, which included long, pricey deals with former Jazz players Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson. The ultimate indignity came when owner James Dolan finally relieved Layden with more than two years left on his contract and replaced him with … Isiah Thomas.
“Layden is an honorable man,” wrote one New York Times columnist, “but during his tenure with the Knicks, he ran one of the most storied franchises in sports like a mom-and-pop operation, one where the bottom line was loyalty rather than productivity.”
As Layden says, that fierce loyalty serves him well now.
He won’t talk much about what happened in New York — “I gave Jim Dolan my word that when I left I would look forward, not back; I told him he would never hear anything from me, and I’ve stuck by that” — and expresses only appreciation for the opportunity there. He adds he never asked or went looking for that job, but was given it in 1999 by then-Knicks boss Dave Checketts.
His own epitaph on his time there: “In professional sports, you have to win. You have to win, so …”
His balm for not winning and getting fired: “When I told my wife, Marsha, and our four daughters about it, all my youngest daughter said was: ‘Does this mean you can pick me up from school everyday?’ That was it. I had a lot to be thankful for.”
Layden’s family has always anchored his life. Three of his daughters have had physical challenges that included multiple surgeries for a rare ailment that affects their muscles and tendons. Seeing those hardships up close created in Layden a perspective that has helped him meet his own challenges, professional and otherwise.
“They’ve taught me so much in the way of humility and courage,” he says.
Over the same span when the Jazz drafted Stockton and then Malone, he married Marsha.
“That was a great year,” he adds. “And marrying Marsha was the best part of it.”
After Layden was fired, though, he had no clue what he would do for employment. When Jerry Sloan offered him a chance to come back and sit on his bench, Layden jumped at it.
“I feel extremely fortunate to be in the position I’m in,” he says. “When coach Sloan hired me seven years ago, he was generous. He threw me an NBA lifeline.”
Still, it speaks to the man’s basic makeup, his character and modesty, that he who once helped the Jazz to a franchise pinnacle and went on to become the head of the New York Knicks so eagerly now chases down rebounds for Jazz players during shooting drills. He does all the grunt work required of assistants in a mostly behind-the-scenes role.
And he insists he couldn’t be happier. Asked if he wants to be a head coach, or replace O’Connor if he ever retires, Layden shakes his head and says:
“I’m indebted to coach Sloan for bringing me back and to coach Ty for retaining me. That’s what I’m focused on, doing the best job I can in the job I have. I’ve been in the NBA for 30 years. How lucky is that? I’m perfectly content with being coach Ty’s assistant. I don’t know what’s ahead, but I hope the Jazz keep me for another 25 years. I feel honored to do what I do and fortunate to be able to do it.”
GORDON MONSON hosts the “Gordon Monson Show” weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone.