Gordon Monson: Amid the coronavirus crisis, Frank Layden has an important message for Utahns

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Utah Sports Hall of Fame inductee and Utah Jazz head coach Frank Layden cracks jokes with friends during the Utah Sports Hall of Fame preview, Wednesday, May 15, 2019 before its grand opening this Saturday.

If there’s a man well positioned to dispense sound advice to the greater community in the midst of trying times, in the midst of this coronavirus crisis, it’s Frank Layden. He’s seen so much in his 88 years — the Great Depression, World War II, and darn-near every difficulty, every calamity since — and gone straight on, gathering wisdom while powering forward — living, learning, suffering, loving and conquering.

The late Larry Miller once said this of the former Utah Jazz coach and president: “Frank can’t be a national or state park. But he should be designated as a state treasure. He is an emissary for the Jazz, and, really, for the whole state.”

Who better, then, to turn to, to lean on, to hear from now?

“Sure,” he said, when asked to share his counsel on the matter. “I’ll go ahead and give all the advice you want, and after you hear it, you can decide if I’m nuts or not.”

Layden is not nuts. As Larry said it all those years ago, he is an icon.

“I get people who call up and say, ‘I’m looking for Frank Layden,’ the icon said. “‘Is he still alive?’”

Yes, he is, ready to share his thoughts.

“Back in the days of World War II, we had sacrifices to make, we had air raid drills, we pulled shades over the windows at night, we were afraid of attacks on New York City, we rationed food and gasoline, we had fathers and brothers going off to war and we got through it all.

“Here we are now, involved in something we’ve never experienced before. It’s almost like science fiction. … But it’s going to end. When we come out of this thing, we have to ask, ‘What did we learn? How are we better?’”

Frank Layden came to Utah with the Jazz in 1979, and he’s been a fixture, along with his wife and best friend, Barbara, ever since. The hammy song-and-dance man from Brooklyn is an unlikely Utah pillar, and yet, here he is, still … well, Frank. After 40-plus years.

“We miss sports,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ve got to find things to do. We’ve got to organize ourselves. Maybe it’s the old coach in me, but we’ve got to have a game plan — for the day, the week, the month. … And we’ve got to keep a sense of humor.”

You want to laugh? Layden has always creased a grin onto your face.

He was asked once to speak to a gathering of Harvard law students. Asked afterward how it went, Layden said, “It was hooooooorrrrrrible. I was the dumbest one in the room and everybody knew it.”

Asked a different time about the old days, growing up in the big city, he said, “We don’t have nicknames in sports nowadays. Back in Brooklyn, we had nicknames — Rocky, Bugsy, Bubba and Scarface … and those were just the cheerleaders.”

Asked about his lasting relationship with Barbara, he said: “The reason Barbara and I have stayed together all these years is, we go dancing. I go Monday, Wednesday and Friday … she goes the other days.”

Once, around the holidays, when he was told by an admirer that he was spending the day with his in-laws, Frank said, “Geez, you’re spending Christmas with your mother-in-law? My mother-in-law, aaaauugh, I don’t usually visit her on Christmas. Actually, Halloween’s her big day.”

When he was questioned as to why, over his long career spanning periods of time at a high school, a college, and with the Jazz, he had a mostly losing record, his answer was simple: “I always had bad players.”

He once told me over breakfast, while plowing through a blueberry muffin, that “sports needs characters, it needs to learn to laugh again.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Former Utah Jazz Coach Frank Layden and his wife Barbara pose for a portrait Wednesday July 27, 2011.

Thing is, contrary to his image, Layden is much more than Chuckles the Clown. He’s three-quarters furrowed brow for every one-quarter guffaw, a deep-thinking, conscientious man who since he left the Jazz coaching job in the hands of Jerry Sloan 32 years ago, has immersed himself in literature, theater, history, family, philanthropy, often burning directly into early-morning hours reading serious books.

He looks at and measures the scary world — the coronavirus hovering, menacing, threatening people’s health, as well as their financial security — everyone’s living in with concern … and hope.

“We have to take note of our own health,” he said. “Get a physical, exercise, have a proper diet so we’re better able to get through this. We’ve got to take care of our mental health. We can’t sit and watch TV all day. We can read books, listen to music, touch base with people we should have touched base with a long time ago. And we shouldn’t just look to our past.”

Layden said he and Barbara “are talking more, doing things together, watching movies, looking for ways to help others.”

“We have to look around at people,” he said, “and ask, ‘Hey, what can I do for my neighbors?’ Our neighbors want to help us and we want to help them.”

Layden’s suggestions included: using the current circumstances as a reminder to prepare for whatever comes next, to stash away a little extra food, extra resources, as people lose jobs or face other money struggles.

He’s fully aware that many folks are suffering physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, but, he advised against being swamped by and fixated on negativity.

Stay active, he said. “Barbara’s been after me to get rid of all the junk we’ve held onto for too long. We need to do things, take [virtual] piano lessons, take on some personal challenges, paint. We can’t sit around and read bad news all day. That’s too depressing.”

Layden currently is reading a book about the life of Winston Churchill, thinking about never surrendering.

“Americans don’t quit,” he said. “We take care of business. We get better. We’re going to do that now. We’ll defeat [COVID-19] like we defeated a lot of other things.”

And finally, Frank Layden said adults, in this troubled stretch, should simultaneously take the time to teach their children the importance of educating themselves about the voting process and to exercise that American right, and to teach appreciation for the heroes of the day — first responders, doctors, hospital workers, EMTs, mail carriers, police officers, garbage collectors, teachers, everyone who provides a service of one kind or another.

“They are heroes,” he said. “They don’t have a number on their backs. They won’t go into a Hall of Fame. But they are there for us and they should be recognized.”

At the end of the conversation, Frank hesitated, concurrently looking back at the events of his own life and forward to the challenges and opportunities of the day, took a deep breath, sorting through perspective and priorities, and said:

“Losing to the Bulls seems like a long, long time ago.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.