Frank Layden has seen it all in the game of basketball, from coaching high school, college and in the pros to the numerous wins, awards and accolades.
But for the 83-year-old former coach, it’s been the relationships he’s developed on the journey that have stood out the most.
Those relationships were on full display Dec. 6 when the basketball court at Niagara University, Lewiston, N.Y. – Layden’s alma mater and one of his many coaching destinations – was re-named to honor him and his wife Barbara.
“Frank spent so much time on that court as a player and coach that it almost seemed unnatural not to have the ‘Layden’ name on it,” said Father Jim Maher, C.M., Niagara’s president. “When I spoke with Frank to ask his permission to go forward with the naming, he asked if we could name the court after Barbara as well. As Frank stated to me, he coached the team, Barbara coached the family.”
Layden’s path to having a court named after him began right here in the Diocese of Brooklyn, where Layden grew up attending Mass at St. Anselm, and playing CYO basketball and baseball at Our Lady of Angels, both Bay Ridge. He went on to star in both sports at Fort Hamilton H.S. and was named a Tablet All-Star in 1947.
“It was a great area to grow up in,” Layden said of his Brooklyn roots. “Sports was very positive for us in our lives. I was very fortunate to have very good coaches. We were surrounded by good influences.”
Those strong influences continued when Layden received a Vincentian education at Niagara, where he played both basketball and baseball from 1951 to 1955. He cred- its his college hoops coach, John “Taps” Gallagher – a Brooklyn native himself – for inspiring him to enter the coaching field.
In fact, Layden got his first coaching experience while still a student at Niagara, serving as the player coach of the baseball team for three seasons and then as the freshman basketball coach when he was a senior.
Right after graduation, Layden served three years in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Benning, Ga., before becoming a company commander at Fort Monmouth, N.J., where he also traveled the country playing baseball and basketball. He said his experiences as an officer helped him develop the confidence and mentoring abilities necessary for coaching.
Upon returning from the service, Layden spent three years coaching football, basketball and baseball at St. Agnes H.S., Rockville Centre, L.I., and then seven years coaching basketball at Seton Hall H.S., Patchogue, L.I. From there it was on to Dowling College, Oakdale, L.I., where Layden started the athletic program and was the head basketball coach for two seasons.
His impact in Suffolk County must have spread to Queens, since St. John’s University, Jamaica, basketball coach Lou Carnesecca hired Layden as an assistant. However, just as Layden was settling into his new job, he was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater Niagara.
Layden coached the Purple Eagles for eight seasons, including the team’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 1970. He had revolutionized the program, and of course, with success in sports came new opportunities.
Layden’s Niagara teammate Hubie Brown took over the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 1977 and asked his old buddy to join him as an assistant. After three years, Layden was in 1979 named the general manager of the New Orleans Jazz, which promptly relocated to Salt Lake City to become the Utah Jazz that same year.
Soon after, Layden returned to the sidelines as head coach of the Jazz. It was under his tutelage that the team made its first five playoff appearances in franchise history from 1983 to 1988. He was named NBA Coach of the Year and NBA Executive of the Year the same season of 1984.
After he retired from coaching, he remained with the Jazz as team president, where he was instrumental in signing future Naismith Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, who were integral players to the team’s back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998.
With all his success in the game, Layden always remained true to the values he learned growing up in Brooklyn.
“To me basketball is basketball,” he said. “I did the same things coaching in high school as I would do coaching in college and the pros. It’s fundamentals, and it’s being consistent and being honest.”
Layden said he was honored to have the court named for him and even more honored that two players he coached in high school made the trip to upstate New York for the ceremony. He was able to realize that sports allowed him to meet many great people who have remained a part of his life.
“I look back, and I made some really good friends,” he said. “I had the opportunity to meet so many great people and call them friends … Calvin Murphy, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Larry Bird. I was very fortunate,I had a lot of fun and I got my due along the way.”
As a happily retired man in Salt Lake City, Layden enjoys spending time with his wife Barbara of 58 years, as well as his children and grandchildren. He still goes to some Jazz games but spends much of his time doing charitable works and giving motivational talks.
While that legacy will continue in the near future, Layden’s name will now forever be linked with the Niagara basketball program.
“I hope that when some kids come in to visit Niagara and they’re up in gym and looking around… ‘Oh, Frank and Barbara Layden, who are they?’ Then they’ll look into it, and somebody will say, ‘He was a pretty good coach, but he was a better guy. He was a good Catholic gentleman.’ That’s what it’s really about.”
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.