Coach Layden of the Utah Jazz, who used to be too large to play Santa Claus, is now uniformly sleek if not exactly thin. But if every Broadway producer were to call him tomorrow, the role they probably would offer Layden (whose division-leading team has won 10 of its last 11 games) would be that of Harry Houdini.
Prior to this season, orchestrating the Jazz had never been easy. This is a team with a nine-year history of stumbling through the National Basketball Association season pushing doors marked pull. Last year, for example, Utah recorded only 30 victories while allowing its opponents more than 113 points per game. The Jazz were also extremely flat on the road, winning only nine of 41 games.
Asked to explain Utah's turnaround this year, Layden replied: "Any time you significantly upgrade your defense, it is almost always reflected in your team's won-lost record. It means you have a chance to win even on nights when you don't score well. With our improvement this year on defense, our confidence has reached the point where we feel we can play well against anyone.
"However, we're still a team with a lot of haven't-dones in our system," Layden continued. "We still don't have a lot of credibility with the media, the referees, opposing players, and even some of our own fans. But the fact that we're beginning to feel good about ourselves makes teaching and asking players to sacrifice their offense in certain situations a lot easier for the coach."
Where the Jazz were once a team without much balance, they are now getting improved play from Mark Eaton at center; scoring from forward Adrian Dantley (the NBA leader); and excellent rebounding from rookie Thurl Bailey. Layden, who likes to rotate his guards, has four strong ones in all-star Darrell Griffith, plus Rickey Green, Jerry Eaves, and rookie Robert Hansen.
Dantley, who missed 60 games last year with injuries, is easily the best scoring 6 ft. 5 in. forward in the league. Bailey, who at 6-11 controlled both backboards most of the time last year for North Carolina State's NCAA champions, was supposed to be good and has been. Forward John Drew, a two-time NBA all-star, is also shooting well again after leaving his chemical dependency problems at a drug rehabilitation center.
But the biggest surprise has been Eaton, a fourth-round draft pick who averaged only 4.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a rookie last year. In fact, despite a frame that rises 7 ft. 4 in. into the stratosphere, Mark appeared in only 11 games during his senior year at UCLA.
"We drafted Eaton because we thought we could improve him and because everything we'd ever heard about him indicated he was a worker," Layden said. "All Mark really needed to make this league was a little understanding and a chance to play, and we've tried to give him both. While his statistics probably are never going to be impressive, he does a lot of things to help that don't show up in the box score."
The 290-lb. Eaton, who spent the summer on a weight, strength, and conditioning program, has greatly improved his jumping ability, upper body strength, and endurance. While Mark will never set any speed records getting down court, he has become so physical in close to the basket that most rival players now hate to see him come out on the floor. They know they can't beat him without paying a substantial physical price.
Layden, whose homespun manners and philosophy remind one of comedian Herb Shriner in the early days of TV, has also done a great coaching job with a much-traveled group of veterans who a lot of people felt could never be taught to play together.
Although Layden has many strengths as a strategist, his biggest asset may be in the area of substitutions. He is especially quick at spotting a player who isn't shooting well or working hard enough on defense and replacing him. He is also a realist.
"While every team would like to win its division title, just getting into the playoffs would be a terrific boost for us," he said. "The reason I say that is because to grow as a team you have to experience and learn how to handle the pressures of playoff basketball. They are simply not there in the same way during the regular season."