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The NBA / Sam McManis : There May Be Some Laughers, but Not as Many Laughs Around Here

Laker Coach Pat Riley has long since disposed of the gawdy, oversized comb that Frank Layden gave him as a whimsical parting gift after the Lakers’ Western Conference semifinal series victory over the Utah Jazz last spring.

“I dumped it,” Riley said. “I mean, it was pink!”

Now, in the wake of Layden’s resignation last Friday as the Jazz coach, Riley has a little something for his friend--words of support.

Riley said he was not surprised that Layden, known for his comedic talent as well as for turning the Jazz into a contender, walked away. Earlier in the week, before the Lakers and the Jazz played at the Forum, Layden expressed his frustration in dealing with the coaching pressure and fan abuse.

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“I understand why he did it, and I think Frank was right in what he did,” Riley said. “Frank’s been coaching 30 years. He’s a lifer. Maybe he feels a sense of finality. The longer you’re in it, you sometimes ask yourself, ‘Why go through all this?’ ”

Layden said he suffered first-degree burnout from the all-consuming aspect of coaching in the high-pressure National Basketball Assn., from his battles with referees and petulant players, and from fans who harassed him about his weight and his boisterous sideline demeanor. In some respects, Riley can relate. After all, the Laker coach is kidded by fans about his hair style and wardrobe. Riley, in fact, revealed this fall that he had a fantasy last spring of winning his second consecutive NBA title and then walking away from coaching.

“I feel the same way sometimes,” Riley said. “I’ve felt like walking away. Frank always said this was not nuclear war. I try to separate my life from my job, and I’ve found it easier because of my children.

“We’re going to miss him. He brought an attitude to coaching that we haven’t seen before. He’s bigger than life.”

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Add Layden reaction: Layden and Mychal Thompson, the Lakers’ center and resident funny man, have talked about hitting the road and becoming stand-up comics. Thompson said he was saddened to learn of Layden’s resignation.

“This gloom and doom league won’t be the same without him,” Thompson said. “He was harassed a lot. He laughed it off for a while. But when a guy’s in his 50s, you don’t want to put up with that (stuff). It’s supposed to be your golden years. You can’t enjoy it that way.”

Last add Layden: The timing of Layden’s resignation was curious. Last week in Los Angeles, he told Riley that he planned to retire after this season.

“I don’t know what changed his mind,” Riley said.

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Layden did not point to anything specific, but an incident of verbal sparring with Washington Bullets guard Darrell Walker last week in what turned out to be his final game showed that his frustrations had peaked.

“Darrell was trying to intimidate (John) Stockton, and I just told him to mind his own business,” Layden said. “But he was foolish getting involved in a verbal exchange with me. You don’t do that unless you have a master’s degree in humor.”

Washington Coach Wes Unseld was not amused.

“What Walker did was unprofessional,” he said. “But Layden was just as unprofessional. There’s no reason for a coach to ever say anything to a rival player.”

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Air Jordan is not being grounded, but it is cutting back significantly on the flight schedule.

Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls’ guard who routinely soars through the NBA’s stratosphere, said last week that he is consciously trying not to dunk as much this season for the sake of energy conservation.

‘It takes a lot of energy to do all that dunking, so I’m dunking now mostly on fast breaks,” Jordan said.

That change of strategy has not affected Jordan’s scoring. He still leads the league with a 35.4-point average. He also is averaging 42 minutes a game.

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Jordan apparently is so serious about remaining fresh for the second half of the season and the playoffs that he indicated he will not defend his slam-dunk contest title during All-Star weekend at Houston in February.

“I was really tired after the All-Star game last season,” Jordan said. “It took me awhile to recover. That contest really takes a lot out of me, having to dunk all day like that and then play in the game the next day.

“I’d really like to take the whole weekend off, but if the fans vote me into the All-Star game, I couldn’t do that.”

Add Jordan: The Chicago guard is finding it more difficult to defend his title as NBA defensive player of the year than his scoring title. Last Tuesday, Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis scored a career-high 32 points off Jordan in a victory by the Bulls, which irked Jordan.

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“I played a terrible defensive game,” he said. “It was stupid on my part to disrespect (Lewis) because that gave him confidence early on and he turned it on.”

Strangely similar player-management feuds have developed in Atlanta and Denver, involving injured players who apparently are not working at rehabilitation because they are unhappy with the terms of contracts.

In Atlanta, center Kevin Willis was suspended last week for failing to rehabilitate a stress fracture and failing to show up for games and practices. The suspension, expected to run through today, figures to cost Willis $24,000 in fines.

That can’t make Willis too happy, since he already has groused about his contract. Willis is starting a 4-season extension on a contract that pays him $490,000 this season and will increase by $100,000 in each of the next 3 seasons. Willis now wants a second contract renegotiation to put him in line with teammate Antoine Carr, who has a 7-season deal worth $400,000 this season.

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“He treated his teammates and me and Mike (Fratello, the coach) like a bunch of jerks,” said General Manager Stan Kasten, who pointed out that Willis arrived for a recent game against Boston 5 minutes into the second quarter. “He’s saving us money we’d rather not save, but that’s going to be the case as long he’s doing this nonsense.”

In Denver, meanwhile, forward Jay Vincent was fined $750 last week for changing his unlisted home phone number and not informing the club. Vincent, rehabilitating an injured right foot, has missed appointments with a foot specialist.

Vincent, too, wants to renegotiated his contract or, as an alternative, be traded. He is in the third season of an 8-season contract he signed while playing for Dallas. He makes $400,000 this season and says he is underpaid, compared to other sixth men in the league.

The Nuggets were talking about giving Vincent an extension to a sixth season, but talks have broken off. Maybe because the club didn’t have Vincent’s phone number.

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It may not take Willis Reed, new coach of the New Jersey Nets, as long as it took Layden to succumb to the frustrations of NBA coaching. The Nets had lost 6 straight games before beating the Charlotte Hornets in overtime Saturday.

Reed said he had tried everything to pull the Nets out of their stupor.

“I’ve asked them what’s wrong,” he said. “I’ve pleaded, begged and cursed. I’m concerned, but there’s nothing I can do because I can’t play. It seems like a morgue around here. All life is gone.”

Wednesday night, the Denver Nuggets were blown out in Philadelphia, and former UC Irvine star Bob Thornton had a career-high 16 points.

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Thornton’s performance especially irked Nugget Coach Doug Moe, who sarcastically said: “It’s nice when you can make Joe Stiff look good. You know Joe Stiff, don’t you. He’s the guy who can’t get in the game and when he does he scores 20 and wonders why he’s not doing it every night.”

How popular is David Robinson in San Antonio?

The Spurs’ center-in-waiting recently flipped the switch on the Christmas lights that illuminate the city’s Riverwalk area.

It was quite an honor for Robinson, whose predecessor last year at the Christmas ceremony was Spuds MacKenzie.

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From Seattle forward and sometimes fighter Xavier McDaniel: “Hey, the cavemen fought, the gladiators fought. You ain’t never gonna stop fighting.”


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