Byron Scott: Shaped by Showtime

Byron Scott had to earn his way onto a “Showtime” roster filled with future Hall of Famers. To make things worse, the team had acquired him to replace a beloved veteran, Norm Nixon.
Aug 12, 2014

 

LOS ANGELES — The rookie arrived at Los Angeles Lakers training camp with something to prove.

His new teammates — veterans such as Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper — elbowed him around the basketball court. The rough treatment continued after practice.

“We didn’t speak to him,” Johnson recalled. “We made him sit by himself for lunch and dinner.”

It was the early 1980s and Byron Scott had to earn his way onto a “Showtime” roster filled with future Hall of Famers. To make things worse, the team had acquired him to replace a beloved veteran, Norm Nixon.

“Not a popular choice,” Scott said. “Magic and Coop were taking shots at me to see what type of heart I had.”

Those first few days of training camp — and what happened next — represent a key step in a journey that began on the playgrounds of Inglewood, in the shadow of the Forum, and now brings the 53-year-old back home as the Lakers coach.

“I’m not that kid,” he said. “Totally different person.”

His youth played out against a backdrop of violence after his mother, Dorothy, moved the family — two boys, two girls — from Utah to Southern California. One of his friends got shot on the streets, he once said; another was stabbed in a gang fight.

Scott took inspiration from his stepfather, Robert Marsh, who worked two jobs to make ends meet. He also took refuge on the basketball courts at Darby Park, where genetics gave him an edge.

His father, Allen Holmes, had been a junior college All-American in the late 1950s.

“The mechanics of his shot were the same as his father’s,” said Carl Franklin, his coach at Morningside High in Inglewood. “The only difference was his father was left-handed and he was right-handed.”

When Scott arrived at Morningside as a 5-foot-11 freshman, older teammates challenged him to dunk, a feat he had never quite managed before. Taking off at a dead sprint, he blindly jammed the ball through the hoop.

“Byron was a tremendous leaper,” Franklin said. “And he could really, really score.”

This athleticism soon made the teenager a top high school prospect. The only thing that could stop him, it seemed, was a crowd — he feared someone handing him the microphone and forcing him to speak at pep rallies.

“Aggressive but shy,” Scott said.

Maybe it was better that he did not sign with UCLA, his favorite local school. The Bruins changed coaches during his senior year at Morningside in 1979, and by the time Larry Brown took over Scott had already settled on Arizona State.

In Tempe — amid less media attention — the 6-3 guard flourished, working out beside classmates who included future NFL quarterback Mike Pagel and fledgling baseball star Barry Bonds.

“Best athlete to come through there,” said Lafayette “Fat” Lever, a teammate who would later spend a decade in the NBA. “Byron could throw the football just as far as Pagel and he could outrun some of the running backs on the football team.”

Over three seasons, Scott parlayed his quickness and reliable jump shot into 17.5 points a game while leading the Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament twice.

“You had guys who were all talk and no action; Byron was just the opposite,” said Jim Deines, a forward on the team. “It didn’t seem like he wanted to be in the limelight.”

His days of flying under the radar ended in 1983, when the Los Angeles Clippers drafted him in the first round, then traded him and Swen Nater to the Lakers for Nixon, guard Eddie Jordan and a second-round draft pick.

Returning to family in Southern California helped Scott endure his first training camp. “I was getting knocked around and pushed around,” he said. “I could go home after practice and vent.”

The rookie persevered for nearly a week, never complaining, never backing down. Johnson recalled Cooper finally saying, “This dude is going to be OK.”

Earning acceptance boosted Scott’s confidence, helping him make the NBA’s all-rookie squad for the 1983-84 season. There was, perhaps, an equal benefit off the court.

“I think that kind of opened him up a bit,” former teammate James Worthy said. “Byron became funny and more outspoken.”

His famous teammates showed him how to handle fans and the media. The attention grew steadily as Scott augmented his shooter’s touch with tenacious defense and a knack for getting to the basket.

“I had arrived,” he said.

While the Lakers embarked on a run of three championships in four seasons beginning in 1984-85, Scott and his wife, Anita, who are now separated, started a family that would grow to include three sons.

No one pictured him as a coach in those days, though Worthy noticed he was always a student of the game, the kind of player who listened carefully and did exactly as told.

Coach Pat Riley pulled him aside during his fifth season in the league and talked to him about someday running a team.

“You’re out of your mind,” Scott recalled saying. “I’m not ever going to coach.”

The possibility did not begin to take hold until the Lakers let him go in 1993 and he signed with the Indiana Pacers, finally getting a chance to play for Brown.

The Pacers coach drew upon Scott’s experience, asking for advice on how the Lakers ran practice or executed certain plays. Scott found himself tutoring Reggie Miller on the art of moving without the ball.

“He really cared about the game and he knew how to teach,” Brown said. “If you have those two things, you can be a good coach.”

Brown told him as much, and Scott realized that if two of the game’s best minds believed in him, maybe he should listen. His NBA career was drawing to an end, playing out with short stints with the Vancouver Grizzlies and back with the Lakers, and he needed to move on.

Looking back, Scott believes that God has always guided him toward his goals. As evidence, he points to a call that came from longtime NBA coach Rick Adelman soon after he retired following the 1996-97 season.

The Sacramento Kings needed an assistant and Adelman offered him the job. Two years later, the New Jersey Nets hired Scott to run their team.

Former teammates watched from afar, noticing the continual growth as a once-reticent young man became a self-assured leader.

The way he stood on the sideline with arms crossed, staying calm, reminded them of Riley. So did his appearance in fashionable suits, with a clean-shaven head substituting for Riley’s slicked-back hair.

As for his coaching style, the attention to Xs and O’s was surely a byproduct of working for Adelman.

“He never gets too animated,” said Worthy, now an analyst for the Lakers’ channel on Time Warner Cable SportsNet. “But when it’s time to speak up, he has no problem doing so.”

The Nets made the NBA Finals in Scott’s second and third seasons at the helm, losing to the Lakers in 2002 and the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Despite this success, the team fired him midway through 2004 and the ensuing years required all the toughness he could muster.

His five-plus seasons with the New Orleans Hornets included a 2007-08 NBA coach-of-the-year award but also plenty of losses and Hurricane Katrina, which forced the team to shift to a temporary home in Oklahoma City.

A stint in Cleveland could not have started worse — soon after Scott took the job in 2010, superstar LeBron James left for the Miami Heat. The rebuilding Cavaliers finished the next three seasons near the bottom of the league.

“Coach Scott never backed down,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “He’s the most competitive coach I’ve ever played for.”

Practices could be brutal and players who did not work hard would find themselves on the bench during games. During blowout losses, Scott was known to bark at opponents who gloated.

“He had our back,” Jamison said. “Players respected him.”

Perhaps that experience — along with a stint last season covering the Lakers for SportsNet — will prepare him for what lies ahead.

Long gone are the glory days of Showtime. An aging Kobe Bryant and a patchwork supporting cast must try to rebound from the worst season in franchise history, when the team went 27-55 and was ranked second-to-last in defense.

At a news conference last week, former Lakers stars such as Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes talked about a new boss who will hold players accountable.

“Don’t let that smile fool you,” Johnson said of Scott. “These dudes better come in shape.”

After most of the media had drifted off, Scott lingered at center court of the team’s El Segundo practice facility. A son, Thomas, an assistant with the Lakers’ Development League club, stood nearby and an impish granddaughter tottered around, clutching a basketball to her chest.

“This is home for me,” Scott said.

Training camp in the fall will be demanding for his players, just as it was for him so many years ago. Defense and rebounding will be emphasized.

The coach might be growing too old to jump into scrimmages — he did that in Cleveland — but don’t be surprised if he challenges Bryant to a game of H-O-R-S-E.

“I can still shoot it,” Scott said.

His grin remained easy, even after an hour of facing cameras and microphones. His tone of voice was still relaxed.

“It took me a while to get more confident, to let myself loose,” he said. “This man today is not shy.”

For the kid from Inglewood, it was a transformation years in the making.

 

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