Defining a winner in sports can be a tricky business. There are no tricks when it comes to sizing up Byron Scott. As a member of the great Los Angeles Laker teams of the 1980s, he combined his talent and intelligence to give his club a winning edge night after night. In the 1990s, he took a dysfunctional Indiana Pacers team to the brink of the NBA Finals. And in the early 2000s, he led a moribund New Jersey Nets team to the big dance two years in a row. Now the coach of the New Orleans Hornets, Byron is quietly working his magic again. Their transformation from forlorn franchise to respectability and now to a championship contender is one of the feel-good stories in the NBA.

Byron Anton Scott was born March 28, 1961, in Ogden, Utah. He was one of four children. The family lived in Ogden until the early 1970s before heading west to California.

 



 


 

 

   

How did your family come to live in the Los Angeles area?


   

My mother, Dorothy, was 17 when I was born. She and my father never got married. When I was around 7 or 8, he told her that she should move the family to California. At that time she was dating the man who I consider to be my “father,” Robert Marsh. So later we moved to L.A. with my brother and two sisters. I was about 10-years-old.

 


Quick, strong and well-coordinated, Byron mastered every sport he tried. He developed a passion for basketball, which could be played outdoors year ’round in L.A. As an added incentive, the family home was just a few blocks from the Forum in Inglewood.

Byron lived and breathed basketball, rooting for the great Laker teams of the early '70s—starring Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain. But it was a player on the other side of the country that truly captured his imagination.

   

You were a major Bob McAdoo fan, right?

   

Oh, big time! All my life I was a player who could shoot the basketball. Then one night I turned on the TV and saw a guy who was 6-11 and shot the ball better than I did. I was intrigued to see a man with his skills playing the center position. I began to follow his career, from Buffalo to the Knicks and beyond.

I remember kids trying to copy his shooting style, which usually got them into trouble.That’s a style I didn't try to copy!

The only thing I copied was the part where the ball went in the hoop. And I wore his number 11 all through high school and college.



Bob McAdoo,
1975 The Sporting News


By his early teens, Byron was a budding legend in the world of playground basketball. His first true introduction to organized coaching came at Morningside High School, under Carl Franklin. Morningside is the same school that would later produce Lisa Leslie.

   

What was it like going from a playground star to the Morningside varsity? How hard was that transition period?

   

The big transition is that you have a coach. On the playgrounds, you're just playing. When you get to that level of organized basketball, you suddenly have someone telling you what to do and how to do it.


   

And you have to make that connection with the coach. Was that a problem for you?

   

No, I connected with Coach Franklin well early in my Morningside career. He was a great high school coach. We called him the little pit bull, because he was small in stature, but he was a big man on campus. Everyone feared him because he was so tough and such a disciplinarian, and everyone had tremendous respect for him because of his knowledge of basketball.


Byron was the star of the Morningside varsity by his junior year. Earlier in the school year, he quarterbacked the football team to an undefeated record. And he also pitched for the baseball team. Byron’s gridiron career ended as a senior, when the team’s coach suggested he stick to basketball. That was where his future was.

Byron stood six and a half feet tall, with tremendous quickness and anticipation. He could handle the ball in traffic, shoot long jumpers, and slice through the narrowest openings for layups and dunks. The colleges came calling and life got interesting.

   

What was the recruiting process like? Were there guys ahead of you at Morningside who went through it?

   

I was out there on my own. I didn’t know anyone at Morningside who had gone through the recruiting process. On a couple of my recruiting visits, though, I ran into Russell Brown, who was a point guard at Inglewood High School. He told me some of the things he was going through, but other than that I was focused on what would be the best decision for me. My mother and father supported me, but they said it was my decision—make the best choice for you.



The choice for Byron came down to UCLA and Arizona State. It was tempting to stay local, but assistant coach Jim Newman did a great job selling the educational advantages that came with playing ball for the Sun Devils. When Byron arrived on campus, he learned right away that his feet would be held to the fire academically. The threat of losing basketball threw the switch for him intellectually, and he became a solid student. Meanwhile, Byron was getting it done on the court. He stepped into a starting job his freshman year.



Byron Scott, ASU photo
   

Did you know you could start for the Sun Devils right away?

   

I knew that if I went to Arizona State I would be the starting two-guard. There was another player on the team who hadn’t really played the position, so coming in, the two of us were in the same boat. I was confident that my athletic abilities would win out.


Byron was one of three immensely talented players on the Sun Devils. He teamed with future first-rounders Fat Lever and Alton Lister, who were already being touted as potential NBA stars. Byron remembers feeling that his level of desire and talent was equal to theirs. That is when his dream of moving into pro ball started to become more concrete.

Byron put in three great seasons for the Sun Devils. He averaged double-figures each year (13.6, 16.6 and 21.6), as the team won 65 games over that span. He was named Pac-10 Rookie of the Year and earned All-America mention in several publications as a Sun Devil. He ended his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer and led Arizona State to a memorable upset of top-ranked Oregon State on the last day of the 1980-81 season. Byron played all 40 minutes and scored 25 points.

In the spring of 1983, Byron decided to skip his last season and enter the NBA draft. The big prize, Ralph Sampson, went to the Houston Rockets. After that, the Pacers took Steve Stipanovich and the Rockets picked again and chose Rodney McCray. The first guard selected was Byron, picked fourth by the San Diego Clippers. He was happy to be playing near home—and then ecstatic when he learned that he had been dealt to the Lakers. L.A. gave up Norm Nixon, Eddie Jordan and a couple of draft picks for Byron and backup center Swen Nater.


 

People look at your first summer as a pro and see a trade from the San Diego Clippers to the Lakers, and naturally they think you must have been the happiest man in California. Is that accurate?

   

Yeah, that’s an accurate statement. Although when I got drafted, I was just happy to be playing in San Diego, which was close to home. My mom and dad were just a couple of hours up the highway if they wanted to come see me. I was also honored to be the first guard chosen in the draft.

But when the Lakers made that trade to bring me over, I was in heaven. This was the team I’d followed my entire life—Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Happy Hairston, Gail Goodrich—it was a dream come true when Jerry West called me and said, “You’re now a Los Angeles Laker.” I was the luckiest man in California and the happiest man in California.

   

How did Norm Nixon feel?

   
Ha! I don't think he felt too good.

   

Go back to your rookie year for a moment. How well defined was your role with the Lakers?

   

Pat Riley was good at telling everybody what their roles were. He said, “We’re going to keep this as simple as possible. Your role is to defend, run, and score.”

That was my role for the first two months of the season, when I came off the bench. I played behind Mike McGee, who was coming off a good year before. I didn’t mind that. I knew I was a rookie and had a lot to learn. But I also knew that sooner or later it would be my job. We both ran the floor well, played pretty good defense and were extremely quick, but he wasn’t as good an outside shooter or rebounder as I was.

We lost three games in a row—that was a big slump for us—and Pat Riley said he wanted to make a change and put me in the starting lineup. I told myself then that I would never lose that starting job. And Riley knew once he put me in there I was going to work my butt off to stay there.



Byron Scott, 1984 Star
   
That spring in the NBA Finals, the Lakers and Celtics played a great series that went seven. L.A. won the first game in the Boston Garden, but the Celtics won the series, with a couple of OT wins in there. Had you ever seen a team fight that hard that well?
   

No, I hadn't. And I think that’s the reason that our team hated them so much. It wasn't until years later, when I had a chance to talk to Danny Ainge, Cornbread Maxwell and some of the other Celtics, that I realized that we all had so much in common. Both teams wanted to win so badly that they gave everything they had. We knew that series was going to be a fight. We felt we had the better team, but  they got us that year.


   
Did you learn anything about winning and losing in that series?
   

That series definitely helped us learn how to close out an opponent. We learned from our mistakes. We felt we should have won that series, and we didn’t.  We were determined not to let that happen again. Fortunately, we were able to get back to the Finals in my second year, and control the Celtics.


 

You became one of the go-to guys on the Lakers after that. The team won three championships in ’85, ’87 and ’88. As you look back, what defined those Laker teams? What did they have that you didn't see when you looked into the eyes of your opponents?

   

A will to win. My wife used to tell me about standing by the tunnel when we came out during the Finals, looking into our eyes and seeing how focused and determined we were. I don't ever remember seeing her at those times. I was that focused. We all were, from Magic on down to the last man. We had a will to win.


   

What gives a group of guys that shared focus?

   

I think we fed off of each other more than anything else. Riley gave us a game plan, so we all knew what we had to do, but once the game started we looked to each other for support. That was the biggest difference between us and other teams. If you or the guy next to you fell down, there was always someone to pick you up, no matter what.

We would make a pact. Our guards—me, Magic and Coop—would talk about dominating the other three or four guards. That was our mindset in a series. And the big guys would take care of their end. 


   


Byron played 10 seasons for the Lakers, sharing the backcourt with Magic Johnson and becoming one of the best all-around players in the league. He filled a supporting role on a team of superstars, knowing full well that in another jersey he could have been accorded that status himself.

Byron’s best season was 1987-88, when he logged over 3,000 minutes and netted 21.7 points per game. He could read a game and a situation and sense exactly how to tilt it in his team’s favor. Although Byron never earned an All-Star berth, around the NBA people knew how heavily the Lakers relied on him.


Byron Scott, 1988 Fleer
   

You were a nightmare for opponents on that L.A. team. Obviously you gave them outside shooting, but you also finished the fast break, penetrated and dished, and pulled up for medium-range jumpers. Did you ever think what your numbers might be on a team like the Hawks, where you could be the featured player, or was it all about the culture of winning on that Lakers team?

   

It was all about the rings. Jerry West once said, “You know if you were on another team you’d be averaging 25 a night.”

My response was, “OK.” It honestly had never entered my mind.

To this day, fans know how many championships I won. When I ask them what my scoring average was, they have no idea. I made a name for myself because I was part of an unbelievable basketball team that won NBA championships, and that’s what it’s all about.


   

Who were some of the unsung heroes you played with in L.A.—guys who left it all on the court but didn't get the headlines the starters did?

   

Mychal Thompson and Kurt Rambis were two guys who didn’t get a whole lot of headlines. But every game you knew what you were going to get from them. Mychal was one of the best sixth men ever to play in the NBA.


   

He was a funny guy, too.

   

Yeah, he was. We actually had a bunch of funny guys on that team. We had fun on the basketball court, fun on the plane, we went to movies together, we hung out—we truly liked each other and cared about each other. And we enjoyed competing together against other people. My rookie year, Magic told me, “When we win, we all win.” That made a big impression on me.



Byron learned lessons about playing and winning that would later enable him to make a quick transition to coaching—although he hardly realized it at the time. It wasn’t until he signed with the Indiana Pacers in 1993–94 that he began to see how his knack for winning could rub off on other players.


   

How much did you absorb from Pat Riley during your Laker years? He obviously saw something in you as a player that made him think you'd make a fine coach. Did you sense that, too?

   

It was something at that time that he saw. I honestly don’t know where it came from. We were talking one day, and he said, “You’ll understand someday when you become a coach.”

I looked at him and said, “You’re crazy. I’m never going to become a coach.”

I shrugged it off and never gave it a second thought. Years later, in Indiana, Larry Brown asked me if I’d ever thought about coaching. I said, “No, not really.”

He said, “I really think you would make a good coach.” That’s when I remembered Riley’s words five or six years earlier, and I kind of stored that in the back of my mind after that.



Pat Riley book
   

What did you find so unappealing about the thought of coaching for a living?

   

I don’t know. But I’m glad Brown brought it back up, because at that time I was 32 and was starting to wonder what I would do after my playing career. I had matured a bit and was starting to see that coaching might be the ideal outlet.

   

When you signed with the Pacers, it changed that team. They couldn't buy a win in the playoffs until you showed up, and then you swept the Magic that first year. You hit the winning shot in the opening game—you made a "Reggie Miller" with Reggie right on the court. Did that Pacers team have championship-caliber talent?

   

I think so. When I got off the plane in Indianapolis, a reporter interviewed me and asked why I picked the Pacers. I listed the reasons. Number one, Larry Brown. Number two, young talent. Number three, I’m going to teach them how to win.

I also said we were good enough to reach the Eastern Conference finals. He said, “This team can’t win a playoff series, how do you think they’ll get to the Eastern Conference championship?” Lo and behold, we got to the Eastern Conference Finals the two years I was there.


   

That was a bold statement.

   

It was, but I was always saying things that people thought were a little brash or a little overconfident. I said them because that’s what I was feeling at the time. The guys on the Pacers heard it and started to believe in it.



   

It’s nice to have the results to back up the words, right? That way people don’t think you’re just blowing smoke?

   

Yes. Yes it is. It was nice to walk into the locker room in Indiana and mentor the Pacers on the things we did in L.A. to be successful. The great thing about that team was that all those guys listened. They wanted to win, and they knew I knew how.

   

Could you have beaten the Rockets in the Finals?

   

I think we would have had a really good chance. Rik Smits was playing fantastic and so was Reggie Miller. Everyone else on the team understood their roles, and we played extremely hard. When we let the New York series slip away, we really felt like we had blown an opportunity to win a championship.



After two seasons in Indiana, a season with Vancouver, and one last go-round with the Lakers, Byron was looking at end-of-the-bench duty had he hung on in the NBA. Instead of retiring and exploring his coaching options, he surprised everyone by signing a one-year deal with the Greek team.

Byron had always been curious about the basketball culture in Europe, and had vowed to check it out one day. His wife loved Greece, so when the offer came he grabbed it. He joined the Greek team Panathinaikos at age 36, and helped it finish in first place. His teammates included former Celtic Dino Radja and Johnny Branch, a quicksilver guard who took his game overseas after a record-smashing college career.

Byron averaged 18.3 points per game and shot 40% from downtown. Panathinaikos made it to the championship, where they faced Thessaloniki and its sharp-shooting star, Peja Stojakovic. With Stojakovic scoring at will, Thessaloniki seized control of the series. Finally, Byron was assigned to stop him. The entire complexion of the series changed, and Panathinaikos won three games to two.


Johnny Branch photo
   

You took Peja’s lunch money in the championship series. What kind of defensive plan did you execute against him?

   

Man, I'm telling you, he was killing us in that championship series. In the first couple of games, we had this young guy on Peja who just could not guard him. The coach finally came up to me in Game 3 and asked, “What do you think about guarding him?”

I said, “It’s about time—I was waiting forever for you to ask me.”

I guarded him the rest of the way and slowed him down. I locked him down by crowding him and using my quickness, and that made the difference in our winning the championship.


   

And yet after that he decided to try the NBA.

   

Well, earlier that year Peja and I had talked during the regular season. He just started talking to me at halftime, asking my opinion of whether he should go to the NBA. I said, “Look, you’re one of the best players over here. You can always come back to Europe and be a star. But you should take your talent to the NBA and see what happens."

A few months later I’m an assistant coach in Sacramento and who do we get? Peja Stojakovic!


With another ring on his finger, Byron decided it was time to start thinking about the next step in his career. He was hired by Rick Adelman to work with the Sacramento Kings’ outside shooters.


   

You got a taste of coaching as an assistant with the Kings. Obviously you were able to help their perimeter guys, and the team had winning seasons. What was it about the job that told you coaching was a good fit?

   

The timing was good. I had just stopped playing, so I could relate to the guys easily. I could be a less of coach and more of a friend. I could play one-on-one with guys after practice and show them things at full speed.

A couple of times, Rick Adelman said, “You’re our best two-guard. We should be playing you.”

t was a great situation in Sacramento because when I thought about coaching, I didn’t see how it would work out. Being an NBA assistant and working closely with the players was something I loved, and it helped the transition from player to coach. One of my biggest supporters was Pete Carill.



During the summer of 2000, Byron was considered for a number of NBA coaching vacancies. He ended up in New Jersey, with the Nets.


   

How did the Nets job develop?

   

I interviewed with Indiana, Vancouver and Atlanta. I told Geoff Petrie and Rick Adelman that I would like the opportunity to be a head coach, but that if I didn't get an immediate offer, I would stay in Sacramento. Geoff suggested I speak to Rod Thorn about the opening in New Jersey, where there was a good young nucleus of players. Rod Thorn offered me the job a day or so after I interviewed.

   

How difficult was it to get the New Jersey players to think of themselves as a championship-caliber team?

   

From a coach’s standpoint, you just have to get them believing in their ability. You can’t jump all over guys and tell them they’re terrible. I told the guys this is what we have to do, this is what we can do, and if we do it we’ll be successful.

We had a tough year with a lot of injuries, but the following season Keith van Horn was healthy, we drafted Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins, Kenyon Martin was in his second season, and we acquired Jason Kidd. We had the right system to be successful. We just had to find the right players for the system, and we were able to do that.


Jason Kidd book


The Nets doubled their 26 wins and won the Atlantic Division in Byron’s second year at the helm. Their first major gut-check came in the playoffs against Indiana in the first round. In the finale of the best-of-five series, the two teams fought an epic battle that wasn’t decided until a second overtime, 120-109.

   

What was it like to watch that last playoff game against the Pacers from the sideline after being in so many as a coach?

   

I knew we were going to win. After 48 minutes, I looked into the eyes of every player on the bench and saw the kind of focus I remembered on the those Laker teams. I didn’t lose my cool, I tried to keep things loose. I told them, "Well, I guess we’re going to have to play another five minutes to win this thing."

Then, when we went to double-overtime, I said, “I lied, it’s going to take five more minutes."


The Nets defeated the Hornets and Celtics to reach the NBA Finals, where they were massacred by the Lakers. To the team’s credit, they returned to the Finals a year later.


   

Getting back to the Finals in 2003 was a neat trick—a lot harder than fans realize. How did you convey to the players what it would take for them to earn another shot at a championship?

   

We felt we had unfinished business. When the 2002 Finals opened in Los Angeles, the players were talking about the movie stars in the crowd, and I knew that we were going to have a tough time. But you know, with the exception of one game, we played the Lakers tough the whole way.

In terms of playing the following year, everyone understood that we had a big bullseye on our backs that we didn't have the year before. That was understood from the first day.

   

You get the “compare Jason to Magic” question a lot. What I want to know is how the Nets would have done with Byron Scott as their two guard?

   

Ha! I think maybe we would have won one of those series.


Byron’s stint with the Nets ended when he was replaced by assistant Lawrence Frank after a 22–20 start in 2003–04. The following year he took the head coaching job in New Orleans, with the Hornets. He slogged through a difficult 18–64 campaign, but put the wheels of improvement in motion. The following two seasons, the Hornets found themselves in the playoff hunt.


   

The Hornets are a team that rebuilt very quickly, and now have a chance to win every game they play. What was your impression of the team you were handed in 2004?

   

We were an old team that needed to get younger and faster. We brought in players like Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler and started to see a difference almost immediately.

   

Among the veterans you added was Peja Stojakovic, in 2006. Did you specifically look to sign him that year?

   

Oh yeah. My GM thought we had a shot at him and could afford him. I told him we had a good relationship, so go get him. He was a big signing for us. He’s not only a great player, he’s a great person. We’re glad to have him.

   

Of the players you faced in the '80s and '90s, name a couple who impressed you as having that knowledge of what it takes to win.

   

The first, of course, is Michael Jordan. Not only was he a great player, he is a genuinely nice person. Another would be Isiah Thomas. He was a tremendous competitor. It was a challenge and an honor to play against them.


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