As Byron Scott kept notes under Pat Riley and Larry Brown, the biggest coaching seat in Los Angeles was always in the back of his mind.
He wanted to be a coach.
He wanted to go home again.
As an Inglewood kid raised in the shadows of the Fabulous Forum, the Showtime running mate for Magic Johnson, there would turn out to be one more connection that could’ve delivered Scott to the Staples Center. Eleven years ago, Kobe Bryant had come to the Lakers and Jerry West brought Scott back to mentor him. Bryant insists that Scott taught him his most important lessons on professionalism.
“As long as Kobe is there, you would think about that job because of the relationship I had with him,” Scott said.
As much as a part of the New Orleans Hornets coach will be a Laker for life, the strangest thing has happened in his four years with the most fragile franchise in the sport: Out of the rubble, and losing and moving boxes, Scott has come to an improbable truth: His dream job found him.
The Lakers play the Hornets on Wednesday night in New Orleans, two startling candidates for the Western elite colliding on terrific tears. These are good young teams, threatening to be something serious this season. Scott never did want to see Kobe leave the Lakers, and even considered offering some of that old, big brother advice over the summer.
“There were times when I thought that I should give him a call, but I knew he was going to be OK,” Scott said. “Once the season started, all the other stuff was going to die down and Kobe would be Kobe on the court. One thing about him is that he’s able to focus, able to play great, under the craziest of situations of any athlete I’ve ever seen.”
Outside of Phil Jackson, maybe Scott would’ve been the most worthy candidate to command the respect of Bryant. Nevertheless, Jackson left in 2004, returned a year later, and with the development of Andrew Bynum, appears determined to chase his 10th title into the foreseeable future. Back then, the residue of Scott’s firing in New Jersey made him barely a blip in the search for Jackson’s successor.
There had been such an unfair movement to distance Scott and the Nets’ unprecedented success. When the Lakers didn’t want him in 2004, the Hornets did and maybe it was the best thing to ever happen to him. Most considered this a dismal job, and Hurricane Katrina compounded the program’s degree of difficulty.
Still, the reclamation of this franchise has gone arm-and-arm with that of Byron Scott’s coaching reputation. The Hornets are 23-11 with the worst home court in the NBA, with no bench and, best of all, no excuses. For the greatness of Chris Paul, these Hornets are such a reflection of Scott’s resolve and toughness. There’s a purity of Scott’s character, an honesty that so clearly spills onto the floor with them.
“As much as I love the Lakers organization, I can see myself with these guys here until Chris (Paul), Tyson (Chandler) and David (West) are ready to retire,” Scott said. “I’d like to be the Jerry Sloan here, and have a run like he did with Stockton and Malone. I would love to be here and see these guys through winning a championship.
“A few years ago, I thought a lot about going back to coach the team that I grew up with, that I loved, but that’s not the case anymore. For me, this has become a dream job.”
Under Scott, the Nets had gone to consecutive NBA Finals in ’02 and ’03. Halfway through ’04, he was gone. For all of its years of futility, the franchise’s transformation had been so sudden, so unexpected, no one understood how to handle success. Jason Kidd had loyalties to assistant coaches, not Scott. The locker room largely followed Kidd; where he went, so did they. Eventually, there were staff and players scrambling to carry out agendas, pushing power plays, and with a 22-20 record, Nets president Rod Thorn fired Scott.
In the wake of the Shaq-Kobe divorce, Jackson left the Lakers that spring in ’04 and Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak never seriously considered Scott. Scott had Magic and Kobe on his side, but there had been so much damage done to his professional reputation – attacks on his work ethic, suggestions that he was merely a figure-head coach – that no momentum grew to bring him back to Los Angeles.
As hell broke loose, Scott was remarkable in the center. He didn’t try to win the public-relations battle. He didn’t try to gather his guys in the press. He didn’t fight back. Coaches can be the most paranoid people because they see conspiracies everywhere. Someone is always out to get them. Mostly, it’s imagined, but in this instance, with Scott, they were truly out to get him. His dignity was unblemished.
“Believe me, I heard everything that was going on in Jersey and the one thing I told myself was that I was not going to stoop that low and become a part of that stuff,” he said. “The bottom line is that I knew I could coach. The first thing I asked from George Shinn was that I need to have full control over who I hire. I just didn’t want anyone on my coaching staff that I didn’t OK. I wanted to pick guys who I knew well, and who I knew that I could trust.”
Looking back, Scott isn’t too stubborn to think that the winning disguised his mistakes on the job in Jersey. There was so much Riley in his style, so much bravado, that he knows his relationships with players suffered. Sometimes, Scott would say too much in public and too little in private.
“At times I went too overboard,” Scott said. “I was too much of a disciplinarian. My communication is better now.”
Paul will tell you that he loves playing for Scott, that they connected from the moment the Hornets drafted him. Scott has turned this team over to him, the way that Riley did with Magic. Yes, Scott still calls plays when there’s something he wants done, but his seasons in Showtime ingrained in him that the NBA belongs to the players, and too often the suits on the sidelines spoil the spontaneity of the genius.
“The more freedom and trust you give them, the better they’re going to play,” Scott said.
Among the Western Conference elite teams, they’ll privately tell you this: They’ll be even more fearful of this team in the playoffs if the Hornets can make a couple deals to improve the bench. Scott simply says that his bench has been “terrible,” and knows that he’s playing Paul, Chandler and West far too many minutes.
“The minutes worry the hell out of me,” Scott said. “It worries me in the long run. In March and April, are they going to be so tired that they won’t have anything left?”
Absorbing salary is always an issue for this cash-strapped team, last in the league in attendance. Yet they have such an opportunity to make a move in the West now, to elevate closer to the elite. The Lakers come to town on Wednesday and they’re as hot as the Hornets. This is the kind of night, the kind of packed house, they don’t get much in New Orleans. The people come to see LeBron James and they come for Kobe Bryant.
“I understand that’s how it goes here now,” Scott said, “but maybe they’ll see us, see our team, and want to come back again.”
The Hornets are still a tough sell in New Orleans, but the old Showtime shooting guard bought into it all. His team, his guys, his reclamation project. Here, Byron Scott earned back his good coaching name. No one can dare take it away again.