The numbers say it all. Byron Scott went to eight NBA Finals. He beat the Celtics in the old Boston Garden, on the parquet floor. He won three titles as a player. He won 60+ games in a season five times. He coached three transformational guards- Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving- the last two he inherited as rookies and they made the All Star team. All Byron Scott has ever done is play and then coach, win and then celebrate, achieve and then teach, sacrifice and then explain. Would you want him on the Lakers? Would you want him to coach the new team coming in?
If nothing else his basketball life is a circle. Byron Scott inhaled the nuances of the game and used it to drive himself to impeccable heights: he was the fourth pick in the 1983 NBA draft. He suffered through tough circumstances. Unwanted by the fans, his teammates tested his toughness in practice and in games. Byron would not break; it was not his nature. He took the challenge of it and then he thrived. And so it is that Byron Scott is a repeat visitor to the NBA Finals. He went six times with the Lakers. Two times with New Jersey. Three of those eight years he won titles. He beat Larry Bird. He beat Isaiah Thomas. And then later, much later, and a little older, he lost to Kobe and the next year he lost to Tim Duncan. It was all the same thing, effort and discipline and teaching. Along the way there was ecstasy in the pursuit of winning. There was sorrow in the acceptance of defeat. Still. Byron Scott was a player on the biggest stage, a coach doing the only thing that mattered, playing for a title. It is all he has ever done.
His 30 year NBA career has had multiple lives. He replaced a beloved player. His best friend was diagnosed with HIV. He lost in the Finals against his former team. He had to move his team to Oklahoma City because of Hurricane Katrina. He was fired. He missed out on coaching Lebron James. He knew Kobe at 18, mentored him. He coached Jason Kidd to two NBA Finals appearances. He guided a young Chris Paul and earned Coach of the Year honors when the New Orleans Hornets won their division. His influence on the talented: Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, all Hall of Fame talent, was a message of overcoming how you think. You are never greater than how hard you work. Byron can be a tough as nails coach, impossibly driven as was his mentor, Pat Riley, but Byron knows you have to play defense and you have to be tough and you have to believe you are better than everyone you are playing against.
In 1983, Jerry West shocked Lakers fans when he traded popular Norm Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for an Inglewood native who was a shooting guard. He played college at Arizona State. The local reaction was more like, Byron who? In those early ESPN days not much regional coverage was given, especially to a school like Arizona State. It was all about UCLA. And Georgetown. And St. John’s. And then here he was, appearing like a ghost, emerging out of nowhere, a kid who Jerry West thought was better than Norm Nixon. On the face of it that seemed impossible. Happy go lucky, funny, talented with the ball Norm Nixon was as much a Laker as Magic and Kareem. Now he was gone, shipped south. He was leaving for someone no one ever heard of and it wasn’t easy in the first few weeks. Jerry West made the decision but Bryon took the abuse until everyone saw he could shoot, he could defend, he was tough. And he was not scared.
He was on the All Rookie team. He shot 48%. He started 49 games. By the time it was his fifth year in the league he was the Lakers leading scorer but by then it was near the end. 1987-88 was the last of two back-to-back titles. Unfair as it was, it would be over. It would be goodbye to several beautiful things: Pat Riley and his perseverance, Kareem and his hook shot, Showtime and its dominance. Of course, Byron would continue his career with the Lakers and his last year with the team was in 1996 when the Lakers drafted a 17 year old out of Philadelphia. The one year Byron and Kobe were teammates they would sit together on the bus and both impressed the other with their stories. Somehow it is 18 years later. Both are a little older, but more experienced and mature and have seen it all, the good and the dismal. For Kobe, the end of days, his “wild ride”, is almost here. For Byron, perhaps this is the beginning.
It is like walking in sand, this Lakers season- the footprints will wash away. Most of the players who endured this year will be gone. The coaches should be gone too. The slate will be clean for a new philosophy and new era. Byron’s teams have always played defense. His Nets team that went to the Finals was 5th in defense in 2002. They were 3rd in assists, 4th in steals, 6th in blocks, 8th in rebounding. Teams did not score 100 points against them. In that 2001-02 season, they gave up 67 points to the Wizards, 68 points to the Bulls, 77 points to the Nuggets. They had a streak of 10 games when they did not give up 100 points. Offensively, they did not have a 20 point scorer. Jason Kidd, Keith VanHorne and Kenyon Martin all averaged 15 points a game. Kerry Kittles averaged 14 points. But they shared the ball and the pieces all fit.
In 2007-08, his New Orleans Hornets team gave up 95 points a game. They were 5th in defense. They were 4th in steals and they were the best team in the NBA in preventing steals. They were 6th in three point defense. They gave up 76 points to the Timberwolves. 76 points to the Cavaliers. And 78 points to the Spurs, the defending champions. That year, the Hornets had two 20 point scorers in Chris Paul and David West. Peja Stojavick averaged 14 points and Tyson Chandler pulled down 12 rebounds a game.
Last night, after the Lakers stunned the Trailblazers with their victory, in the post game show, Byron Scott broke down four defensive sets and as he was explaining the rarity of the Lakers defense and all that they did right, (for once), it was painfully obvious what the Lakers have been missing all season. It made you wonder, what if? What if he had been the Lakers coach to start this year? What if he had them playing tough and gritty? Perhaps Byron’s dedication to defensive theory and principles would have created more wins like Portland and less losses like Memphis. Or perhaps not. But this is true. Of all the other coaching candidates available to Mitch Kupchak, including the one who currently has the job, no one is tougher than Byron Scott. No one is more relentless in his defense first and sacrifice philosophy. No one has been to the finals as many times.
And yet, for Byron, the Lakers and this season is familiar territory. He was the Cavs coach the year after Lebron left, that horrible, humiliating year when they were depending on Antawn Jamison and Baron Davis and J.J. Hickson to make something happen. They couldn’t do it. It was no greater sense of failure than Wesley Johnson and Pau Gasol and Jodie Meeks trying to put their own bandage on a bleeding wound. The Cavs won 19 games that year. Their low point was losing by 57 points to the Lakers. They had a losing streak of 10 games. Two days later they began another streak and it would last 26 games. So Byron is uniquely positioned to understand how woeful it can be and how important talent is, how rosters are dependent upon players who are skilled at their position. You can’t just throw anyone out there.
Blood is on the leaves now. The Lakers are playing hard, winning games even as their schedule works against them. The Clippers, Thunder and Spurs are coming up. There is the sense that the Lakers are willing to ride this all out. Win and see what happens in the lottery. Lose and see what happens in the lottery. Kupchak did not do what he could have, what some believe he should have. He did not clear the deck. Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill are still on the team.
A long time ago Mitch Kupchak and Byron Scott were teammates. They were there in game 6 when the Lakers won it all. It was Boston and that made it extraordinary. And amazing. Because of that, of winning against all odds, Kupchak understands Byron in a way no one else can. Teammates understand fate and destiny and growing together. Besides, Mitch and Byron did the unthinkable together. Now they can do the possible. Trust each other and piece together this new Lakers era.