Rebuilding the Lakers: Byron Scott Was the Teammate No One Wanted


Rebuilding the Lakers is a five parts series focusing on the Lakers effort to regain championship glory. Part 2 is the trading of fan favorite Norm Nixon for Byron Scott in the middle of the Showtime dynasty.

In his Inglewood life, Byron Scott collected habits. Playing basketball was a habit that bordered on obsession but there were rules too, the ways of the street. Even though athletes were protected, in a world that rarely extended mercy, Byron Scott had to be careful. To his credit, he didn’t take the path that would leave him dead or doing time or strung out on crack.

At the age of eighteen, he fled the harshness of Inglewood’s often violent world for the silence of dry Arizona where he was a quiet and well-liked teammate, one who was noticed by Jerry West. And, someone else too: Paul Phipps, the Clippers General Manager.

Dec 25, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott talks with referee James Capers (19) during the second quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The problem with any draft is that it brings out those who think they know everything. There was talk about Byron Scott and the Clippers being a perfect fit. Frequently outmaneuvered and often mismanaged, the Clippers were trying to establish themselves as a young franchise with talent, south of Los Angeles. But the cynics thought Scott, who the Clippers drafted with the #4 pick, was an ambitious reach. Fourteen maybe, but not four.

"“Byron Scott is a good kid, great character, outstanding potential. With him we have the pieces to be a good young franchise.” (Pete Babcock, Clippers Director of Player Personnel, in a conversation with Donald Sterling)"

After being drafted, the last thing Scott wanted was a greedy label to follow him throughout the early part of his career. In the early eighties, all earnings had to be negotiated which meant dealing with Donald Sterling. Sterling wanted to stonewall which was a business strategy he relied on- drain the other side, make them so impatient their innate desire for fairness is suppressed because they are fatigued. Scott asked for a four year, $1.75 million dollar deal, pretty standard for where he was drafted.

But, this was Sterling who was, if nothing else, a dog with a bone when he sensed he could save a buck. Often irrational to the point of lunacy, Sterling was predictably paranoid and had prepared to drag the negotiations down an abyss. Except this time, Donald Sterling was saved from himself. In the middle of all the contract drama, the telephone rang.

Four months earlier, the Lakers were in the NBA Finals, playing a grueling, physical Philadelphia 76ers team headed by Moses Malone. To Malone, the Lakers were that irritating piece of gum that wouldn’t leave his shoe but nothing close to a threat. The Lakers, absorbed in their own light, had a soft core and Malone went out to prove it. Malone averaged 26 points and 18 rebounds and was the 1983 Finals MVP. The series was a sweep and was never close enough for the outcome to be in doubt as the Lakers were particularly man-handled and physically pushed around.

It was a blow to the Lakers chances that Norm Nixon was injured in game one- a separated shoulder- after a violent run in with Sixer guard Andrew Toney. In a famous exchange, Pat Riley asked Nixon if he needed a blow before going back in. Nixon answered, “No, a casket.”

The knock on Showtime was that it was pretty and flashy but it was butterfly wing soft. The Sixers turned the Pat Riley creation into a mitigating disaster. The Lakers were annihilated and it was brutal to watch. The team that had won titles in 1980 and 1982 now had to rebuild on the fly.

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So, when the phone rang and Donald Sterling answered it, a personal dream of his was coming true though when Sterling dreamed often it had to do with some twisted fantasy in which he was being absolved of something rather than his life changing on a dime. On the other end was his good friend Jerry Buss, the reason he had a NBA franchise in the first place. Buss asked Sterling if he wanted Norm Nixon, the 28 year old guard whose body was starting to break down. He’d give him Nixon for the draft pick, the #4 shooting guard, the 22 year old Byron Scott.

Norm Nixon was as famous as a ghost. In 1977, at draft time, no one had ever heard of him or the college he attended- Duquesne- a private Catholic University in Pennsylvania, the college home of the first black player drafted in the NBA, Chuck Cooper. Nixon was their all-time assist leader and averaged 17 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds, not that his games were ever televised nationally or weighted with any sense of importance.

Everyone has a Norm Nixon in their life, someone who has great opportunities but is never satisfied, someone who broods over the small injuries and insults, turning them into vicious wounds. They may move on but they can never let go. That was Nixon. He had a list of slights. He wanted to play college ball in the SEC but they weren’t recruiting a lot of black athletes, only special ones, so he went to Pittsburgh. That made him stew. The Lakers drafted him 22nd but he was particularly angry they drafted two other players before him (Kenny Carr and Brad Davis.) When Magic Johnson became a Laker, it made Nixon’s blood boil listening to the love fest as everyone assumed Magic would be the starting point guard and Nixon would be booted from his perch. The disrespect stung.

Oct 28, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers former player Magic Johnson in attendance during the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In his rookie year, Nixon clashed- to put it mildly, it was more like a civil war- with Jerry West (the Lakers coach). West was as brutal as his jumper was sweet. He was a tough, driven, criticism-is-love kind of motivator that the notoriously thin skinned Nixon, whose ego was bigger than his ambitions, never took in stride. Everything you think of a player in the negative was what West would berate Nixon with, knocks on his character that was death by paper cuts: you’re a whiner, you’re soft, you’re inexperienced and bad, you’re not up to the job of being a Laker, you’re lazy.

Nixon was not one to just let it ride, he dished back creating a tense atmosphere around the team between player and coach.

"“Norm probably never realized this but he was one of my favorite guys. He was very talented and very competitive. But, he was wild and made some stupid mistakes. I was harder on him than anyone else because I knew what was there. Even to this day, I’m not so sure Norm Nixon doesn’t think of me as the anti-Christ.” (Jerry West)"

Still, in his rookie year Nixon averaged 14 points and 7 assists. At 6-2, he was quick and agile getting into the lane and he had a nice step back jumper but Nixon could only see the world from the inside out. His innate sensitivity to being judged was his major flaw, particularly two years later, when Magic Johnson came to the team. Nixon’s rule of law no longer mattered then as Johnson was the natural leader that Nixon was not and teammates began to follow him.

But, Nixon saw the world one way: no one’s better than me. The Lakers brass saw it another way: Magic Johnson is a transformational player. So enamored with the narrative playing inside his head, Nixon never felt the front office chill, that he was being tolerated, that when the time was right, despite the fan’s adoration of him (Jack Nicholson wore black when Nixon was traded) he was dead man walking.

Helped by a moment of sulking and depression and bitterness, Jerry West was given the green light in the fall of 1983 when Nixon, engulfed in one of his dark and sordid moods, said he was open to a trade. “I don’t want to be here” he told Lon Rosen, Lakers Director of Promotions. Later, he tried to take it back but by then it was too late, Jerry West had the ball rolling. Norm Nixon was Donald Sterling’s problem now. And Byron Scott was a Laker. It was October 15th 1983.

But, as Byron Scott soon discovered, it wasn’t smooth sailing replacing a teammate and a friend.

Michael Cooper was struck numb by the trade and so was his coach Pat Riley who put together a video tribute for the team and Nixon who were in Palm Desert for their training camp. It felt like a wake. All that was missing were shrouds of black and someone singing Amazing Grace. It had the feeling of a war death, like Nixon had been blown up on the battlefield and they were there to bury him.

Mar 28, 2013; Washington, D.C., USA; Miami Heat president Pat Riley attending the semifinals of the East regional of the 2013 NCAA tournament between the Marquette Golden Eagles and Miami Hurricanes at the Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

No one was in denial. Nixon had an annoying personality that grated most of the time. It was hard to see how he was going to co-exit with Johnson in the long term. But, they won titles together which meant they suffered and they rejoiced. Which led to an ever bigger question: who was this Byron Scott kid?

Unaware of the chasm his arrival triggered, Byron entered a den of hostility as a group of pissed off players wanted nothing to do with him. But, Byron, growing up where he grew up, seeing what he seen, pressed up against the worst of times and the best of times, had been through enough things that being ignored and not spoken to and misjudged didn’t register. Every time he took the ball to the hole on a fast break lay-up, he was given a cheap shot to the ribs, but he was smart enough to realize he was a rookie. He didn’t complain about it. He was the outsider, the one who had broken up their perfect little family and so he had to be punished until they decided he was one of them.

"“I always thought of myself, Norm and Magic as the Three Musketeers and Byron broke that up so f–k him. We didn’t talk to him, we hit him, we did everything to f–k him up. I saw Byron play a little bit in college but he wasn’t so impressive to me. So, when he came, he had to pay his dues. He took it all like a man.” (Michael Cooper)."

Scott, in later years, reflecting on his treatment, referred to it as the ‘sound barrier’. Jerry West, the man who engineered the entire thing wasn’t bothered by it. West had grown up a hard-nosed kid with an abusive, hateful father and a soldier brother who died in the war, he had layers and layers of wounds. Either you were tough, according to West, or you need to get the hell out, you don’t belong on the Lakers. Eventually, Magic Johnson finally broke the ice, won over by Scott’s demeanor of patience and stubbornness and guts.

Scott never moaned and whined, or worse, he never tried to make Johnson or Cooper like him. He wasn’t a chameleon, adapting himself to the environment and trying to please someone else. He wasn’t weak. One time, Scott offered Kareem Abdul-Jabaar a cup of water after a scrimmage and Abdul-Jabaar turned his back; that didn’t phase Scott either. This was not his doing, he wasn’t the one who traded Nixon. Jerry West did. So, Scott was willing to wait it out.

But, the team soon found out that Byron Scott, the rookie, played like a rookie. How was that going to work when they were trying to get back to the Finals? Scott could shoot but he couldn’t do much of anything else. His defense was bad, he had an allergy to going left and his footwork was non-existent. All of Scott’s cockiness, a trait he shared with Nixon, counted for absolutely nothing.

The third game into his rookie year (the Lakers were 2-0) the Clippers were on the schedule. The Clippers were a pretty meaningless game. The Lakers always won, the crowds left early, no one much cared. In San Diego, thousands of Lakers fans would make the two hour car trip and tilt the house so it felt like a Lakers game until they got bored and couldn’t stand around for the carnage.

But this November there was a change in the air. The Clippers and Donald Sterling were particularly happy to get Norm Nixon, erroneously believing they had a piece of Showtime and they would take off the same way the Lakers took off, not understanding that Showtime began and ended with Magic Johnson.

So there they were on November 2nd in the San Diego Sports Arena, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper and Byron Scott facing an angry and bitter Norm Nixon who considered being traded to the Clippers the same as being traded to Iceland. It was a packed house that night with a peculiarly raucous energy as if the crowd was there to see a fight, not a game.

The Clippers had Terry Cummings who was the second player drafted in 1982. Bill Walton was on the team too but Norm Nixon was the show stopper that night as he faced his former team with his perpetual chip on his shoulder, pissed at the trade, pissed the Lakers had done this to him, pissed at Magic Johnson for ruining his Lakers dream, pissed at Jerry West, just angry at everything.

"A month had passed so Michael Cooper had gotten over the shock of it. “I really felt bad for Norm because nobody in their f–king mind wanted to be a Clipper. But I also thought he was really stupid. It’s the classic curse of getting what you ask for. He’d complained a lot when he was with us. Well, congratulations. You’re a f–king San Diego Clipper.”"

But, it was Nixon’s night to savor, one of those sequences for a professional athlete when revenge drips with sweat in equal measure. 25 points, 12 assists helped beat the Lakers 110-106, stunning the Lakers crowd who expected the normal beating and then yawn. Nixon’s egocentricity after the fact was as familiar as his overreaction to the meaning of it all, like a story with alternate endings. Nixon repeated the one in which the hero is crowned even if that was a version that could never come true.

Nixon wanted to believe the Clippers had relevance, that he had the brilliance to take them somewhere, that there would be a rivalry with him and Johnson for the next four years. The truth was the Clippers were the Clippers meaning Walton was injured, the Clippers role players were mediocre talents and even though Nixon poured in 17 points and 11 assists in one of the best years of his career, the team only won 30 games while the Lakers, without Nixon, and with a rookie Byron Scott, won 54 games.

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Byron Scott, in his rookie year, played in 74 games, averaging 11 points, shooting 48% in 22 minutes. The Lakers once again made it the NBA Finals to face the Boston Celtics and, as usual, the Celtics and their rowdy fans were up to no good. For example, the alarms went off in the Lakers hotel at all hours of the night and players had to scramble, depriving themselves of precious sleep. For most of them it was a nuisance, the getting up, the going back to bed, the getting up again.

But, Abdul-Jabaar suffered from migraines and the constant noise and upheaval triggered brain pain. Before Game 1, he missed the team breakfast and the team bus, his head was in revolt. No matter. He had 32 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists as the Lakers beat the Celtics on their home floor.

Scott had a ‘Welcome Rookie’ to the NBA Finals in game two when he was destroyed by Danny Ainge who buried shot after shot right in Scott’s face. Magic Johnson had a brilliant performance (27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) but in the last seconds Johnson, who still had time on the clock to win the game, for some unknown reason, dribbled until it was too late to do anything. The Lakers lost in overtime.

Feb 20, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers crushed the Celtics in game 3, humiliating them with 51 fast break points. The Celtic revenge in game 4 was to play dirty (tough). The infamous Kevin McHale takedown of Kurt Rambis initiated a new narrative for the series: hate.

From the Eastern Conference lens, Showtime was nothing more than a beauty pageant or a poetry slam that could never endure the persistent stubborn test of smash and grind basketball. Ainge said “we’ve got to foul someone hard.” Pat Riley said, “No layups.”

Robert Parish pushed Abdul-Jabaar around. Bird was electric (29 points, 21 rebounds) and just like in game two, with a tie score and time for a game winning shot, Magic Johnson dribbled out the clock for no apparent reason and the Celtics won in overtime.

The teams each won a game to bring it to a game 7 in Boston Garden and once again, just as was the case against the brutal 76ers, the Lakers were manhandled and dragged around. The Celtics won the rebounding battle by 20. They dug their way to a victory because they were the team that was willing to win the game and win the fight and win the war without caring about how pretty it all was. The Celtics wanted it to be nasty and it was.

When it was all said and done and the Celtics won the title in that suffocatingly hot sweat box and they were dousing themselves with champagne, far away in a hotel room, Magic Johnson sat on his bed and cried.

Byron Scott had the sort of NBA Finals a rookie usually has. In 5 of the seven games he didn’t score in double figures. He scored 15 points total. He didn’t shoot the ball well which was understandable since this was his first time on the big stage. But, that didn’t change the impression. People expected him to be Norm Nixon. After it was over, he vowed to get better, to improve.

He did. In his second year, he led the league in three point shooting and averaged 16 points a game. He was the perfect complement to Johnson, Worthy, Cooper and Abdul-Jabaar. Riley paid him the utmost compliment when he said Scott was the “best shooter in basketball. From fifteen to twenty five feet, there’s no more consistent shooter.” Add to that, Scott, because of his agility and toughness, was a hawk on defense guarding the other team’s best guard. He had grown into a quality NBA player in two years, what Jerry West always envisioned.

With the Norm Nixon divorce a thing of the past, Byron Scott’s teammates grew to not just accept him but to love him for who he and what he was. He was the best of Norm Nixon without the worst. He had a nice ego, a good stroke with the ball, a good handle but he didn’t complain and he didn’t have a chip on his shoulder and he wasn’t trying to disprove a negative every five minutes. Scott expected good things to happen to him, he never second guessed the draw in life he had been given. Plus, he liked to compete. He didn’t do half-way, ever.

It’s funny how things work in the end, regardless of how bleak it appears in the beginning. The player no one wanted, the one who was beaten to a pulp in practice, the player they ignored and didn’t trust, finally was one of the Three Amigos. It was Johnson, Cooper and Scott, an inevitable fraternity of trust. But, Scott had yet to make his mark on the league. He still trailed Norm Nixon in championships even as he proved one important thing. He was a Los Angeles Laker. And he did belong.

"“It took us awhile after Norm left but eventually Byron was beloved. He was family.” (Michael Cooper)"

(Acknowledgments: Showtime, Jeff Pearlman; West by West, My Charmed, Tormented Life, Jerry West and Jonathan Coleman)

Rebuilding the Lakers Part 3: Can Kobe Forgive The Greatest Coach of All Time?

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