Byron Scott, 360 Degrees

Basketball death is in the water. It sounds extreme but it’s a pretty simple calculus. Byron Scott may be the fall guy this year and drown. Just as Mike D’Antoni was the fall guy two years ago and drowned.  Just as Mike Brown couldn’t save himself. One man, begets another. One loser follows another. It’s been a mournful exercise. You can’t sweep the carnage out the back door fast enough.

If the city of Los Angeles is divided on Byron’s future, so is the Lakers front office. Collectively, they are a mess. Without much cohesive direction and leadership, it is the blind leading the blind and everyone crashing into something. They have not given Byron a thumbs up or a thumbs down, and even if they had, could he trust them to stick to their word?

When Byron took the job, he knew the uphill climb to respectability.  He knew the Lakers didn’t have much talent on the court. He knew they were the 76ers west. He knew they had a plan of amassing young talent and you don’t win with young talent. He knew there was a plan, a long shot, but a plan just the same, to pull in star talent. He knew without that talent they would be in the lottery year after year after year. Give him credit. He had done this before but with Kyrie Irving. He had done this before but with Chris Paul.

No one that talented was currently in-house. But it was the Lakers. Being broken, being hated, being mocked, being ridiculed, being reviled, being talked about wasn’t a crime. It had happened to Byron Scott before. He knew the feeling.

Hate Bryon Scott, do you? Stand in line.

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In 1983, the phone rang . Donald Sterling answered it. On the other end was his good friend Jerry Buss. Buss and Sterling were old real estate pals. It was Sterling who loaned Buss cash to help close the deal on the Lakers sale and it was Buss, who, after that first title in 1980, convinced Sterling to buy a NBA team. Now it was Buss asking Sterling a basketball question. Did he want Norm Nixon?

Buss, always the gambler who believed in looking ahead, thought the 28 year old guard’s body was starting to break down. His proposal was forthright. Buss would give Sterling Norm Nixon. But he wanted the Clippers first round draft pick. The shooting guard kid selected with the fourth pick. The 22 year old Byron Scott. The Inglewood kid who played at Arizona State. The quiet, tough kid who could shoot.

Did he want Norm Nixon? Was that even a question? Sterling couldn’t believe his luck. But you don’t trade young for old. You don’t trade innocent for unhappy.

Everyone has a Norm Nixon in their life, someone who has great opportunities but is never satisfied, someone who broods over the smallest injuries and insults, turning them into vicious wounds. Someone who always sweats the small stuff.

In his rookie year, Nixon clashed with Jerry West. West was a tough ass coach who was driven, a 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: 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. Criticism D’Angelo Russell hears repeatedly.

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

“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)

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 was forced to adjust.  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, and 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.

“I don’t want to be here” Nixon told Lon Rosen, Lakers Director of Promotions. Later, he tried to take it back but by then it was too late.

Donald Sterling said hell yeah. He wanted Norm Nixon. He’d trade Byron Scott. It was October 15th 1983.

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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.

But, as Byron Scott soon discovered, Jerry West couldn’t help him when everything fell apart. He was a Laker but he was hated. Worse, his new teammates felt like they had been sucker punched. All that was missing were shrouds of black and someone singing Amazing Grace. It had the feeling of a funeral, like Nixon had just been buried in a tomb.

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-exist with Johnson in the long term. But, they won titles together. Which led to an even bigger question: who was this Byron Scott kid? Could he play?

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We have known him a long time. It was an easy courtship, a sometimes rocky marriage. When he accepted the job, there was applause. Everywhere he went, he was stopped. At the gas station. At the grocery. Leaving his car. Byron’s Laker career paralleled the city. The city came to life when Showtime was its defining act. Byron was the local kid on the team, the Inglewood product.  He was family. We were proud.

He is not family anymore. Or he is the family that divorces because of irreconcilable differences. We are no longer proud. He’s never been likable in the face of adversity. He’s been relentless in the face of adversity. And combative. Losing is hard; his face freezes after every game, every loss. His smile is etched out of stone. His voice is tight. It’s hard to tell if he feels shame by everything that has happened. Is he mortified? In any case, he covers it up well. You can be fine and you can be demoralized too.

The measurement the Lakers are using to judge Byron Scott is a little bit murky. If it’s on wins and losses, the Lakers are exactly where most figured they would be. D’Angelo Russell and Juilus Randle are better players now than they were on opening night. The argument can be made that the kids’ development would have happened with any coach. But to deny Scott any credit would be petty. He has his flaws but he isn’t a magician. He can’t make D’Angelo Russell into a Russell Westbrook prototype. He can’t give Julius Randle LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range. He has to take what he has and work with it.

Phil Jackson’s definition of coaching is insular: rid the innate selfishness out of players. Make them understand the value of team. This Lakers version aren’t holistically a selfish crew. They just don’t trust each other to make the right play at the right time. Trust is only evident when Marcelo Huertas, a pure, experienced point guard, is organizing the offense. But they are still very young.

Judge him on this, the strategic ethic, how the Lakers play. Put his ideas under the microscope. The Lakers don’t move the ball from side to side. They get caught up in the hero play. They don’t embrace the moment. They give up on each other. When Zach Randolph said, “bruh come get your man” after D’Angelo Russell hurt his shin, that was an embarrassing moment for the Lakers as a collective unit. They should have sprinted in before Randolph. But is that Scott’s fault? Or, is this group too immature at this stage to focus on anything but individual achievement.

It’s not something Byron Scott understands. His soul has a hard core.  He’s straight forward, without punches and often without mercy. He is a product of his Inglewood background where only the tough survive the mostly unsurvivable pain. His poverty ethic hasn’t left him even though he left poverty behind a long time ago. But resilience is in the mind. Keep working. Keep hustling. Keep doing. Micro manage 24-7.

Everything he is can be traced to everything Pat Riley was, and everything Pat Riley was is the Byron Scott DNA of today. Had he been in a situation where there was something more than tough love, he’d be a different man. Had someone offered him any kind of gentleness, he’d be a different coach. Had anyone protected him, he’d be the nurturing father figure to D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle.

But in 1983-84, it was hell he had to live through.

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There’s nothing worse than a group of pissed off players. Their revulsion seeps out the pores in a stench. Their disgust cuts their eyes at the lid. They whisper about you in front of you as if you are invisible.

The Lakers wanted nothing to do with the 22 year old Byron Scott who they blamed for the exile of Norm Nixon. But, Byron, growing up where he grew up, seeing what he had seen, pressed up against the worst of times and the best of times, had been through enough things so 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#ck him. We didn’t talk to him, we hit him, we did everything to f#ck 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 going to bail him out. 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 grief. Either you were tough, according to West, or you needed to get the hell out, you don’t belong on the Lakers.

The former slave and Greek philosopher, Epictetus, said it best, and it was that very thing that Byron understood during his year of turmoil.  Some things are within your control and some things are not.

Eventually, Magic Johnson 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.

But this November there was a change in the air.  Three weeks had passed since Norm Nixon was traded. Michael Cooper had gotten over the shock of it.

“I really felt bad for Norm because nobody in their f#cking 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#cking San Diego Clipper.”

But, it was Nixon’s night to savor, one of those sequences for a professional athlete when the world is fair. His 25 points, 12 assists helped beat the Lakers 110-106, stunning the Lakers crowd who expected the normal Clippers beat down. Nixon’s egocentricity after the fact was as familiar as the swag.

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, 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.

Byron Scott, in his rookie year, played in 74 games, averaging 11 points, shooting 48% in 22 minutes. The Lakers once again made it to the NBA Finals to face the Boston Celtics and, as usual, the Celtics and their rowdy fans were up to no good. The alarms went off in the Lakers hotel at all hours of the night and players had to scramble, deprived 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.

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. 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, 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. They were willing to go in the gutter to get a title. The Celtics wanted it to be nasty and by God 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.

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Excellence, Aristotle once wrote, is a habit.

There were few witnesses to Scott’s summer work. But he began training camp with a different game and a driven psyche, his Celtics failure in the back of his mind. He led the league in three point shooting and averaged 16 points a game. He was the perfect compliment to Johnson and Worthy. Riley gave him the utmost praise 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.

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.

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He doesn’t do half-way, ever. He has one more year left on his contract. If he is fired, it is because there is a better coach and his name is Tom Thibodeau. If he is fired, it is because there is a younger coach and his name is Luke Walton. If he is not fired, it is because Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Byron Scott will all ride out together, unemployed in 2017 but having done their part.

There is no gray area with Byron. You love him like Kobe does. Or, you hate his guts like Jason Kidd does. He doesn’t do middle. He doesn’t do vanilla. He doesn’t do maybe. He doesn’t walk the line.  The Lakers hated him once in his life. And then they loved him. Now they are on the fence about what to do about him.

When crunching the Byron numbers, one thing is true. He is going to be the man you know. He is going to say the truth. He is going  to be out front. He is going to laugh at fear. He is going to be that round peg that won’t fit the square hole. He is going to be rock, not water; he won’t break. He won’t break. It’s not his nature to please and placate and passively do the easy thing. He never displays contrition. Or sorrow. It is the Byron Scott paradox. He does tough easier than he does excellent.

And that is the problem for the Lakers going forward into their future. Excellence is on the clock. It is needed.

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