Byron Scott Watches, Waits to Get Back in the Game
Before he heads back to his Culver City home to catch the Game 1 tip-off between the Lakers and Suns in the Western Conference Finals, before the Worldwide Leader sends a Town Car just before halftime to whisk him down I-10 East to the television studios just across from the Staples Center, he sits with a reporter and his agent in a booth inside B.J.'s restaurant near his house and evaluates the very coaches he used to compete against.
"Doc Rivers," he quickly answers when asked which coach is at his best in this postseason. "I think Doc has done a tremendous job (with Boston). ... Experience always helps, being a team that has won a championship, with a coach now who has won a championship. Doc understands what it takes."
He means what he's saying, of course. But truth be told, Scott wishes he was the one pushing for the ring instead of pontificating about it.
Scott is loving this life in his hometown, this so-called unemployment world he calls "the stress-free zone." With his three kids all grown and out of the house, Scott and his wife, Anita, have quality time every day. They meet in the mornings at the gym, have a midday lunch and spend much of the in-between time visiting family and friends with whom they lost touch while living the NBA lifestyle for so many years back East. Scott, the former beloved Laker and New Jersey and New Orleans coach, has four to five ESPN appearances a month, the side job giving him a chance to break down the game with no risk and plenty of reward.
"You can't get blamed for losing games, which is kind of cool," he jokes.
But he is, after all, a competitor, one who wants back into the coaching game. Not someday, but now.
"It's been great to reconnect and everything, but as soon as I get home and turn on the TV and see a basketball game, that's where I want to be," said Scott, who won three championships as a player with the Lakers, took the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003 and was the Coach of the Year in 2007-08 with the Hornets before getting fired nine games into last season. "It just gets you more anxious to get back out there. The wheels start turning, the anxiety starts happening to you. Your heart rate starts going up.
"Watching the playoffs, that's something that you dream about doing, being on the sideline in situations like this. This is the peak of the season, when it's most intense, when every possession counts. That's when you really start to miss it more than anything ... I want to get back into it this year."
With five head coaching openings and perhaps more to come, there is certainly opportunity on that front. But of all the candidates involved, none are up against a powerful perception problem as much as Scott.
In essence, his love of the Lakers is the worst kept secret in town.
Scott grew up in Inglewood, not far from the old Forum. He rooted for the purple and gold as a child, even sneaked into games long before playing 11 of his 14 seasons with the Lakers during the halcyon days of Kareem and Magic. And as he made his way as an accomplished coach -- starting in Sacramento as an assistant in 1998 and moving up the ranks from there -- he never hid the fact that coaching the Lakers one day would be his dream job.
When Scott was in New Jersey, general manager Rod Thorn allowed him to have an out clause in his contract that would allow him to apply for the Lakers job if it came open. Two years ago, Scott became the rare coach to turn down long-term security when he declined a four-year offer from Hornets owner George Shinn and insisted his extension was for two years.
That meant his contract would expire at the same time as Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Dots were connected, the obvious conclusions were drawn, and Scott was labeled as the guy who wanted nothing other than the chance to succeed Jackson in his hometown.
But Scott and his agent of 20-plus years, Brian McInerney, have always deemed the timing a convenient coincidence, if only because they were -- and are -- unsure of Jackson's master plan just like everyone else. They say the short-term approach in New Orleans had far more to do with the Hornets' instability, from the fact that their ultimate locale was still in question when he signed the deal -- New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Kansas City? -- to an owner in Shinn who has never been considered the cream of that crop.
And now, Scott is hearing the whispers. Will he be happy in any other job, even if it was a chance to sneak through the backdoor at Staples and stay in town with the Clippers? Will he always have his eyes on Laker Land, or is he ready to think long-term elsewhere?
He has done what he can to quiet that buzz. When his presence at Lakers home games late this season led to chatter that he was there with a political purpose, Scott -- who is close with Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss and Kobe Bryant -- decided to disappear from the venue.
Throughout this postseason, he has commentated on the Lakers action from across the street and then headed straight home afterward all but once. The lone exception came April 20, when he was among the many former Lakers on hand to honor late announcer Chick Hearn when his statue was unveiled. Otherwise, Scott's preference is to stay out of the rumor mill.
He was practically running on it on April 21, though, when an interview on the "Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 led to criticism. Asked if he would be interested in the Bulls job if then-coach Vinny Del Negro was fired as so many had expected, he said, "I'll put it to you this way. Chicago, like I said earlier, is a city that I love. I spend time in Chicago in the summer, (and) obviously coaching in the Eastern Conference I've been in Chicago a bunch of times. I wouldn't hang the phone up. Let's put it that way. ... And I do think that Chicago is one of the better jobs that's going to be available, if it's available."
Asked by FanHouse about the interview, Scott said he meant no disrespect to the since-fired Del Negro.
"One of the things I would never do is discuss a possible coaching position with a team that already has a coach," Scott said. "I've been in the coaching position before, so as a coach I would never do that. I have a lot of respect for Vinny anyway, so I would never have done that."
But while Scott would certainly answer the phone if Jackson departed and Buss came calling, he's not -- contrary to public opinion -- singularly focused on that scenario. He proved as much as recently as last summer, when the Kings had a coaching opening and Scott made it known through various back channels that he was open to a buyout from his Hornets contract if they were interested.
By that point in his Hornets tenure, he already had suspicions that his seat was scorching hot. The relationship with Shinn had deteriorated largely because of their differing views on his extension and other contractual matters. And when he learned of the Tyson Chandler-for-Emeka-Okafor trade with Charlotte last summer through a total stranger rather than his bosses, Scott said he knew he was as good as gone.
"I was in the Bahamas for my family vacation," Scott said. "I was at a basketball camp for a friend of mine, and a camper says, 'You guys just traded Tyson Chandler.' ... That was, to me, unsettling. I thought it was also giving me signs that, 'You're going to be gone this year.' I just kind of went with the flow."
Despite the widely-held notion that remaining on good terms with a team's star player is a shortcut to head coaching job security, Scott's close ties with point guard Chris Paul did little to aid his cause. He also remains close with Chandler, who was traded to Charlotte last summer and called Scott occasionally last season to ask for help in understanding Bobcats coach and longtime Scott friend Larry Brown.
"Things happen, and you just never know," said Paul, who hosted Scott last week at a family function in New Orleans. "We've moved on. Coach has moved on, and now he's looking for the next chapter in his life. Regardless if he's my coach, if he's not my coach, or anything like that, our relationship off the court goes much farther than basketball.
"Knowing how much he loves the game, I know it's killing him right now being away from it. He's still in the game from that aspect of it, but I know he wants to be on the court."
Scott's exit strategy to Sacramento never transpired, but it said plenty about his strong desire to return to the West Coast after spending the last decade out East. A year later, that factor remains a relevant one as it pertains to his interests.
Wherever he winds up (and there's certainly a chance it will be inside the ESPN studios for next season), Scott looks forward to enjoying some stability along with his success.
"I don't think he'll face a franchise like the two he's already been involved with," McInerney said. "A lot of coaches never go through that once, and he's gone through that twice (with the Nets before the Hornets) and tried to keep the emotions of the locker room in check. It was difficult, particularly in New Orleans and Oklahoma (after Hurricane Katrina forced relocation in 2005)."
Jackson has maintained the mystery around his situation, although his partner and Lakers executive vice president, Jeanie Buss, was recently quoted as saying she believes he'll coach "somewhere." Jackson on Wednesday acknowledged that he'd have to take a significant pay cut to return. Ironically, Scott and his preferences are equally difficult to gauge. As he finishes his clam chowder and starts to head for home, he talks as if his ideal team is something very different than the Lakers in their current form.
"The one thing that I'm very proud of is that with New Jersey and New Orleans, they were much better off when I left than they were when I got there," he said. "I think I'm very good at taking young teams that are down at the bottom and near the bottom, and kind of getting them near the top.
"I think one of my strongest attributes is my leadership and my devotion to the game. I believe in what I do. And I think that winning championships with the Lakers and Riles (Pat Riley) and Magic and all those guys, I have a real good idea of what it takes to get there. If I have a bunch of guys who understand and trust me like I have to trust them, then I think we might have a pretty good shot of getting there. It might take a few years, but I think that's what I'm best at. Getting a young team that first year and improving them year after year."
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