As the New Jersey Nets have rolled through these playoffs,
sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference final
last week to stretch their winning streak to 10 games and earn
a second consecutive berth in the NBA Finals, the team has
exuded a quality rarely associated with the franchise:
confidence. You can see it in the way power forward Kenyon
Martin rears his head and lets out a leonine roar after he
dunks; in the way Jersey relentlessly runs its fast break; and
in the way the Nets' imperial coach, Byron Scott, strolls the
sidelines not so much standing as posing, his arms crossed and
his chin slightly elevated, as if to look down upon the fray
before him. ¬∂ To trace the origin of this new New Jersey state
of mind, rewind to a bright fall day near the start of training
camp at the Nets' training facility in East Rutherford, N.J.
Sitting in a leather captain's chair behind an expansive oak
desk, Scott didn't so much answer a reporter's questions about
his team as make pronouncements: His goal was no less than the
Eastern Conference title. He had no patience for those mired in
the past. He said coaches who spoke of having a four-year plan
did so only because they had a four-year contract. He displayed
just the sort of smirking self-assurance that would be expected
of an up-and-comer who had recently piloted a team to the
Finals. Only this was the training camp of 2000, and Scott was
a 39-year-old rookie coach taking over a squad fresh from the
lottery and steeped in ineptitude.
Back then New Jersey was not so much a basketball team as a punch
line. Saw a sign on the Turnpike the other day. It said I-95,
Nets 93. Scott, however, refused to surrender to that tradition
of haplessness, remaining steadfast during his first season, when
he went 26-56. During his 11 years as a shooting guard with the
Lakers, Los Angeles went to six Finals and won three; Scott
expected nothing less in New Jersey. "What he did was create an
environment for success," says center Jason Collins. "He'd been a
player and he knew what it took to win in this league, and we all
Even so, while the turnaround of the Nets is (rightly) attributed
to many factors--the trade for point guard Jason Kidd before the
2001-02 season, the Princeton offense installed by assistant
coach Eddie Jordan, the maturation of Martin and the canny
personnel moves of G.M. and president Rod Thorn--it is rarely
attributed to the stewardship of Scott. He finished 13th in the
voting for Coach of the Year this season and a distant third a
year ago. Last month a New York columnist damned him with barely
perceptible praise when he wrote, "Kidd's presence alone has
turned Scott into a pretty good coach."
Scott claims he doesn't care what others think. "I don't need
respect from the [New York tabloids], and I don't need it from
the NBA," he says, "as long as the people I work for are happy."
Still, a team that faced the challenges New Jersey did this
season--rising expectations, incorporating new players, Kidd's
impending free agency--doesn't exactly coach itself. So the
question remains: How responsible for the Nets' success is Byron
In 1998 Larry Bird won the Coach of the Year award even though
everyone knew that one of his assistants, Rick Carlisle, ran the
Indiana Pacers' offense and another, Dick Harter, directed the
defense. Still, Bird was heralded as a savvy delegator who could
focus his energy on communicating with his players. Asked if it
irks him that he has taken a similar approach with similar
results but so far received few of the hosannas accorded Bird,
Scott emits a wry laugh and says, "Everyone has a different
perspective, that's all I'll say about that."
"Almost a CEO approach" is how Scott describes his style of
coaching. During practices his assistants, Jordan, Mike O'Koren
and Lawrence Frank, do most of the instructing and coercing while
Scott oversees things. Even after games Scott's voice is fine,
while Frank sounds as though his vocal cords have been worked
over with sandpaper. "He's like Phil Jackson," reserve guard
Lucious Harris says of Scott. "He sits back and watches, then
gets on us when he needs to." When asked the difference in
volubility between Scott and his college coach at Cincinnati, Bob
Huggins, Martin cracks up. "It's like night and day, with Huggs
being night and Byron being day," he says. KMart has nothing but
praise for Scott: "He has treated me like a man ever since my
rookie season, when I came to him and we had a man-to-man talk.
That's how he's improved most, in knowing how to handle players."
Scott makes one thing clear, however: "I don't do a lot of
yelling and screaming, but in game situations I am in complete
control of the huddle." Staying in control is something of a
Scott trademark. After the All-Star break, when New Jersey went
through a 4-10 slump, he didn't lace into his players or lash out
in the press or change his substitution pattern (which, as Nets
fans know, is like clockwork: Harris enters for Kerry Kittles
near the end of the first quarter, Anthony Johnson for Kidd at
the start of the second, and so on). Doubt is contagious, but
when a leader isn't worried, neither are his troops. "Byron's
greatest asset is that he is very steady and very confident in
his system," says Thorn. "He stuck with players, and I think they
responded to that, and to him."
He's also secure enough not to get pulled into power struggles.
When rumors swirled late in the season that Kidd was upset at
Scott's failure to turn things around, the coach didn't confront
his star player but rather made a point to laud him. Moreover,
during the Nets' second-round sweep of the Boston Celtics, Scott
stepped in for Kidd after Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan made
disparaging remarks about Kidd's wife, Joumana. Scott took the
fight to Ryan, saying he should "come here and say that in front
of me and our players." It was a savvy move to support his star.
"I think Jason appreciated that his coach would be so vociferous
in backing him up," says Thorn. "Most of us might have been a
little more, uh, political in dealing with it, but that's Byron."
(Scott has made a habit of spouting off while with the Nets; he
has ripped Karl Malone for having no heart, questioned Antoine
Walker's accomplishments and chided Latrell Sprewell for his
Scott's actions during the Boston series, as well as his use of
Kidd as a floor leader, are reminiscent of another coach who
would willingly play the role of villain and rather wave his
point guard up the floor than call a play. Not only was Pat Riley
Scott's coach with the Lakers, but he also remains his mentor and
coaching idol. (The two spoke on the phone last week between
Games 2 and 3.) The similarities between Scott and Riley during a
game are a bit spooky. Both coaches stalk the sideline impeccably
attired, down to the tie bars. When they squat, they do so in a
way that when they stand back up, the creases in their clothes
always fall back into place. Then there are the countless
practice drills, motivational techniques and mannerisms that
Scott has borrowed from his old coach. "In every way, I want to
emulate him," says Scott. "The way he dresses, the way he carries
himself, the way he won."
Growing up 14 blocks from the Lakers' old arena, the Forum, in
Inglewood, Calif., with his mother and his stepfather, Scott
hardly considered himself coaching material. As a star at
Morningside High he loved drilling jump shots but dreaded
speaking at pep rallies. Even after his stellar career at Arizona
State led him to the Lakers, he had no visions of one day pacing
the sideline. "My fifth year, Coach Riley and I were in a
discussion and he said, 'You'll understand one day when you're a
coach,'" says Scott. "I said, 'You're crazy, I'm never going to
be a coach.'"
Still, he'd already been exhibiting leadership qualities. Magic
Johnson recalls that Scott used to wake him at 8:30 on game days
to go over tape. More than once, while driving through Inglewood
on his way home from the Forum, Scott used his neighborhood-hero
status to defuse tensions or break up fights. And when he joined
the Pacers as a player in '93, then coach Larry Brown helped him
realize how much game strategy he'd already stored away. (Scott
credits his rigid substitution pattern to Brown.) "He's always
had that confidence, it's just his personality," says Anita,
Scott's wife of 17 years. "And he knows you need to have that to
Sitting with the eldest of his three children, 20-year-old
Thomas, at the interview-room podium last Saturday after the
Nets' 102-82 win over the Pistons in Game 4, while choruses of
"Sweep! Sweep!" echoed in the Continental Arena stands and his
players celebrated down the hall, Scott refused to let on that he
was the slightest bit surprised by New Jersey's success. Looking
more like a bank teller who's been at his post all day than a
coach with a title shot, he sent a clear message: Making the
Finals was not satisfaction enough.
And for that, a whole franchise is no doubt appreciative.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (KIDD) [COVER INSET] NBA FINALS Beware the Red-Hot Nets JASON KIDD
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN SPECIAL K Martin (6), who says Scott (inset) treats him like a man, manhandled Detroit.
COLOR PHOTO [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN WHO'S THE BOSS? Because Kidd controls the floor, Scott gets little acclaim (13th in this season's Coach of the Year balloting).
COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER LASTING IMPRESSION Scott learned from Riley as a Laker (left, in 1984), then tailored his look as a coach after his mentor's.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above]
"In every way I WANT TO EMULATE HIM," says Scott of Riley.