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He Put New in Jersey

What's a little one-game deficit to Byron Scott after he turned the Nets into winners?

June 07, 2002|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You think this is tough?

Two weeks ago, Byron Scott's New Jersey Nets blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead over the Celtics, setting a playoff record and obliging them to sit around Boston for two miserable days, trying to find something on TV that didn't show them gagging.

Then in their next game, they blew a 15-point lead. But did they run away or lose heart?

N-o-o-o-o.

So what if they're 0-1 in the NBA Finals? Nobody ever believed in them, anyway ... they had nothing to lose and now they've got even less ... it's early, etc., etc.

These days, Scott hits the ground talking. That was the first thing anyone noticed when he took over the Nets, a black hole for dreams as well as coaches, five of them having passed through in eight seasons. He announced the start of a new era, along with new standards for his players, even the adored, feared and previously inviolate Stephon Marbury.

This was the same Byron Scott who'd had to be dragged to pep rallies at Morningside High in Inglewood. His coach, Carl Franklin, says he was too shy to get up and talk.

Scott says he wasn't that shy, although everything else is true.

"I was, you know, 17, 18, 16 years old," he says. "I didn't particularly like ... having to talk to a bunch of people and having everybody kind of look at me and figure out what I was trying to say, what point I was trying to get across.

"He was right about that, I didn't like it."

Scott was 22 when he came back to town as a Laker, now brash enough to have said something about wanting to be the next Magic Johnson.

Because the original was here and already upset, because they had traded his buddy, Norm Nixon, for the rookie Scott, this wasn't the right thing to say.

Johnson and Michael Cooper put Scott through a hell week that lasted longer than a week. He bore it without complaint until one day when he squared off on Cooper in practice and the veterans decided he had passed the initiation.

So began Scott's 10 Laker seasons, which yielded titles in three of the first five. Viewed as Johnson's little brother, he was actually a tough guy on the floor and brutally candid off it, although he had little interest in the star/interview process. This made him rare, indeed, a player with a showy game, which he kept under tight rein, and a lot of personality, which remained submerged.

Let go in 1993, he returned for a last Laker hurrah in 1996 as an elder statesman with a new sense of purpose, having been encouraged by Larry Brown in Indiana to go into coaching. The personality was surfacing: The two Byrons, the brash one and the shy one, were becoming one.

Now he's back at 41 for the ultimate homeboy's triumph as a young star of the profession, having actually turned the swamp things around.

He says he can't find the words to describe it. He hugs Johnson in the hallway before Game 1, promotes former teammate James Worthy for the Hall of Fame, exchanges compliments with his former pupil, Kobe Bryant. He sneers at people who don't think his Nets have a chance--basically everyone except the Nets--and says he's thrilled at the chance to "match wits with Phil Jackson."

Unfortunately for Scott, he's matching players with Jackson, as much as wits, and Jackson has the biggest one.

But it isn't over yet ... they only need to steal one here ... they hung in there against Shaquille O'Neal in Game 1, etc., etc..

If you don't believe it, you know whom you can ask.

The Un-haunting of the Nets

Of course, if there was ever a franchise that needed a tough-talking spokesman with more than a hint of swagger, this was it.

The Nets were the orphans of the New York metropolitan area, born in Teaneck, N.J., having migrated to Long Island, then back to Piscataway, N.J., to play in Rutgers' arena even if it was halfway to Trenton, and finally to the Meadowlands.

They won an ABA title before owner Roy Boe sold Julius Erving to Philadelphia in 1977 just as they joined the NBA, launching a rebuilding phase that lasted until now, featuring do-nothing owners (the Secaucus Seven), miscast messiahs (Derrick Coleman, Marbury) and luck so bad, they were said to be cursed.

Not that Scott, arriving in the fall of 2000, was buying into that curse stuff.

However, by the spring of 2001, after injuries had wrecked his rookie season as a coach, he was starting to wonder.

Keith Van Horn, scorned by Marbury, had missed 33 games and Marbury 15. Kendall Gill, counted on for veteran leadership, had missed 51. Kerry Kittles had sat out the entire season. Kenyon Martin, their promising No. 1 pick, had come in recovering from a leg injury and got up to speed only at the end.

The Nets had gone 26-56 and upper management reportedly had told the basketball operation to dump some or all of the big salaries.

Scott, who patterned himself after his taskmaster Laker coach, Pat Riley, blames himself for the injuries.

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