Take Two

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Alex Cohen & A Martínez

Lakers' new head coach Byron Scott imagines new role for Kobe Bryant on team

by A Martínez and Jacob Margolis | Take Two

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A Martinez interviews Lakers' head coach Byron Scott, in his office, ahead of the 2014-2015 season. Jacob Margolis

The new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Byron Scott, grew up in Inglewood, just southwest of Los Angeles.

He went to Morningside High School, which is right in the shadow of the Fabulous Forum, the former home of the Lakers and there almost wasn't a day in his life when he didn't see the arena at least once a day. 

It was a constant reminder of his ultimate goal: playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Scott went off to Arizona State and was eventually drafted by the San Diego Clippers who then made his dream come true and traded him to his hometown Lakers.

A Martinez sat down with coach Scott for an extended interview about being chosen as the coach for the team, where he wants to take the team and how he plans on handling Kobe Bryant.

Byron, you grew up in Inglewood, you’re an L.A. kid. You went to high school a couple blocks away from the Forum. What was it like growing up in L.A. at that time, that close to where the Lakers played?

It was great. If you’re a Laker fan it was even that much better. I was a big Laker fan, and obviously a big basketball fan, so going to school right down the street, being able to see the Forum every now and then in passing, and know that all these great players were playing there, and having that dream and that hope of being there one day, it was unbelievable. Being a hometown boy and being able to witness some of these great players playing, it was very special for me.

What was it like seeing the Forum every day? Was it motivation, like “I want to get there someday?”

Oh no doubt about it. You know, every time I walked passed it or drove passed it, or whatever the case may be, that was the motivation. I wanted to play there, and being that that was the place to play, that meant that you were playing in the NBA, and that was a dream of mine.

You went to Arizona State, you got drafted by the Clippers but then traded to the Lakers, hometown dream here. Describe the moment when you found out that you were going to be a Los Angeles Laker.

That was probably one of the greatest days of my life. You know, as a 21-year-old, getting drafted by the Clippers, I didn’t think it was that bad because it was in San Diego obviously, it wasn’t that far from home. I was telling my mom and dad they could all come down to San Diego and watch me play. And then getting the news from Jerry West, just him calling and saying, ‘We’re trying to make a trade for you today,’ I was so excited about that, just to talk to a legend. And then when the trade finally went through, I can’t tell you how I felt. I just was in awe. I felt like I was dreaming to get a chance to play my first NBA game with the team that I admired and an organization that I loved so much. It was a dream come true.   

Magic Johnson was already there, Kareem Abdul Jabbar was already there, they had already won two championships, they had gotten the Showtime Era started already, what was the first day of practice like?

The first day of practice, I was thinking it was going to be fun and just a lot of running up and down, but those guys made it tough for me the first day of practice. You know, Magic wasn’t real happy that this rookie was coming in and [Michael Cooper] was the same way, and Kareem never really said much and James Worthy was really the only guy that spoke to me on a continuous basis because it was his second year. So, the first day of practice was totally different than I thought it was going to be. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, but I also had that feeling of, ‘Man, I’m playing with Magic, I’m playing with Coop, I’m playing with all these guys that I have been watching on TV for so many years.’

You mention all those names, Laker legends, some of them Basketball Hall of Famers. What was the feel of the organization like at the time?

Well the feel was about championships. You know, I mean that’s what they were playing for. They had already won, like you said, one or two before I got there so every year going into the season it was about winning championships. So when I stepped on the scene, you know as a rookie, that’s one of the first things that Magic instilled in me is that, ‘You know, we don’t look at Western Conference Championship or finals, we look at winning championships, and that’s what this organization is all about and that’s what we are all about.’ And that was their agenda, it was nothing individually, it was all about the team, and I learned that very quickly.

Were you at least a little intimidated playing next to Magic Johnson?

I don’t know if I was intimidated more than I was probably in awe. You know I mean I watched him on TV, and just saw the way he played and how great he was on the floor. So I was probably more in awe than anything, just being able to be on the side, on that left side or on that right side of him, and watch him direct and give us the ball in the right spot so you can just catch and shoot it. It was just a treat to be on the same court with him.

You wind up playing 10 seasons with the Lakers, you win three championships. The city of Inglewood calls itself the “City of Champions” and you had a big part in that.  At that point, you’re retiring or you’re not playing basketball anymore, did you think, “What else do I have to accomplish here?” Did you achieve your dreams?

Well I did. I was able to play in the NBA, I was able to play with my favorite team, with my favorite organization, but I think we all still look back and say, ‘Man, I got three rings, I probably should have had five.’ You know, there’s probably a couple of them that we felt we let get away. But, from the start of the whole journey to where it’s ended up, I think I was blessed to be able to achieve what I was able to achieve and play with the organization for as long as I did and win three championships. There are players who get in this league and never get to a finals, let alone win a championship. So I know I was very blessed.

Your last season as a player was the 1996/1997 season, and I remember that year because it was a huge transition year for the Lakers organization, for the franchise. The year before, Magic Johnson had his one-year comeback, and then that year, the year that was your last year, was the first year for Shaquille O’Neal, and an 18-year-old named Kobe Bryant. What role did you play on that team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant? No one knew at the time what was going to come.

Right. Well my role was to be a leader in the locker room, show that experience and that work ethic on the floor, to show these guys what it takes to be champions, and to be a mentor as well. And off the bench for [then-Lakers coach] Del Harris was to come in and do some scoring, but the biggest thing was to supply the team with that leadership. And I had a young guy named Kobe Bryant that I was able to kind of take under my wing and talk to because I saw greatness in this kid from day one. So Del made it pretty clear to me that, ‘This is what we need you to do,’ and it was a role that I really enjoyed. It wasn’t hard for me to take that role because I had been in that organization, so I knew what it was all about. It was really easy, but we had two guys that were studs in Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal. So I enjoyed playing with that team as well.

Taking on that role, did that spark your interest in coaching, or had you always had that?

I never really thought about coaching until I was 32 years old. Larry Brown told me that he thought I would be a real good coach one day, and Pat Riley had told me that six years before that, and I really just forgot all about it. So, at that particular time I had started thinking about coaching. I didn’t know if it would materialize but it was something that I started thinking about three years before I started playing with these young guys, because it was one of those things where you say, ‘OK, when I’m done with basketball, because this is going to end pretty soon, what are you going to do with your next life?’ So I did start thinking about it three or four years before I met Kobe and before I played with him and Shaq. And then I was able to get involved in it. 

Sometimes, players that have achieved a lot of success don’t make the best coaches because they don’t have a lot of patience.  So for you to become a coach, you’ve had a lot of success, what was it like to try and have that patience that a coach needs to have?

Well, it wasn’t that hard. I’ve always been very patient as a player and as a person, in my personal life and things like that as well so it wasn’t that hard for me to understand that everybody can’t do it the way we did it back in that day, and they don’t have that same drive the way we had. They don’t have that same tenacity. So you have to understand people are just different. And I thought when I got into coaching that that was probably one of the first things that kind of hit me was that, ‘OK, a lot of these guys are totally different than we were. They don’t want the same things as we did.’ It was a totally different generation as well, so it didn’t take me long to understand that you know, players are different in this era than they were back in our days. And you have to adapt if you really want to get into coaching.

Around 2000 you became coach of the New Jersey Nets. You took them to back-to-back finals. You didn’t win, but still, you got them to be Eastern Conference champs. Now a few years later in 2004 Phil Jackson left the Lakers, you also didn’t have a job at that time. Why didn’t that Laker-Byron Scott relationship happen then?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think timing is always everything. It just didn’t happen for whatever reason. I think I ended up going to New Orleans and taking that job. I don’t regret that one bit because I had this young guy named Chris Paul that I got to know real well, and a couple other guys, Tyson Chandler and David West. But it probably wasn’t just the right time. I mean that’s how I really look at it. It just wasn’t the right time for me to be here in Los Angeles, and I still needed some more experience and I still needed to learn some more things about the coaching. I don’t think I’ll ever learn everything there is to learn about coaching, because if I do, then it’s time to retire. So, it just took me on a different journey, but again, I don’t regret that move at all.

So how are players different now than when you played with Magic and Kareem?

Back in those days, everybody was all about the team, at least the team that I played for. You know, it was no hidden agendas. A lot of these players today, No. 1: They’ve been given a silver spoon with this AAU stuff, so by the time they get to the professional level, if you have a coach like myself, who is pretty demanding, and he jumps on them, they can’t handle that, you know, because they’re not used to coaches yelling at them or screaming, or whatever, or correcting them. Whereas back in our day, it was more of, coach said, ‘Do this,’ we did it. Now you say, ‘Guys I want you to do this,’ it’s more of, ‘Why?’ You know [laughs]. ‘Why should I do that coach?’ So, it’s just a different mentality than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just a totally different mentality.

Well, you had Pat Riley, who was very, very  demanding. You also had Magic Johnson on the floor who essentially was as demanding as Pat Riley. So the dynamic was certainly a lot different, but how do you handle today’s young players, considering you background and where you’re from?

I just be who I am, and they’re going to have to learn to handle it one way or another! [Laughs] You know, the one thing I’ve found out as a coach is the one thing you do have control over as a coach is their minutes. And once you can start delegating minutes or taking away minutes from certain guys because they’re not doing what you want them to do, they all of a sudden start getting on the same page as you, you know, once they feel that they don’t have the power that they thought they did. So, I’ve always went into every situation just saying, ‘Hey, be who I am as a coach. I’m a coach that’s going to correct you, that has a lot of discipline, but I’m very dedicated in what I do and I want my players to be the same way.’ So I just stick to who I am.

So you’re not impressed with, ‘Coach, I’m trending on Twitter! I gotta play!’

No, I’m not impressed with that at all, because I don’t know what Twitter is. You know Facebook, all that stuff. I’m still old school.

So you said maybe you weren’t ready for that Lakers coaching job back in 2004. What makes you ready now?

I think timing. I think timing. This is an organization right now that understands that it’s always been on the top. And if it hasn’t been, it’s a one-or two-year period, you know, then boom! We’re back up there. But this organization has always been about championships. It’s always been about winning. And they’re at the point in time right now where pretty much, [it’s] rock bottom for this organization. And for me to come in here, an ex-Laker who’s been there, who’s won championships, who knows what it means to wear the purple and gold, who has that pride in this purple and gold, it’s a perfect time to come in and instill that in these guys and get them playing the type of basketball that I know we’re capable of playing, and get this organization back to where we all know it should be, which is championship form.

On April 30, Mike D’Antoni resigned as the coach. So they had a vacancy there. It seemed like it took forever to hire you – three months for them to hire you. Did you wonder, ‘What are you guys doing? Why is it taking so long?’ Because it seemed like all signs were pointing toward you.

You know what, I never questioned Mitch [Kupchak] and Jim [Buss]. They told me from day one, ‘This is going to be a search; we’re going to take our time. We might not hire a coach until after summer league.’ And I said ‘OK.’ –

– You were good with that, you were OK with that?

Yeah, I didn’t have a problem with that. I was still working with Time Warner, I probably wouldn’t have worked at all. I was still having fun, you know going to work out every day, seeing my grandkids, seeing my daughter and my sons. So I didn’t have a problem with that at all. The thing that made it that much easier was the fact that they told me that from day one, that this search is going to take some time, that we’re not going to rush into anything. So from day one I knew what was going on, and then periodically we kept in contact, and so I knew I had a good chance at it, and I always knew in my heart that I was the perfect fit for the job, especially at this time. So I just said to myself again, ‘Be patient, and we’ll see what happens.’

You never got nervous? Annoyed? Like, ‘When is this going to happen already?’

No, I never got nervous. I think that the last meeting that we had, I just told Mitch, ‘Listen, it’s Wednesday, I’m leaving town Saturday, I’m going to be gone basically the next two-and-a-half, three weeks. So if you make a decision, you got my number, give me a call, let me know what’s going on.’ But not at any point did I ever feel nervous or anything. I just kind of said, 'Hey, whatever happens, happens.'

But the Lakers, they moved, they signed players, they drafted a couple players, wouldn’t it make more sense to hire the coach and then work with him to see what kind of roster a coach would need?

Well I know they thought about doing that, but they also just wanted to put a roster together themselves, they felt they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted the team to look like. I had no problem with that. Again, pretty much every move they made, they would call me and ask me, ‘What do you think about it?’ So I would give my opinion. Because I was following it obviously, extremely well –

– So you kind of were coaching? [Laughs]

Yeah I guess I was. [Laughs] So I would just give my opinion, and then go from there. So all the moves they made, like I said, I thought were some great moves. The two draft picks were great. Getting Jeremy Lin and keeping all the flexibility for the next two years I thought was fantastic. Carlos Boozer was another steal as far as I was concerned so I thought the moves were great, I would just give my opinion and hoping, alright, sooner or later you’re going to call me and say, ‘You’re going to be coaching this team,’  and I’ll be like, ‘Alright, good,’ because I know these guys pretty well. 

Last season you were an analyst for Time Warner. Watching Laker games, analyzing them, breaking them down. They had the worst season in over 50 years in Los Angeles. What happened?

I just didn’t think they had an identity. I know Mike D’Antoni’s identity really is on the offensive end. In this league, obviously you got to score more points than your opponent. But you have to have some type of system on the defensive end to at least slow people down and not allow them to just score at will as well. So I thought from a defensive standpoint, is where it all kind of started. I didn’t think they players bought in on the defensive end, everybody was kind of like, ‘This is going to be offense, so I can let my guy go, and if he scores, were going to get a chance to score back on the other end.’ You can’t win championships in this league or in the NFL or in baseball by trying to outscore people on a night-to-night basis. That just doesn’t work, because that comes and goes. On the defensive end, if you have a system and the effort is there every single night, that gives you a chance to stay in the games, that gives you a chance to win at the end. So that’s what we have to implement back into our system.

Have you told your guys that you plan to play a lot of defense this year?

Oh yeah. I’ve text guys, I’ve had other guys that I’ve text tell the guys that they’re with, you know, ‘Let him know that this is how it’s going to be, and we’re going to play defense every single night,’ and the response has been good  — has been great. A lot of guys right now are a little afraid because of training camp, and they’ve heard about my training camps. So right now I’m kind of smiling on the inside just getting ready for our training camp.

What are those training camps like? What’s the fear of Byron Scott?

They’re tough. A lot of running. A lot of running and a lot of defensive drills. I always believe that if teams are going to beat us, they’re going to beat us because they’re better that night and not because they’re in better shape, not because they’re tougher. They’re going to beat us that night because they’re better that night than we are. So I pride myself on making sure we’re one of the best conditioned teams in the league, and that we’re going to execute on both ends of the floor. And to do that you have to have discipline and dedication, and that’s what we plan on doing.

What about the Laker brand? Because it seems to me that it just doesn’t carry as much weight as it use to, not as much weight as when you were playing…It seems like L.A. used to be able to just have their pick of whoever they wanted, and now it seems like no one’s even looking toward L.A.

Well I think guys are still looking. I think they’re also just looking at the situation as well. If they can go somewhere else, and they have a better fit and a better chance of winning, that’s probably what they’re going to do. I think the Laker brand is still one of the  best brands in all of sports, and like I said before, the times that the Lakers have been down, it doesn’t take them long to get back up. And I see that happening here as well when this team will be back to that championship form in a few years.

You so identify with the Lakers, do you take it personally when someone says, ‘Hey, the Laker brand isn’t what it sued to be’?

Very much so. Like I said I have a lot of pride in that purple and gold, and a lot of respect for it, and I have a lot of respect for the Buss family. So I take it real personal when people are dumping on the Lakers, or we have fans – and I know we don’t have a whole lot of fans, it’s probably a very minute number of fans that jump off the band wagon because it’s not going as well as they think it should go – but yeah I take that very personal.

Now you’ve known Kobe Bryant since he was a teenager, since he first got to the league. You were on the first team he played on with the Lakers. When it comes to Kobe Bryant, he’s been in the league a long time, a lot of miles on those wheels. How are you going to get him to relax? To just sit down once in a while?

Yeah, Kobe’s his own man. We know how hard he works, we know how driven he is.  But I think he’s at the point too where he’s so much more mature, and he understands that he only has a few more miles left on that body, you know, maybe two, maybe three years. And I think he’s probably more acceptable to accept the fact that you can’t practice every day. There might be some games where you can’t play this game or that game. But that’s all to be determined. We have to sit down before training camp and go over some things because I can’t have him going twice a day in training camp. That’s what the young guys are supposed to do. He’s been here long enough and understands his game better than anybody here, what it takes to win. I got to use that knowledge that he has as well. I’m going to treat him like he’s an assistant coach as well as a player.

What’s your relationship like with him?

It’s great. It’s great. We’ve got a great relationship, we’ve been texting each other all summer, you know, just talking and talking and talking. We’ve visited a couple times in person. He came in about three weeks ago, so we keep in contact. His biggest thing right now is to get these guys up to speed and make sure they’re all on board with what we’re trying to do. We both have the same thought process as far as what it takes to win. His first words to me were, ‘We gotta play defense.’ And it just brought a smile on my face because that’s exactly what we have to do. It’s gotta be defending first and if we can rebound that ball second, then we can get up and down the floor.  

So let me bring up a scenario here. Say there’s a game on the East Coast, went into double-overtime, and Kobe played a lot of those minutes. And then you’ve got a game the very next night. You notice that maybe he’s not moving around so good, is it going to be easy for you to tell Kobe Bryant, ‘We’re going to have to limit your minutes tonight. Maybe you take a night off?’

Yeah it’s going to be easy, but it’s going to be hard to probably have that happen! [Laughs] But again, he’s so competitive, he wants to win, and I do too. But I don’t want to win at the expense of having my one of my guys get hurt. And sometimes, like I said, we’re going to sit down, me and my trainer have already sat down, already started talking about the amount of minutes Kobe should probably play, going into this season.  And I have to stand fast on that. I have to make sure that when he’s up to those minutes, that’s it, no matter what the game situation is, as much as I want to win, as much as he wants to win, I’m not going to sacrifice his health to try to win games.

How’s that moment going to be like, though? Because Kobe has this intimidation thing happening for him. You’ve known him since he was a kid, but he’s a guy that’s won five titles, he’s considered one of the greatest of all time...How do you ‘stand fast,’ as you say?

Well, first thing, I ain’t never been intimidated by anybody, so that won’t be a problem. But he’ll have to know from me, and I’ll tell him afterwards, when I say, ‘No, you can’t go in,’ I love him as a person, I love him as a player,  and again I’m not going to sacrifice his body just to try to win a game.

Your co-tenant at Staples Center is the Clippers. They’re young, they’re fun, they’re exciting, they’re a title contender. Some people are saying that maybe they’ve chipped away at the Lakers’ popularity in Los Angeles. Are they a threat to the Lakers right now?

I would say they’re a little bit of a threat, yeah, and they’ve probably chipped away at it a little bit. But this is still Lakertown, this is still purple and gold, and it will probably always be purple and gold, and we’ll be right back up there in the next few years, right where they are, and I think it’s going to make for a great rivalry in this city. But this is still Lakertown. We’ve got 16 banners. I don’t think they have any yet. So I think they still have a ways to go to take over the city of Los Angeles.

Is it good though for them to be as good as possible? Is it good for the city, for the sports fans, for the rivalry?

I think so. I think so. And any of the players on both ends that don’t want that type of rivalry, they’re really not that competitive then. You want to have the team next door to you be great so that when you play them, you get up for them just as much as they get up for you. So I think it’s great to have that type of rivalry.

Is there anything you’d like to tell Doc Rivers? Any message you’d like to send to your Clipper head coach counterpart?

Well, I think the first message is Doc, he knows how I love him. He’s a good friend, a great guy. I want to tell him congratulations on the new contract deal extension. He’s an executive as well, he deserves that. But I also want to tell him, Doc – we’re going to be coming back. So, just because you guys are the top team in L.A. right now, just watch out. We’re coming back.

So technically, even you admit that they’re the top team in L.A.?

They’re the top team in L.A. They’re our championship contender team. And right now I think everybody in L.A. looks at us as a team in rebuilding. So I would have to say yeah, they’re the top team in L.A.

Laker fans aren’t very realistic though. They don’t like to hear what you just said right there.

Well, what I said is what I’m hearing, is that this team is in rebuilding mode. Like I said, it won’t take long. I think we have team assembled this year that can go out and surprise some people.

Now a lot of experts don’t think the Lakers are going to surprise many people. They think they’re not going to make the playoffs, and that would be the first time since 1976 the Lakers would go back-to-back seasons without a playoff appearance. What could Laker fans expect out of this team this season?

Well, you know the one thing I won’t do is put any expectations on our guys as far as wins and losses. But what I can tell our fans is that this team will play hard every single night, it will be a different brand of basketball than they’ve seen the last four or five years, this team will compete every single night, especially on the defensive end, and it will be a much more physical, tougher team than we’ve had here in recent years. But on the offensive team, this team will be a team that still looks to get up and down the floor when we can, and if we don’t, we’re going to be a pretty good half-court team as well.

You know I was just thinking about it, you and Doc Rivers, a couple of African-American coaches for an NBA team in Los Angeles. That’s never happened.

Yeah that’s kind of pretty cool. I never thought about that! [Laughs] But that’s pretty cool, you know, to have Doc over at the Clippers and myself here in Los Angeles. He played for the Clippers, I played for the Lakers. So I think that’s a pretty cool turn of events.

Alright, head coach Byron Scott, thank you very much for spending some time with us.

Thank you guys, I appreciate it.

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