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Byron Scott: Shaped By Showtime

By David Wharton, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The rookie arrived at Los Angeles Lakers training camp with something to prove.

His new teammates — veterans such as Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper — elbowed him around the basketball court. The rough treatment continued after practice.

“We didn’t speak to him,” Johnson recalled. “We made him sit by himself for lunch and dinner.”

It was the early 1980s and Byron Scott had to earn his way onto a “Showtime” roster filled with future Hall of Famers. To make things worse, the team had acquired him to replace a beloved veteran, Norm Nixon.

“Not a popular choice,” Scott said. “Magic and Coop were taking shots at me to see what type of heart I had.”

Those first few days of training camp — and what happened next — represent a key step in a journey that began on the playgrounds of Inglewood, in the shadow of the Forum, and now brings the 53-year-old back home as the Lakers coach.

“I’m not that kid,” he said. “Totally different person.”

His youth played out against a backdrop of violence after his mother, Dorothy, moved the family — two boys, two girls — from Utah to Southern California. One of his friends got shot on the streets, he once said; another was stabbed in a gang fight.

Scott took inspiration from his stepfather, Robert Marsh, who worked two jobs to make ends meet. He also took refuge on the basketball courts at Darby Park, where genetics gave him an edge.
His father, Allen Holmes, had been a junior college All-American in the late 1950s.

“The mechanics of his shot were the same as his father’s,” said Carl Franklin, his coach at Morningside High in Inglewood. “The only difference was his father was left-handed and he was right-handed.”

When Scott arrived at Morningside as a 5-foot-11 freshman, older teammates challenged him to dunk, a feat he had never quite managed before. Taking off at a dead sprint, he blindly jammed the ball through the hoop.

“Byron was a tremendous leaper,” Franklin said. “And he could really, really score.”

This athleticism soon made the teenager a top high school prospect. The only thing that could stop him, it seemed, was a crowd — he feared someone handing him the microphone and forcing him to speak at pep rallies.

“Aggressive but shy,” Scott said.

Maybe it was better that he did not sign with UCLA, his favorite local school. The Bruins changed coaches during his senior year at Morningside in 1979, and by the time Larry Brown took over Scott had already settled on Arizona State.

In Tempe — amid less media attention — the 6-3 guard flourished, working out beside classmates who included future NFL quarterback Mike Pagel and fledgling baseball star Barry Bonds.

“Best athlete to come through there,” said Lafayette “Fat” Lever, a teammate who would later spend a decade in the NBA. “Byron could throw the football just as far as Pagel and he could outrun some of the running backs on the football team.”

Over three seasons, Scott parlayed his quickness and reliable jump shot into 17.5 points a game while leading the Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament twice.

“You had guys who were all talk and no action; Byron was just the opposite,” said Jim Deines, a forward on the team. “It didn’t seem like he wanted to be in the limelight.”

His days of flying under the radar ended in 1983, when the Los Angeles Clippers drafted him in the first round, then traded him and Swen Nater to the Lakers for Nixon, guard Eddie Jordan, and a second-round draft pick.

Returning to family in Southern California helped Scott endure his first training camp. “I was getting knocked around and pushed around,” he said. “I could go home after practice and vent.”

The rookie persevered for nearly a week, never complaining, never backing down. Johnson recalled Cooper finally saying, “This dude is going to be OK.”

Earning acceptance boosted Scott’s confidence, helping him make the NBA’s all-rookie squad for the 1983-84 season. There was, perhaps, an equal benefit off the court.

“I think that kind of opened him up a bit,” former teammate James Worthy said. “Byron became funny and more outspoken.”

His famous teammates showed him how to handle fans and the media. The attention grew steadily as Scott augmented his shooter’s touch with tenacious defense and a knack for getting to the basket.

“I had arrived,” he said.

While the Lakers embarked on a run of three championships in four seasons beginning in 1984-85, Scott and his wife, Anita, who are now separated, started a family that would grow to include three sons.

No one pictured him as a coach in those days, though Worthy noticed he was always a student of the game, the kind of player who listened carefully and did exactly as told.

Coach Pat Riley pulled him aside during his fifth season in the league and talked to him about someday running a team.

“You’re out of your mind,” Scott recalled saying. “I’m not ever going to coach.”

The possibility did not begin to take hold until the Lakers let him go in 1993 and he signed with the Indiana Pacers, finally getting a chance to play for Brown.

The Pacers coach drew upon Scott’s experience, asking for advice on how the Lakers ran practice or executed certain plays. Scott found himself tutoring Reggie Miller on the art of moving without the ball.

“He really cared about the game and he knew how to teach,” Brown said. “If you have those two things, you can be a good coach.”

Brown told him as much, and Scott realized that if two of the game’s best minds believed in him, maybe he should listen. His NBA career was drawing to an end, playing out with short stints with the Vancouver Grizzlies and back with the Lakers, and he needed to move on.

Looking back, Scott believes that God has always guided him toward his goals. As evidence, he points to a call that came from longtime NBA coach Rick Adelman soon after he retired following the 1996-97 season.

The Sacramento Kings needed an assistant and Adelman offered him the job. Two years later, the New Jersey Nets hired Scott to run their team.

The Nets made the NBA Finals in Scott’s second and third seasons at the helm, losing to the Lakers in 2002 and the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Despite this success, the team fired him midway through 2004 and the ensuing years required all the toughness he could muster.

His five-plus seasons with the New Orleans Hornets included a 2007-08 NBA coach-of-the-year award but also plenty of losses and Hurricane Katrina, which forced the team to shift to a temporary home in Oklahoma City.

A stint in Cleveland could not have started worse — soon after Scott took the job in 2010, superstar LeBron James left for the Miami Heat. The rebuilding Cavaliers finished the next three seasons near the bottom of the league.

“Coach Scott never backed down,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “He’s the most competitive coach I’ve ever played for.”

Practices could be brutal and players who did not work hard would find themselves on the bench during games. During blowout losses, Scott was known to bark at opponents who gloated.

“He had our back,” Jamison said. “Players respected him.”

Perhaps that experience — along with a stint last season covering the Lakers for SportsNet — will prepare him for what lies ahead.

Long gone are the glory days of Showtime. An aging Kobe Bryant and a patchwork supporting cast must try to rebound from the worst season in franchise history, when the team went 27-55 and was ranked second-to-last in defense.

At a news conference last week, former Lakers stars such as Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jamaal Wilkes talked about a new boss who will hold players accountable.

“Don’t let that smile fool you,” Johnson said of Scott. “These dudes better come in shape.”

After most of the media had drifted off, Scott lingered at center court of the team’s El Segundo practice facility. A son, Thomas, an assistant with the Lakers’ Development League club, stood nearby and an impish granddaughter tottered around, clutching a basketball to her chest.

“This is home for me,” Scott said.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Safety First For Sochi Olympics

By David Wharton, Los Angeles Times

SOCHI, Russia — As his plane approached Sochi-Adler International Airport, flying low over the coast, Eric Guay glanced out the window.

Warships sat anchored on the Black Sea below.

“That’s the first sight you get,” the Canadian skier said. “In a way, it makes you feel safe.”

Security has been a major concern leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

These Games are considered particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of their proximity to the North Caucasus, a region where Islamic militants have waged a violent insurgency.

Recent bombings in Volgograd, about 400 miles away, heightened fears, as did media reports that authorities were searching for three potential “black widow” suicide bombers thought to be in the area.

But the athletes who have arrived here over the last few days say they feel safe, in large part because of a very obvious military and security presence.

“From the moment you step off the plane, you’re showing credentials,” American short-track speedskater Jessica Smith said. “Everybody’s checking you at each stop you enter and you exit.”

It was just last summer that Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov posted a video calling for militants to take action against the Olympics. He decried the notion of sports events held “on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea.”

Then came the Volgograd bombings, which killed 34 people. A militant group from the Dagestan region claimed responsibility.

“This is no war zone but not the safest environment,” said bobsledder Chris Fogt, who took time off from competing after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to serve with the U.S. military in Iraq. “We kind of feel like something could happen.”

Heading into the Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee issued a memo to athletes, passing along State Department advice that they refrain from wearing conspicuous team clothing outside of secured areas.

The Australian Olympic Committee went a step further, restricting athletes to venues, the village and the official transport system. Ian Chesterman, the team’s chef de mission, said this week: “We take it seriously and it’s a good practice to define what degree of caution is required.”

All along, the International Olympic Committee and local organizers have insisted they can keep athletes and spectators safe. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made these Games his pet project, hoping they will be a showcase for his country.

No corners have been cut with an estimated $50 billion-plus spent on venues and surrounding infrastructure. Alexey Lavrishev, the head of Olympic security, said 40,000 policemen have been deployed in this city of about 400,000.

“What you see is designed to create a feeling of security,” said Scott J. White, an associate professor of homeland security at Drexel University. “What you’re not seeing is the (Russian security service) working behind the scenes.”

Speaking to reporters, IOC President Thomas Bach made a point of saying that safety concerns are nothing new to the Games.

Olympic officials dealt with terrorism in 1972 when 11 Israeli team members were taken hostage by Palestinians in Munich and ultimately killed during a rescue attempt. There was a bombing in Atlanta in 1996 and post-9/11 security concerns at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

“Every big event nowadays is under threat and therefore we have to address this,” Bach said.

In Sochi, purple-jacketed security staff can be seen throughout the area. On Tuesday morning, cars and trucks lined up for a full block, waiting to pass through one of the checkpoints to the Olympic Park.

Guards inspected each vehicle, using mirrors to peer underneath. Again, this has been standard procedure in recent Games, but competitors seemed to appreciate the effort.

“We feel very confident that our team is well-guarded and secure,” said Seiko Hashimoto, the chef de mission for the Japanese contingent. “The Olympic Village is very well-protected.”

Not all precautions have been left up to Russian authorities. Some teams employ private security companies and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police briefed their country’s delegation.

The U.S. government says it has an emergency plan in place, with warships and transport planes standing at the ready should athletes and officials require evacuation.

Skeleton racer Noelle Pikus-Pace felt confident enough to bring her husband and two small children, who usually travel with her. “Of course we had concerns leading up to the Games,” she said. “But once we got here and to the place where we were staying, we felt very safe and there haven’t been any issues.”

Although visible security may offer comfort, it also presents a potential downside. The airport-style metal detectors and troops riding in the backs of trucks — which have been seen around town — could dampen the Olympics’ traditionally festive spirit.

Bach did not seem overly concerned, saying: “I think the atmosphere can really flourish.”

Athletes agreed that, at least so far, the Russians have found a reasonable balance.

When the short-track speedskaters competed here last year they encountered delays in getting through checkpoints. Speedskater Emily Scott said things are running more smoothly now. “I think they’ve got the kinks out,” she said. “They’re prepared to keep it a happy and a fun Games.”

The area around Olympic Park has a casual feel, with visitors and residents walking along the streets from morning until late at night.

The vibe might change in coming days as security personnel faces an onslaught of fans arriving for the start of competition. But for now, the athletes seem content.

“Honestly, everyone’s been so nice, so polite,” Scott said. “I haven’t felt unsafe in any sort of way.”

AFP Photo/Loic Venance