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 sensed that."
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 Scott?
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 tardiness.)
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."