He hasn't suited up in Los Angeles since the '96-'97 season, but there are few guys working in the league with a deeper connection to the Lakers than Cleveland coach Byron Scott. He won three titles in the Showtime era, and despite coaching in New Jersey (including against the '02 Finals against the Lakers), New Orleans, and now with the post-LeBron Cavs, as far as I can tell Scott is no less popular among Lakers faithful than he was after he retired.
Scott is in Las Vegas for the start of Cleveland's Summer League season, and I snared a few minutes with him Tuesday afternoon.
Long-rumored as a candidate to take over for Phil Jackson when he eventually retires, Scott ended any linear possibility of making it happen when he took the gig with the Cavs. We talked about cutting the cord on what admittedly would be a "dream job," about what Derek Fisher brings to the Lakers, and finally about how the leadership dynamic he shared with Magic Johnson on the title teams of the 80's compared to the one between Fisher and Kobe Bryant.
How hard was it to let go of the prospect of coaching in L.A. when you took the Cleveland job?
"You know what, that was everybody else's prospect of me coaching in L.A. I've always said it would be one of my dream jobs, there's no doubt about. A lot of that is, number one, that's my hometown, and two because of Kobe. I got a chance to play with the young man when he was a rookie and mentor him, and we've had a close relationship ever since. That was the two biggest reasons, but I never felt, and never once at this particular time of the year did I say 'I'm just going to sit out and wait for Phil.' That's not me. I want to coach. And again, [coaching in Cleveland] is another type of challenge for me, and what I kind of thrive on. I live for these types of challenges, and I'm looking forward to it."
But even in more big picture terms. Taking the Cleveland job means it's unlikely you'll get a chance to coach the Lakers, or at least down the road it seems much more unlikely.
"I never thought about it that way. Never thought about it that way. Sometimes, some of the things you dream about or wish would happen don't happen. You've got to live with that. I never thought if I take this job, I might never get to coach the Lakers. I never thought that way."
Looking at Derek Fisher, what would the Lakers have lost and what do they gain from keeping him another three years?
"They're keeping a winner. Obviously a proven winner, with five championships. They're keeping a leader, and they're keeping somebody who Kobe trusts. With all his heart, he understands how much he means to that team. Even though I heard he was going to talk to [Miami], I knew he wasn't leaving L.A."
When you have a personality and presence like Kobe on your team, who is so strong and can be overbearing or intimidating for some players, how important is it to have a balance to that?
"It's just the fact that if he has an opinion, he's going to say it and he's going to have an opinion and Kobe's going to listen. Because Kobe respects him more than he probably respects anyone else in this league. They've been through wars together, they came into this league at the same time. Fish is unbelievable. I love that guy just as much as I love Kobe, just because of what he brings every single night. The toughness that he adds to that team, the leadership, and the ability to be able to communicate with the teammates is something that [is so important]. I knew he wasn't leaving."
On the Showtime teams, who filled those roles? Obviously there was so much talent.
"Magic [Johnson] was our Kobe, and I think I was more our Derek Fisher. I was the one that could talk to Earv, and calm him down when he was getting off on somebody else. He would allow me to be able to say what I felt, because he knew that I would go through the wall for him. They have that same relationship, with Kobe and Fish. I was more the Fisher, back in those days, and obviously Magic was more the Kobe Bryant."
How long does it take to develop that kind of relationship?
"It takes years. It takes years, and it takes a lot of trust. And once you get to the point where I got trust -- and it took a few years for Earvin to be able to trust me, because [Michael Cooper] was already there, so it was really like us three guys. But once they trusted me, and allowed me to be in that circle, it could never be broken."
When you're in that position, as the guy who can be the balance to the star player on the team, how do you handle that? How do you measure when it's time to say the right thing, do the right thing? To be the counterweight?
"You don't. You're just being honest with that man. And a lot of other players on the team maybe were afraid to say certain things, but he respected me for who I was and what I was able to bring to the table. He respected my opinion. You just played ball and you spoke your mind, and you said the things that you felt was going on, and he'd listen. I think it's the same thing with Derek and Kobe."
Did it embolden players to see you be honest with him, and stand up to him?
"Well, the other players would always say, 'Can you tell Magic...' Which was cool, because they knew our relationship was special. It was fun."