Ray Scott: Making It Through the Night, 1973

[Earl Lloyd began the 1971-72 NBA season as head coach of the Detroit Pistons. Seven games in, Lloyd got “the ziggy,” as they called it in Detroit. He got fired. Detroit GM Ed Coil then surprised everyone by handing the Lloyd’s former job to his assistant Ray Scott. Probably surprised the most by the news was the 34-year-old Scott, who had been just minding his own business..

“I’m shocked,” said Scott. “There’s nothing that Earl has done I can improve on—except win some games.”

Scott didn’t want to betray his dear friend Lloyd, but the two talked it out, and Scott acquiesced. This article from writer Eric Lincoln, which appeared in the April 1973 issue of the magazine Black Sports, checks in on the newly minted Coach Scott. The story highlights his amazing gift for communicating with players and his belief in “THE Pistons” when others snickered at the franchise. “Why is there always this connotation THE Pistons?” Scott asked. “When you refer to them around here, it’s almost like you’re referring to failure. There has to be something positive.” 

Scott would turn things around in Detroit, earning NBA Coach of the Year honors in 1974. But the turnaround would be brief. Scott, too, would get the ziggy in January 1976 and unfairly so. If you want to know why, check out the recently released book, The NBA in Black and White by Scott and Charley Rosen. Scott remains a font of basketball knowledge and a great interview. He’s always been a deep-thinker, incredibly perceptive, and well-spoken. His words matter, and that’s why his book is definitely worth picking up.]

****

Sometimes Ray Scott wonders whether he’ll make it through the night. Lord knows he has cause for concern. Coaches generally border on the brink of schizophrenia or manic depression. Up. Down. Two points either way can mean the difference between fat city and distraction. So here’s Ray Scott, eyes glazed, hunched over. It is the third quarter of a game between the Detroit Pistons in the New York Knickerbockers, a game that was once contestable. Whiz, bang, hot damn. Now the Knicks lead by 12 points. Ray Scott gazes at the scoreboard. Yesterday is dead and gone.

****

The way things are structured in the American Way of Sports, it appears superficially that Ray Scott, coach of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, is a cultural anomaly, an American anomaly. Superficially? No. Rather he Is a rarity, a Black coach in the captivity of American Sport. He is one of two Black head coaches in all of American professional sport. Al Attles, coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, is the other. Not one has broken through whatever it is they have to break through to earn a position as manager of a major league baseball team, a professional football team. Hell. Ray Scott is a rare species of homo sap.

“And you know something, I look at it just about the way Al Attles looks at it,” Scott said recently. “I’m just a coach, that’s all. I really don’t think the Black angle comes into it in our league. All I want to be is a good coach. I want to succeed. And I think that’s the goal of every coach, Black or white. I don’t think I have to prove anything to anyone up here. 

“All I have to prove is that I’m a competent coach. I’ve already proved long ago what kind of person I am. I’m not going through that again. I just had to go through some changes when I took the job. And all those changes that I dealt with were coaching and how to coach these guys, not worrying about being Black.”

Ray Scott was 34 years old when he was hired to replace Earl Lloyd as coach of the Detroit Pistons last November 1. “It was hard for me to do it for a number of reasons. I was really close with Earl, super close. But when the Pistons let him go, he spoke to me and persuaded me to take the job.”

Scott was reluctant at first. He had spent 11 seasons in the NBA before moving on to the ABA’s Virginia Squires for two more seasons. “I had to come back and learn how to coach. I had to learn about the talent in the league,” Scott says. “Most importantly, I wanted to make this team respectable. That was my goal. We’re just about there now, then we’ll grow and mature. I’m confident that I can bring this team along.”

****

The fourth quarter of the game between the Pistons and Knickerbockers is a disaster. Scott glances furtively at the scoreboard, scans the row of bended knees on his bench. Bob Lanier, the Pistons’ center, lurches forward and hurls a pass downcourt which sails in a perfect parabola 10 feet out of bounds. Scott buries his head in his hands. He thinks to himself, “Christ, he wouldn’t have thrown that one away last night.”

The Pistons were completing a six-game-in-eight-day roadtrip. “He’s tired,” Scott thinks. Dave Bing, the Pistons’ masterful guard, drives arrogantly toward the basket and is smothered by a host of defenders. And tomorrow’s out of sight.

****

Scott isn’t concerned, as yet, with the rather precarious position of the professional coach. Here today. Gone today. “That’s when you get away from the thing about being Black. If you’re competent in your profession, they’ll keep you. I intend on proving my competence. Right now, I’m worried about getting this team to respectability. You’d think they were respectable on paper, but look at our lineup and you’ll see a lot of younger kids. Bing is really the only veteran on the team. Look at the lineup. They averaged two or three years of experience. I have to work with these kids until they mature. Lanier will be a great one when he matures. You see the thing about him is that he doesn’t play with adversity.

“Take Willis Reed. The difference between Reed and Lanier is that Reed has learned to play with diversity. He’s a man playing on one leg.”

****

Willis Reed captures a rebound from Lanier’s splayed fingers, tosses the ball downcourt, follows the flow of the play (Lanier trailing behind). Frazier passes to Bradley who tips the ball back to Reed for an easy lay-in. Ray Scott calls three substitutes from the bench. He calls timeout and has nothing to say. Ain’t it bad to be alone?

****

“I’ll always remember my first game as coach. It was in Portland, and I wanted to win so badly, nuthin’ to prove again,” Ray Scott says, “except for the fact that I wanted to get this team together in a hurry. Al Attles helped me. I think most of the changes I had to go through dealt with the league because I had been away so long. I had to find out about the teams and the different players. But I’m the type of guy who knows he can handle people.”

Scott says his most-significant attribute is his sensitivity to the men who work under him. “See, sports haven’t been everything to me. I remember the one incident when I first started out with the team that points out how some of the guys think. One of them came up to me and said how does it feel to have a prestigious position? Man, I’ve had all the prestige. When I graduated University of Portland, I was drafted number one by the Pistons.

“I was made captain of the team. I went on tours for the government giving clinics. In 1968, I campaigned for Hubert Humphrey. I enjoy being with people. That’s part of my life. I try and get into other things besides sports. That’s important to me. There’s a world out there, and ya’ got to go out and find out about it.”

Scott paused and then laughed. “Something I found out already is that I’m part of management. And that’s a whole new world for me. When I was a ballplayer, all I was worried about was making money. Why shouldn’t they be? But now, I’m lookin’ around at a half-empty house and wonderin’ if I can improve this team enough to get some people into the house.”

****

The howl of the Madison Square Garden crowd echoes through the corridors outside the Detroit Pistons’ dressing room. A loud, shriek howl that lingers on over the clatter of feet. Ray Scott emerges from the dressing room and is engaged in conversation by a few reporters. Ain’t it bad to be alone? Please help me make it through the night.

****

“I think I’ve brought something to this team, and it was that I’m only 34. At the start, I had to go through some changes because I had to start being the boss. But I get along with the players. I think I understand what that key to winning is. Now see, this team has always been close-knit off the court. I saw that.

Now, I’m tellin’ ‘em be close-knit on the court. But you just can’t tell ‘em that. We have rap sessions all the time. I’ve learned to deal with all players, especially Black players, of course. Some guy say Black players aren’t intelligent. Damn, all right, so some of them come out with a few demsdese, and doses, man. But they know about the game, and I get them and everyone to contribute. I think it’s like a sensitivity session, you know what I mean?

“When you first get guys together, they’ll talk on a superficial level. I try and get the guys to open up. Yeh, sensitivity sessions. They respond pretty well. We’ve had problems with players getting’ it together on the court. And we talk, and I listen. I’m not above taking criticism or using someone’s ideas. There’s no secrets anyway in pro ball. You go out and try some of the things that the guys say.”

Ray Scott, 34, coach of the Detroit Pistons, maybe the first professional basketball coach to understand and utilize the concept of sensitivity. “Sort of like that California Esalen thing, huh?” he said. “It works, man. We talk.”

Scott must himself be sensitive to the fact that his job is in jeopardy, if not for the simple reason that he is in the employ of an insecure profession. Also for the fact that his Pistons labor in the Midwest Division with such dominant forces as the Milwaukee Bucks and the Chicago Bulls.

“Always lookin’ up? I don’t think so,” Scott says. “I have the attitude that it could take one or two players to turn the whole thing around. Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe did that for Baltimore. We could get one draft choice and get our younger players matured, and we might just be there. I believe that. I got to believe that.”

Scott paused. “This is a funny profession,” he said. “Your life sometimes depends on one or two points either way.

“I remember a game earlier this year when Lou Hudson shot one in at the buzzer to beat us. I was never so down in my life. Really depressed. And then you start thinking that your whole life would have been changed, you would’ve been happy, if he hadn’t scored.

“But I was so depressed, man, thinking ‘bout that game. I drove home and just about wrecked my car getting there. I didn’t get hurt or anything. But I think God was tryin’ to tell me to stop this worrying about something it wasn’t worth worrying about. It’s not the whole world.”

Please help me make it through the night.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: