Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 23 News List

Byron Scott's success in New Jersey should amaze

AP , EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY

Rare is the coach who leads his team to the NBA finals and begins the next season on the firing line. But the New Jersey Nets are not your normal franchise, and Byron Scott is not just any coach.

The Nets captured their second straight Eastern Conference championship last season under Scott. They played their first home game of this season last night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. There were tributes and accolades and kind words directed at Scott before the Nets romped, 84-61, at Continental Arena.

If I were Scott, though, I'd be very aware of what goes on behind my back. The team and its coach begin the season surrounded by doubt: The Nets are for sale and Scott's contract has not been extended beyond this season.

I can understand the team being for sale, but the persistent doubt surrounding Scott's future is mind-boggling. Here are the Nets, one of the worst franchises in league history, reaching the NBA finals not once, but twice in a row.

Yet, by the end of last season there was yelping from the team's top players that Scott was a figurehead, that Eddie Jordan was the brains of the operation on the bench and that Jason Kidd was the coach on the floor.

This is what I know: Kidd played with Dallas and Phoenix and didn't play for a championship until he arrived in New Jersey. Jordan was coach of the Sacramento Kings and was fired after a little more than one frustrating season. No one called him a genius when he was a Nets assistant under Don Casey. When Casey was fired, Jordan was retained by Scott, who acknowledged Jordan's tactical skills and turned him loose. That's what coaches should do: put people in positions to succeed.

Yet, the last two seasons were marked by sniping from the team's top players, who felt that Jordan was really coaching the team and that he, not Scott, made -- or didn't make -- the crucial in-game adjustments.

Everyone has taken shots at Scott. That happens. During the NBA finals, I criticized Scott for not playing Dikembe Mutombo more against San Antonio. (The more I see Mutombo with the New York Knicks, though, the more I see Scott's point.) And when the Nets lost to San Antonio in Game 6, Scott was criticized for leaving Kerry Kittles on the bench for the last part of the game.

Scott was perilously close to being fired at the end of the series. Part of this is a result of the pressure of performing in and around New York.

Before the Nets game with Minnesota, Latrell Sprewell, the former Knick, said he was glad to be out of New York, or at least off the Knicks. "There's so much pressure here from you guys," he said referring to the news media, "to having to perform every night, from the management, just on your back for every little thing, wanting to fine you for every little thing."

That doesn't happen in Minnesota, Sprewell said, and "it makes a big difference."

But the sniping at Scott is part of a peculiar complex among owners that winning simply isn't enough.

Rick Carlisle, who turned the Detroit Pistons around, was dismissed after last season essentially because he has a miserable personality. Grady Little came within five outs of reaching the World Series and was fired because he doesn't manage with a computer. Scott, who led the once hapless, now cautiously proud Nets to consecutive NBA finals, must still prove himself.

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