How Ray Scott, NBA’s first Black Coach of the Year, got his chance with the Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II | Detroit Free Press

Former Detroit Pistons big man and head coach Ray Scott has long prided himself as a historian. As a child in the 1940s, he idolized the Harlem Globetrotters, who he credits for introducing him to the sport during an era where professional basketball was a predominantly white spectator sport.

When Scott was drafted by the Pistons in 1961, he was already deeply familiar with the Black heroes of the game — figures such as Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Chuck Cooper, former Globetrotters who became the first Black basketball players to be drafted into the NBA, and ex-Piston Earl Lloyd, the first Black man to play in an NBA game, and Scott’s “big brother” and mentor.

Scott, now 82, is writing a book that will reflect on his own career, the history of Black prominent figures in professional basketball and how that platform has impacted societal change.

He said he’s still actively living his life and fears that he will publish the book too soon.

“I had to wait until I was 82 to shake my head yes, to go with the affirmative because I put it off, put it off, put it off,” Scott said during a phone interview. “I just felt like I just had so much more life to live and I want to make sure I don’t leave anything out of the book.”

While he may be an NBA historian, Scott’s name is also in the annals of NBA history. He was the league’s first Black Coach of the Year in 1974, when he guided the Pistons to a then-franchise best 50-32 record. He inherited the head coaching job from Lloyd, who was fired seven games into his second season in 1972-73. Scott said it was “never in his wildest dreams” that he would one day become a coach.

“I think people prefer that we keep our mouths shut,” Scott said. “That’s where the saying ‘Shut up and dribble’ came from. People see that we’re educated men, we’re men that can decipher and discern, and I see that in the NBA and it makes me very proud when I see kids now that are educated and speaking up and doing good things with their money, helping people.”

Scott has called Detroit home for six decades, but was born and raised in South Philadelphia. After a year at the University of Portland, he spent three years playing for the Allentown Jets in the Eastern Professional Basketball League, later known as the Continental Basketball Association.

He eventually crossed paths with Lloyd, who was the reason why the Pistons drafted Scott in 1961. Lloyd, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, broke several barriers for Black basketball players. Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper were all selected in the 1950 NBA draft, and Lloyd was the first of the three to play. After six seasons with the Syracuse Nationals, Lloyd played for the Pistons from 1958-60, and the franchise made him the NBA’s first Black assistant coach after he retired.

“Syracuse was a great stop professionally, but Detroit was really something special,” Lloyd said in an interview with the Free Press in 2004. “I had a real love affair with the town. Over the next 42 years, I forged some great relationships there, made lifelong friends and was given many opportunities.”

One of Lloyd’s responsibilities with the Pistons was scouting. He’s credited with discovering two of the greatest players of the era, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe, and later expressed frustration that the Pistons didn’t always follow his recommendations. But they did listen to him when he recommended they draft Scott, a 6-foot-9 power forward and center who could fill a defensive and rebounding void for a roster that had plenty of scoring punch.

Lloyd flew out to Philadelphia, about an hour south of Allentown, and spent a day with Scott. They went back to Scott’s home in Philadelphia, and Lloyd told Scott’s mother that the Pistons were going to draft him in the first round. Scott didn’t believe him, because he’d previously had interest from the New York Knicks, Cincinnati Royals and Chicago Packers. None had committed to drafting him.

Instead, Scott accepted an opportunity to play basketball in the Bronx. He took the train from Philadelphia to New York City in March of 1961, and then hopped on a subway. He picked up a copy of the evening newspaper to check the results of the NBA draft. The Packers selected Walt Bellamy first overall, the Knicks took Tom Stith and the Royals went with Larry Siegfried with the third pick. Scott then saw that the Pistons selected him with the fourth overall pick.

“My chin hit the floor,” Scott said. “I let out a scream on the subway, I think people thought I was nuts. But I was just like, ‘Wow.’ And so what Earl Lloyd had told me as a college dropout playing in the Eastern Basketball League, what he had told me was true. He was a man of his word. So coming to Detroit, I was very impressed by that, that what this man said to me was pure truth.”

Scott played for the Pistons from 1961-67 and averaged 16.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in that span. Lloyd took Scott under his wing, and Scott credits Lloyd and former Pistons coach Dick McGuire as the reasons why he had a successful 11-year pro career. Scott averaged 33 points per game during his final season in Allentown. The Pistons needed him to embrace a new role as a defensive anchor, and Lloyd helped him buy in.

“He was my mentor,” he said of Lloyd. “I was probably with Earl almost every weekend, and sometimes during the week I was in Earl’s home, and he just became like my big brother. I don’t think I would’ve made the NBA had it not been for Earl, because on the Pistons team, they had three scorers — Don Ohl, Bailey Howell and Gene Shue. They weren’t looking for another scorer, they were looking for a solid big man.”

Scott retired in 1972 after two seasons with the ABA’s Virginia Squires. His contract with the Squires included a clause stating he would work for their front office after he retired. And he did just that — until he got a phone call from Lloyd that August. Lloyd was hired as the Pistons’ head coach in 1971. The Pistons made Lloyd the NBA’s first non-playing Black coach. Bill Russell, Al Attles and Lenny Wilkins were all previously Black player-coaches.

Lloyd wanted Scott to be his assistant. Scott couldn’t say no.

“I said, ‘Well sure, of course Earl, I can’t turn you down,’” Scott said. “‘You’ve been my big brother, my mentor, very very strong in my life.’”

Three months later, after the Pistons lost five of their first seven games, and team owner Fred Zollner and general manager Ed Coil decided that it was time for a change. Lloyd was fired and Scott worried about his future. To his surprise, the Pistons’ leadership thought Scott, with just one full season as an assistant, was the right man for the job.

“I was in shock for about 2 minutes,” Scott said. “When you talk about my coaching dream, it began right there. It was a big thing because I was taking over a team that had Bob Lanier and Dave Bing, two future Hall of Famers, and I had an All American from UCLA in Curtis Rowe and I had Chris Ford, who played on the top team in Villanova. We had Stu Lantz, who was nursing an injury, but we had a decent team.

“But we just weren’t hitting on all cylinders, and I never went back and asked Mr. Zollner and Mr. Coil why Earl was let go, but I did ask him why they hired me, and they just said that you could bring something to the team we needed. I was never given a clear answer. It was interesting. That was my coaching resume put together in 2 minutes.”

The Pistons went 38-37 in 1972-73 after Scott took over as head coach. That momentum carried into the following season, when they won a then-franchise best 52 games and he became the league’s first Black Coach of the Year. Scott said his lessons learned from his former coaches — Alfred Bianchi in Virginia and Shue, who coached him with the Baltimore Bullets from 1967-70 — helped him. He leaned on Lloyd, who taught him how to scout talent. He also credits his players and Coil, who he said was receptive to his ideas and gave him room to grow as a young coach.

“I think it was a changing time in the ’70s and I think (Zollner) was just going with the times, going with what he thought,” Scott said. “My first reaction was ‘Earl, I can’t take this job. I’m with you! And Earl said, ‘Well you gotta take it.’ He was very emphatic. You have to take this job. I said ‘OK, I listened to you up until now. I’m not going to stop now.’ But why Mr. Zollner would look at Earl Lloyd and say ‘I’m going to give this job to Ray Scott,’ only God in his heaven knows.”

After Scott won the NBA’s top coaching honor in 1974, another Black coach wasn’t named Coach of the Year until Don Chaney in 1991. The only others: Wilkens in 1994; Doc Rivers in 2000; Avery Johnson in 2006; Sam Mitchell in 2007; Byron Scott in 2008; Mike Brown in 2009 and Dwane Casey in 2018.

This season, the league has seven Black head coaches (23%); about 80% of the players are Black.

Still, Scott believes the NBA has always been at the forefront in American sports in creating opportunities for Black people. And he’s encouraged by what he’s seen in today’s game, naming LeBron James’ various philanthropic efforts as an example of the positive impact athletes can make with their platform.

“We’ve led this nation in terms of bringing a harmonious attitude,” Scott said. “You may not want to be our friend, you may not want us around, but we don’t come with offense. We come with an open hand. And you decide how you want to treat us and how it’s going to be by the way that you treat us. I think as an industry, the NBA is one of the finest organizations that you have in this country, and they have certainly proved that in times of tribulation, with the George Floyd situation, Breanna Taylor, our kids have stepped up to the floor and showed the world we don’t shut up and dribble, we know what’s going on, as Marvin Gaye would say.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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