Trailblazing Piston Ray Scott shares journey in ‘The NBA in Black and White’

Detroit News

Ray Scott was a 12-year-old who would shovel snow off the asphalt courts with his buddies like Bill Cosby and Wilt Chamberlain and then make his way to the Philadelphia Convention Hall to see his hometown Warriors.

“It was magical — absolutely!” Scott said.

Scott’s NBA dreams in Philly came to reality in Detroit with the Pistons.

A first-round pick and 6-9 power forward who went on to average 16.0 points and 10.7 rebounds in six seasons with the Pistons from 1961-67, he later coached Detroit to a then franchise-best 52-30 record and was the first African American named NBA Coach of the Year in 1973-74.

Now 83 and living in Ypsilanti Township with his wife of 40 years, Scott is releasing a book in June that he wrote with Charley Rosen called, “The NBA in Black and White: The Memoir of a Trailblazing NBA Player and Coach.”

“It’s my heart and soul,” Scott said. “Basketball gave me a lot of opportunities, but it also gave me a thoughtful process of who I was and who I wanted to be.”

Scott said Chamberlain exhibited those endless possibilities from an early age.

“Wilt was that guy in my life who showed us how great you could be,” Scott said. “He was like Babe Ruth to us. We played everywhere — rec centers, asphalt. I’ve got a picture of him in my book of the one rebound I got from Wilt.”

Scott chuckled, recalling that game between his West Philadelphia High team and Chamberlain’s Overbrook High.

“I’m getting a rebound as a 16-year-old junior and he’s an 18-year-old senior,” Scott said. “Wilt really was a good guy but the one thing I picked up about him was that he was shy. And another seven-footer, Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), was shy.”

Scott touched on the source of that shyness in his book: “There’s a basic insecurity with Black guys my size. We can’t hide and everybody turns to stare when we walk down the street.”

Scott’s journey to the NBA began in the Pacific Northwest. He left the University of Portland after getting “very homesick” as a freshman and played three years for the Allentown (Pa.) Jets in the Eastern Basketball League.

He realized his dream of being drafted into the NBA on March 27, 1961, when reading the New York Post sports section on a subway en route to a game in the Bronx.

“I picked up the paper and I was scared,” Scott said. “Red Auerbach said the Boston Celtics were going to draft me (No. 9 overall), and the New York Knicks with Red Holzman said the Knicks would take a look at me (with the No. 2 pick). Earl Lloyd had come to my home and told me, ‘We’re going to draft you for the Detroit Pistons.’”

The Pistons had the No. 4 pick and took Scott.

“I’m looking in the paper and there’s my name,” Scott said. “I screamed so loud. I’m in the subway, and people are like, ‘What is with this guy?’

“The thing in my mind was, ‘Earl Lloyd kept his word.’ That bonded us as friends, mentors and brothers for the rest of his life.”

We’re offering a great rate on digital subscriptions. Click here.

Lloyd died in 2015 and went into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2003. He was the head scout and assistant coach for the Pistons in 1961, and would hire Scott to fill those roles when he became head coach.

Scott replaced Lloyd as head coach in 1972 and coached two Hall of Famers in future Detroit mayor Dave Bing and sequoia-sized center Bob Lanier.

“The greatest thing I remember about the Pistons is that Dave became my roommate early on,” Scott said. “Dave made it cool for people to come downtown to Cobo to see the Pistons. He brought the crowds. We were never a priority until he came.”

Scott was one of the rare coaches who was a “big man” rather than a guard, and said it was “advantageous” in developing strategy with Lanier in the post position.

Scott played with Bing as a rookie, and after Detroit traded him to the Baltimore Bullets in 1967, he played with a pair of future Hall of Famers in their rookie seasons — Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Wes Unseld. Then, on his final pro stop with the Virginia Squires, Scott played with one more Hall of Famer — Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

The Pistons let Scott go after a 17-25 start in 1975-76. He quickly was hired by Eastern Michigan, but went 29-52 in three seasons and was fired.

“That was one of the worst decisions I ever made with respect to basketball,” Scott said. “It’s a terrible decision when you don’t know how to recruit. And it wasn’t a problem recruiting the talent that’s out there. But it was about the talent you can get.”

Scott went after the top two players in the state in 1976 — Earvin “Magic” Johnson of Lansing Everett and Detroit Denby’s Stuart House, who chose Washington State.

“Magic said, ‘Coach, I’ll be honest with you, I’m going to Michigan State, but thank you for asking me,'” Scott said.

Scott, an NBA head coach at 34, never coached professionally or collegiately past 40.

“I became a businessman with the Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Company,” said Scott, who still serves them as an adviser. “I had to be at home, make money, and help my wife (Jennifer Ziehm-Scott) who had a developing career at the University of Michigan at the Kellogg Eye Center.”

However, he did coach his daughters, Allison and Devon, and enjoyed watching daughter Nia play soccer and run cross country.

“The happiest five years I spent coaching were at St. Paul’s in Ann Arbor with my girls,” Scott said.

Jennifer and Ray have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Ray also has a daughter, Maria.

His life is his family, but he still keeps tabs on the NBA that captured his imagination as a boy growing up in Philadelphia.

“Maurice Stokes was the first African-American star (in 1955-56) before the Big Four,” said Scott, alluding to Baylor, Chamberlain, Robertson and Bill Russell.

“Red Auerbach, his influence was all over the place. Red, (Atlanta Hawks general manager) Marty Blake, Earl Lloyd and Red Holzman were the ones who began bringing in the plethora of African American players.

“You don’t see the NBA without African American coaches, players — players, obviously — general managers, presidents. They brought people to the table. They opened their arms and embraced the larger community.”

Rosen said their book analyzes many aspects of race relations. He said Scott, who has every one of Rosen’s over two dozen books, most of which have basketball themes, contacted him three years ago about writing the book with him.

“Ray said he respected my love of the game,” said Rosen, 81, who played small college and minor league basketball before serving Phil Jackson as an assistant coach on the CBA’s Albany Patroons from 1983-86. “We talked and I said, ‘There’s a book there.’ We’d talk every day. I’d take notes. I’d type up the notes, send them to Ray, and we’d refine it before going onto the next chapter. The main thing was keeping it in Ray’s voice.

“He had a willingness to reveal what he thinks, what he thought, what happened. The ultimate goal of this book is not to shock, but to make readers think. This will be my 27th book, and it’s easily the most important I’ve ever been involved with. It says things about race tied to his life story, his journey. He talks about Emmett Till (14 when he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, to Scott’s horror) and other tragedies and how he dealt with them.

“One of the most telling things in this book is when he says, ‘He’s always Black. But his wife, Jennifer, is only White when she’s with him.’ That’s profound. It says a lot about our culture.”

What, according to Rosen, stands out about Scott in the book?

“It’s his honesty, his compassion, his humility, his intelligence. And he can see what’s important and what’s not important. He’s very fair-minded and has a great sense of humor. He’s the kind of guy who has a lot of best friends, and we became fast friends. We had such a good time doing this book. Working with Ray on this book has been a blessing for me. I’ve enjoyed this book more than anything I’ve done.”

Scott, who has observed the NBA in 71 of its 75 years, said everything has changed since the days of his youth.

“I was out playing in the school yards,” Scott said. “The Black kids didn’t have fieldhouses, CYOs, YMCAs. No indoor courts. It was all asphalt. But that was where we learned to play, and we learned to play from an individualistic standpoint because we didn’t have coaches.”

Even though Scott became a trailblazing coach in the NBA, he kept the three-foot-high trophy he won as Coach of the Year in the basement for years because he didn’t want his daughters living in a house “that was a salute to me.”

Now it’s upstairs in the living room.

“I think of the kid that I was living in the third-floor walk-up in South Philly and how fortunate I am that my career literally ended there (as a coach in Detroit) in terms of the NBA,” Scott said. “I had a career and it was symbolic of the career.

“I think what’s important now is how the NBA has grown — especially in terms of ‘Black Lives Matter’. I remember (current Philadelphia coach) Doc Rivers being on television then, and a great discussion item was Doc saying, ‘We love America, but America doesn’t love us.’ This was after George Floyd was killed.

“I understand that it comes down to how we see the world — how you see it versus how I see it. A lot of times, those are two different worlds.

“Now, do we move off of the dime with each other as opposed to moving off the dime in separate directions? And we’re still looking. None of us has the answer.”

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

Articles You May Like

Pistons vs. Mavericks preview: Traveling to Dallas to face the Mavs without Luka
Pistons LIVE 1.30.23: Dwane Casey
Pistons LIVE 2.3.23: Jaden Ivey
The Pistons Pulse: EPISODE 50!!!
Pistons’ Ivey on extended Dallas trip: ‘I wouldn’t want to be stranded with anybody else’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *