A Grecian Yearn

Most Cavalier fans over the age of 35 probably remember watching Byron Scott win Championships with the L.A. Lakers. Starring alongside Kareem, Magic and Worthy in Tinseltown – the current Cavs coach was one of the most recognizable faces in the NBA.

Those same fans most likely remember him joining Reggie Miller in the Pacers backcourt and even his short stint with the expansion Grizzlies in Vancouver.

But it’s safe to say that almost none of those fans saw a minute of Scott’s single season in Greece – where he won the Euroleague Championship in his final year of playing pro ball.

Scott had just wrapped up his NBA career in 1996-97, going full-circle and closing out with the team he’d won three Championships with: the L.A. Lakers. But by then, it was no longer Kareem and Magic’s squad – it was Shaq and Kobe’s.

After that final year in Hollywood, the current Cavaliers coach took his talents to the Mediterranean.

“My whole thought process going over there was just to play for one year,” recalled Scott. “I said all along that after I finish my NBA career I wanted to play one season overseas. I was able to do that, and when I got out of there, I came back to do what I really dreamed about doing – which was get into coaching.”

Scott chose the international powerhouse – Panathinaikos, a squad with which several former NBA stars had closed their careers.

Panathinaikos Basketball Club began in 1946 and was a hoops powerhouse in Greece for decades – winning 10 out of 14 Greek Championships between 1970 and 1984. After a tough stretch for Panathinaikos, in 1992 a ban on using foreign players was lifted and they added a name that might be familiar to Cavalier fans – the great Edgar Jones, who played in Athens for two seasons.

Through the years, Panathinaikos has welcomed other NBA names, like Dominique Wilkins, Antonio Davis, John Amaechi, John Salley, Marcus Haislip, Dino Radja and Byron Scott.

“I had a little trouble dealing with the fact that the team I was playing with was green and white,” joked the Inglewood native and Laker legend. “That made it a little bit difficult for me when I first got there because I didn’t know that their colors were green and white or their emblem was a shamrock. And then, to top it off, the other foreigner I was playing with was Dino Radja – who was a Boston Celtic!”

Scott added: “I had a whole bunch of thoughts going in, but it was a great experience. We had a good basketball team and we did some good things.”

Indeed they did. In 1997-98, Scott’s single season in Athens, Panathinaikos won their first Greek Championship in 14 years. (And, since then, have done so in every season but 2002.)

“I tell you, the fans are so passionate about Panathinaikos,” smiled Scott. “It was the first time after a win that I came out after a game and a young man grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks, which kind of startled me.

“It was great and it didn’t take me long to get used to their culture, because that’s just the way they were – very affectionate about their team. I enjoyed it, to be honest. To come out after a win – and we won 99 percent of our home games – to see the fans come out and throw roses at you was pretty impressive.”

But it wasn’t all kisses and roses for Scott and his teammates. Every NBA player who’s spent time in the Euroleagues has a horror story or two. Aside from Scott describing how some opposing fans would heat coins up with a lighter before chucking them, he recalled another sticky situation …

“I can’t remember the city we played in, but it was Peja’s home court. When we went to play there – it was really my first time on the road (with Panathinaikos) – and they were burning our flag in the stands,” laughed Scott, adding, “And a ball goes out of bounds – just during shootaround. I went to go get it and one of the Greek players grabbed me … ‘No, no, no, Byron. Don’t go over there.’ And just before I got close enough, (the fans) started spitting.

“I said, ‘Whoa, what the hell is this?’ And they just said, ‘You can’t go over there.’”

Overall, Scott speaks very well of his overseas experience. As with most foreign players, the language barrier was the biggest obstacle.

“That’s always going to be the biggest barrier,” explained Scott. “The climate was a lot like Los Angeles. They had the Americanized sides of Greece where you could go down and get your restaurant fill and your fast food fill. They had one golf course that you could go to. It was all down on the Olympiakos side – who are the arch rivals of Panathinaikos – and that made that a little iffy. But other than that, the language was the only big barrier.”

Now a successful head coach in the NBA, Scott admits to a better understanding of foreign players in the NBA – what they go through adjusting to life in a different country with a coach and teammates who speak an unfamiliar language.

“(You’re) more sympathetic to their situation if you’ve been in that position where you’re the foreigner,” said Scott. “I was one of two Americans on the team, and when the coach talked to the team, he talked in his Yugoslavian language. I’m sitting there going, ‘What the hell is this guy saying?’ So I know how these guys feel when they come over to our country to play.”

Coach Scott might have to remember that patience and understanding when Christian Eyenga misses an assignment and looks to the sidelines like his boss is speaking Greek.

The Cavaliers coach brought a wealth of worldly experience with him when he was hired this past July. He’s won Championships on the West Coast and on the Apollo Coast. Now, he’d like to bring one to the North Coast – where he definitely won’t have to worry about a young man kissing him on both cheeks for doing so.

Joe Gabriele is the official beat writer for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Cavs.com. You can follow Joe and send him your questions on Twitter at @CavsJoeG.