Scott Perry was an upwardly mobile young bank executive in his native Detroit, having given up sweats and sneakers for suits and ties, when he was offered a part-time job as a high school basketball assistant.
Easy decision, right? The balance sheet in his logical, detail-oriented mind weighed heavily against adding a demanding, night-time gig to an already crowded schedule. But this was Motown, a city where hot summer nights were spent playing pickup games in sweaty gyms, where he had a reputation as a local college standout to maintain, and where he was increasingly captivated by a Pistons franchise nearing a late-1980s championship run.
Perry took the job and never looked back. He had played one season at Oregon and three more at Wayne State, but he played to coach – which he did as a full-time assistant at Michigan and later as head coach at Eastern Kentucky – and he coached to improve his prospects for working in an NBA front office.
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“That was always my goal,” Perry said recently after being introduced as the Kings vice president of basketball operations. “I thought that was a way to utilize my background in business and combine it with my experience as a player, and then as a high school and college coach.”
Is the man prescient, or what? With Golden 1 Center, the development of the K Street Mall, and a vibrant, thriving urban center growing brick by brick, Perry is walking smack into a young marriage between Sacramento’s evolving business development/complete physical makeover and a basketball team that is running more than a few laps behind.
The playoff drought continues. Another lottery appearance awaits. Life post-DeMarcus Cousins is equal parts mystery, part relief.
Yet with the recent additions of Perry and analytics expert Luke Bornn, general manager Vlade Divac’s front office is beginning to resemble an NBA front office. You can actually peek into Golden 1 Center these days and no longer have to ask: “Who drafted Willie Cauley-Stein? Who executed the swap that sent the No. 8 pick to Phoenix and came away from last summer’s draft with Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Malachi Richardson, and the rights to the intriguing Serbian guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who could very likely take a buyout from Fenerbahce (Turkey) and sign a more lucrative deal with the Kings?”
Divac’s biggest swing, of course, was trading Cousins to New Orleans for Buddy Hield and first- and second-round draft picks. History will reveal whether Vlade got fleeced or pulled one over on the rest of his colleagues. The debate rages on, with one day’s experts often morphing into another day’s fools.
Meantime, Perry’s presence is a significant piece of the ongoing Big Fix, the much-needed organizational repair work that figures to take a few more seasons and occasional adjustments. With the passing of the long-ailing Scotty Stirling and the departed Keith Drum, the Kings in recent years were infrequent visitors on college campuses, a critical omission in today’s era of one-and-done draft prospects.
Kansas coach Bill Self only half-jokingly told me that some NBA scouts and executives spend so much time investigating his players’ work, academic and personal habits, they can recite their favorite fast foods and desserts.
If Perry is as thorough as his reputation suggests, he will provide Divac a list of their favorite snacks as well. His discipline and oft-cited attention to detail, Perry says, is attributed to the demands and expectations of highly achieving parents.
His father, Lowell, was a football star at Michigan, and after serving three years in the military, signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his opening game, he suffered a career-ending injury and never played another down. Instead, with financial assistance from the Rooney family, he obtained his law degree and in 1957 became the NFL’s first African American assistant coach in three decades. Perry’s mother, Maxine, was a public school teacher and also later became an attorney.
“I can’t tell you how many times I reflect on the lessons, accomplishments of my parents,” Perry said, “and use them as guiding tools in my life. They taught me humility, hard work, and balance.”
But two lawyers and one former football star in the family was enough. Perry, who is married (Kim) and whose daughter (Chelsea) is graduating with a degree in film studies, was consumed by basketball since middle school. He speaks fondly, with a slight smile, of working up the ranks in high schools, then as a college head coach at Eastern Kentucky, followed by nine formative years at Detroit-Mercy, Cal and Michigan, where he helped Steve Fisher rebuild the program after the departure of the Fab Five.
Former NBA guard B.J. Armstrong, a Detroit native and now a representative with the powerful Wasserman Media group, became close with Perry and often tagged along on recruiting trips and summer league scouting assignments. “When I was a kid, I used to sneak into gyms to watch Scott play,” said Armstrong. “If you grew up in Detroit, you knew Scott Perry, and we just hit it off. He became a mentor, then like a brother. When I was in the NBA, he’d take me to these gyms, tell me what he looked for. He has a knack for recognizing talent. I went with him to see LeBron James’ first high school game. I remember when he took me to see Kobe. He said, ‘Now I know you played with Michael Jordan, but this kid right here is that kind of player.’ I was like, ‘No way, no way.’ But he just has that eye.”
Worth noting here is that while the NBA is a global league, it remains a small world. Minutes after Armstrong played his last professional game in 1990, he introduced Perry to incoming Pistons president Joe Dumars. One conversation led to another, with a lunch meeting soon prompting a job offer.
“I needed someone who knew how the college worked, understood the AAU guys and how much that was changing the league,” Dumars said, “and Scott’s background in high school and college appealed to me. Throughout our process, I would sit down with Scott and John Hammond, and ask, ‘what do you think of this guy? I want your honest opinion, not what you think I want to hear.’ He was a big part of our team that went to six Eastern Conference finals (2003-08) and reached the Finals twice (2004, 2005), and won it once.”
The Pistons’ 2004 championship victory over the Lakers of Kobe, Shaq and Phil Jackson, in fact, still reads like a modern fairy tale. Led by quality starters Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, head coach Larry Brown was the only future Hall of Famer on the roster. Corliss Williamson was the Sixth Man of the Year.
Amazingly, those Detroit teams flourished despite the disastrous selection of the talented, but absurdly immature Serbian center Darko Milicic with the No. 2 draft pick in 2000.
Dumars said the Milicic mistake prompted some serious soul-searching and caused him to re-evaluate and completely revamp his approach to evaluating players. “That changed how we did our background checks,” he continued, “and Scott was a huge part of the overhaul. We felt we didn’t have enough information. From that point on, we needed to know everything, and you need to get the real information from the right people. You needed to know where to go. The fact that we had developed such a strong relationship with the Serb delegation, it doesn’t surprise me at all that Vlade would know Scott.”
About that small world? Follow the thread if you dare: Divac’s friend, Igor Kokoskov, spent years as a Pistons assistant when Serbian reserve Zeljko Rebraca was on the roster. Divac’s former Charlotte Hornets teammate, Armstrong, the close friend of Perry, refers to Vlade as one of his favorite people. Zeljko Obradovic, a former teammate and coach of several Serbian national teams anchored by the 7-foot Divac, currently coaches Bogdanovic in Turkey.
Perry, 53, who spent the past five years on Rob Hennigan’s staff in Orlando, coyly reveals few secrets when asked to describe his style and strategies. Though warm and engaging, his insights are kept under lock and key. Having personally experienced the demise of the once-celebrated Dumars era, he realizes this is a business where dogs eat dogs, and even Hall of Famers get devoured.
Within the past several weeks, the Lakers fired longtime GM Mitch Kupchak and the legendary Larry Bird resigned as president of the Indiana Pacers. Perhaps most perplexing, Cleveland’s David Griffin, the GM who finally assembled a Cavaliers championship roster that complements LeBron James, is working without a contract extension and attracting attention from several other NBA clubs.
“Listen,” said Divac, “we have people in the right roles, and we are all in this together. We are going to collaborate, just like you see with winning teams. It’s not about titles or one person. But you have to have the right people. I was waiting. When I saw Luke (Bornn) and Scott were available, I moved right away. We see the game the same way, have the same vision, and that’s very important.”