This is a story about Scott Skiles and it begins in jail – not because what he did to get in defines him, but because what he did once he got out does.
It was 21 years ago this month that I visited Skiles in Indiana, after his 15 days behind bars in the Marshall County Jail. Fifteen days with food pushed through a slot, with the lights always on, with five other men in his cell, one toilet, one shower, one phone call allowed every other day.
Once, during his time there, the inmates were watching a black-and-white TV and it showed Skiles, as a college player, making a great pass against Georgetown, and one of the inmates said, “Hey, man, you’re on there.”
Skiles was 22.
You’d think by reading that – a man behind bars – that Skiles was a threat, a social miscreant, the criminal element. In truth, he had gone into a college bar with his college friends, thus violating his probation for an earlier conviction of marijuana possession. That’s what put him in a cell. I’m not condoning it. He has never condoned it. He was a college kid who experimented with the vices of the day, booze and drugs, and got caught. But given the stuff you read about players in 2007, you sometimes wonder what the huge fuss was about.
And make no mistake, it was a huge fuss. Skiles was vilified. He was sports enemy No. 1. People wrote letters to newspapers demanding he never again play for Michigan State. The media were all over him. Opposing fans hounded him in the stands, shaking plastic bags of sugar because of a cocaine charge that eventually was dropped.
Today, the approach may be a press release, an apology, a little counseling and a return to the team. But back then – at least for the feisty, clenched-jaw point guard – it was jail time.
And you know what? Skiles is grateful.
“It was the greatest thing that could have happened to me,” Skiles says this week over the phone from Chicago. “The reality is I wasn’t doing anything other college students weren’t doing, but that doesn’t make it OK. I made a couple of terrible mistakes. I paid for them. At that time in my life, it may have been exactly what I needed. I was lucky. I didn’t hurt anybody. And I learned my lesson.
“The fact that it was national news – even just the fact that I spent nights in jail – was enough for someone like me to think, What the heck am I doing?’ “
Which gives you a good glimpse into Scott Skiles. When he played basketball, if someone bigger was blocking his path, he found a way – a cut move, a blind pass – to advance the ball.
And as his life has unfolded, when something unexpected has fallen in his path, he has pretty much done the same thing.
To the sidelines
Do you know how Skiles got into coaching? After a decade of playing in the NBA – for Milwaukee, Indiana, Orlando, Washington and Philadelphia – he went overseas to play in Greece. He injured his shoulder there mid-season and was, by his description, “boxed up and ready to go home.”
But they called him at midnight and said they’d just fired the coach. They wanted Skiles to take over.
“I literally quit playing one afternoon and started coaching the next day,” he says.
The previous coach had been a Frenchman, meaning his instructions had to be translated into Greek and English. Skiles only required one translation step. “So I had an advantage already,” he says, laughing.
He took a downtrodden team and got it up and into the playoffs. And he knew he’d found his second calling.
“Greece was good training,” he says. “During games, there’s flares going up in the stands, the fans are wild. If you can keep your head about you in that environment, you can keep it almost anywhere.”
He returned to the United States and landed a position as an NBA assistant under Danny Ainge in Phoenix. A few years later, he took over as the Suns’ head coach. He says he learned a little from every coach he ever played for. From Jud Heathcote, his mentor during his starring days at MSU, he says he learned to mix in a little humor with the discipline.
“Also,” he adds, “don’t slam your head with your hands.”
Skiles came to his current job, coach of the Bulls, in 2003. It was like coming home. He’d grown up a Bulls fan, living in nearby Indiana. “When I got the rabbit ears straight on our television, I could watch Jerry Sloan and Bob Love and Norm Van Lier,” he says. “That was my team.”
And starting Saturday, in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the top-seeded Pistons, he brings that team back, to the state where he was cheered the loudest and booed the strongest.
A fiery intensity
I always thought Skiles was penalized by his expression. We like our basketball players to be intense, but to crack a smile now and then, to light it up and lighten it up. You think of those NBA ads where Michael Jordan or LeBron James gives a private wink, where Dwyane Wade or Yao Ming poke fun at themselves.
Skiles never fit that mold. He seemed to be on fire all the time, lit from the inside, a man who resembled a clenched fist, always ready for confrontation.
In truth, Skiles says, that is the biggest misconception about him.
“I can appear to be on the verge of losing control, yet on the inside, I’m actually calm,” he says. “I’ve always been that way. When I was in Europe, the coach would take me out of the games because he thought I was losing control and was going to turn the ball over. I had to tell him, I know I look that way, but don’t worry.’ “
Skiles has channeled his on-court passion into his job as coach, admitting that he couldn’t possibly coach as intensely as he once played. For one thing, back then, his only real responsibility was to get himself ready. Now he must do that for an entire locker room.
“Also, I’m not a yeller and a screamer like some people think. We do like a certain level of commitment. And I don’t like tardiness, or anything that’s disrespectful to the game.
“But sometimes people think we’re in here practicing for three hours a day, beating the crap out of our guys, and it’s just not true.”
It is true that Skiles can have a razor tongue and a biting sense of humor. (He did once deliver the classic answer to the question of what Eddy Curry could do to improve his rebounding. “Jump,” Skiles said.)
But fans in Michigan have witnessed firsthand how one incident can shade a person for many years and still prove to be inaccurate. Skiles is not likely to be thrown by criticism anymore. For one thing, he has turned the Bulls into a serious contender again. They just swept the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. And with the exception of one public disagreement over wearing a headband, Ben Wallace has apparently managed to get along with Skiles, and we know that harmony is not a given with Big Ben.
But for many people at the Palace on Saturday, Skiles comes in as the grownup version of the kid we last saw 21 years ago, finishing his senior season with a stint in a county jail.
If so, then people should look carefully. A lot of kids with similar setbacks would have only gotten worse once they reached the pros. Money, fame, a sense of entitlement, all can serve to make drug and alcohol issues bigger, not smaller.
Not for Skiles. He truly appears to have been a kid who made a mistake, learned from his mistake, and was better for it. He has had a fine NBA career, is on the verge of being a premier coach, and those early issues do not appear to be issues any longer.
“Not a day goes by that some 19-, 20- or 21-year-old player doesn’t do something in sports, and in my mind I say to myself, What were you doing when you were 21?’ ” Skiles says. “It helps me understand the players and helps me relate to them.”
They call that turning negative into positive. They call that growing up. There were a lot of people back then who were sure Skiles would never overcome his misstep, that he didn’t deserve the chance. Twenty-one years ago. Now he’s a man. A father. A respected coach.
“An awful lot has happened,” he says.
And an awful lot hasn’t.
The latter is something to remember, next time we’re sure we know how a kid in trouble is going to turn out.
“I was lucky. I didn’t hurt anybody. And I learned my lesson.”Scott Skiles, Bulls coach and ex-Spartan, on spending 15 days in jail for a probation violation in 1986.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “For One More Day,” for Mother’s Day. On May 11: Noon at Borders in the downtown Compuware Building and 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Rochester Hills. On May 12: 11 a.m. at Sam’s Club in Novi and 1:30 p.m. at Cotsco on Telegraph in Bloomfield.