Scot Pollard has had the type of basketball career that few get to experience and for which most of us are envious.
He was a key piece for some of the best Kansas teams of the past 25 years, a first-round draft pick, and he played in the NBA for more than a decade as a teammate of the likes of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Reggie Miller, LeBron James, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett.
Scot joined the RCT Q&A to talk about David McCormack’s growth, the 96-97 Jayhawks, Roy Williams, the underappreciated 01-02 Sacramento Kings, and more. He was generous enough with his time—and being the great storyteller that he is—that I am breaking our conversation into two parts, with the second piece running tomorrow. What was I supposed to do, not include stories about going up against Greg Ostertag in practice, a hallway meetup with Kevin Garnett in Tokyo, or a hypothetical Pollard-Frank Mason two-on-two combination?
I still could not fit everything, and there was so much we didn’t get to, but I did my best.
Editor’s note: Some questions and responses were condensed for space.
KD: I guess the best place to start is, for people who shamefully don’t follow you on Twitter or Instagram, what have you been up to lately? How have you been spending the pandemic?
SP: Well, this always seems to be the case with my life, I’m a very lucky person. My job has been deemed necessary, so I’ve been working through the pandemic. I’m a real estate broker and both my partner and I had record years last year. This pandemic has really changed the way people want to live their lives. Very drastically, people have re-evaluated where they want to live, how they want to live. We live in a community that has three community pools and you would not believe how many people turn down houses in our neighborhood because they want to live in a neighborhood where they have their own pool. In Indiana, where it’s an even shorter summer than Kansas.
That was the biggest surprise to me, that real estate became such a big thing. But that’s what I’ve been up to, just working.
KD: Before we dive into some of the past, it seems like you’ve kept in touch with this year’s team. I wanted to ask you specifically about the uptick but also David McCormack in particular. Is there one or two things that you’ve noticed that he’s changed that has led to this resurgence?
SP: I would say it’s confidence for David. No offense to Doke, but the first time I saw David put on a uniform I thought this kid’s got way more upside. He can do more things, he’s more court-aware, looks like he’s been playing basketball—to be fair to Doke, Doke started playing when he was like 15 years old—and David is not polished and still isn’t. He still has a high ceiling for growth but his ability to make free throws and jumpers and hook shots and passes, he just seems to have a little more well-rounded game and obviously his defensive presence is there—not to the level of Doke’s shot-blocking ability—but he does have it; it’s been coming on lately.
It’s not a surprise to me, it’s just a surprise that it took this long to gain that confidence, and perhaps it was the fact that Doke was there. So, he didn’t develop as quickly as I thought he could or should, but it’s been great to see. It’s like Coach Self said recently, and I’ve been saying for a while, when he thinks too much, he screws himself up, but when he just reacts and plays, he’s really good.
KD: Staying on the big man conversation a little bit, for a guy who played the position for a really long time, there’s been an evolution that’s been well-documented lately with the guard and 3-point focus. Obviously there’s still great big men out there, but it’s not like how it was. Does the game feel completely different from your playing days or is that a bit overblown?
SP: Basketball is like jazz music; it’s always changing and it always will. And that change is going to be because of the best players. Just like in jazz music, the best players alter the way jazz music is played. So, there’s no rules or restrictions right now, like you mentioned. Steph Curry has started these logo 3s and you know, it started well before that. I played against (Domantas) Sabonis’ dad and he shot threes at 7-4. And I played with Vlade Divac who shot threes at 7-1, and Chris Webber at 6-10. Both of those two could be considered maybe some of the forefathers of the stretch four and stretch five. And that created 7-footers that thought, well, if they can do it, I can do it.
So, the game evolves. It always has and always will. And it’s fun to see players with the freedom to score at will, on the one hand, but on the other hand, it’s always problematic when players who don’t have that ability see that and try to mimic that ability. When you’re idolizing, in my youth it was Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, you’re imitating their moves and this and that. But those guys didn’t depend on the 3-pointer solely. They shot 3s, but it was just another part of their arsenal. It wasn’t something they relied heavily on. They were playmakers, all three of those men.
So when you see young kids now in elementary school coming down and jacking up a three from half court, in my day you were pulled from the game and told, “You don’t shoot that shot, I don’t care who you are, you don’t take that shot.” So, they’re just mimicking what they see on TV. Like every generation does.
I know I’m old, I know I’m antiquated, but the thing is, do you want to settle? And that’s what the problem of relying too heavily on the 3-point shot has done to basketball in general. I’m not saying this game sucks (or) it’s terrible, I’m just saying are we really doing the game a disservice by continually allowing younger kids that have no business shooting like that from so deep because they mimic what they see? Or are coaches needing to be more responsible, especially in high school and college, and start saying “Hey, I get it. Steph Curry does that, but your big man was open because he sprinted right to the rim like they should have to make the easy play.”
Two points is not an insult. It’s an easy, high-percentage basket. So that’s the part I’m kind of wondering about. That’s my knock on the game today and how big men have kind of fallen victim to the mob mentality of, well, if I can’t shoot threes then I can’t be in the NBA. You know what, I could have shot threes, I’m still the record holder for 3-point percentage at Kansas (100%, 1-1). I didn’t shoot them because I played with people like Jacque Vaughn, Jerod Hasse, Billy Thomas, Ryan Robertson, Steve Woodberry, guys that shot it a hell of a lot better than I did.
And if you want to go to the NBA, I played with hall of famers, some of the greatest 3-point shooters of all time. So if I’m going to pull up from 3 and I see Ray Allen is to my right, I’m doing my team a disservice if I can make it at a 34-40% clip. Man, that’s Ray Allen over there. There’s Peja Stojakovic on my left. There’s Reggie Miller over to my right. There’s LeBron James over there. I played with all those guys. But they still didn’t shoot them too much. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should and I was very lucky to always be on a playoff team from my sophomore year of high school all the way through college, four years of college, and all 11 years in the NBA except for my rookie year—it’s the only year I didn’t play in the postseason.
But it’s still about, it’s a five-person team when you’re on the court. I will always believe that the game is about matchups. So when you’re talking about is this 7-footer using his abilities to the best when he has a 6-8 guy guarding him or worse, a 6-6 guy guarding him, because he is pulling up from 3? If they stop you from the inside then you need to work on your post game.
KD: Another thing that’s different this year, obviously, the fact that they’re playing in the middle of a pandemic and there’s limited fans in the arenas, and you can definitely tell that the competitive advantage and the home-court advantage has gone down a little bit. So, I’m curious from your perspective what makes a road gym such a tough environment to play in and what was the arena, we’ll go in college, that made it the toughest on you?
SP: I mean, all of them. I played in the Big 8 and the Big 12; last year of the Big 8 and the first year of the Big 12. So, I played in a lot of them. All of them were tough because we were always the team to knock off, right? I’m not bragging, that’s just the fact. We won the Big 8 two years and won the Big 12 the first year. Three out of four of my years we won the conference, so, it was always tough wherever we went.
Hilton was a tough place to play in Ames. Missouri was probably the only place I felt fearful like maybe something would get thrown at me that might hurt, like a battery or a coin or whatever, because there were stories of players that had that happen. I would include Kansas State but we never lost there [laughs]. I’m not trying to be insulting, it was a great rivalry, but we never lost there, so I can’t really say that the crowd was tough there. Because a lot of KU fans showed up as well.
Colorado, that was a home game for us. Everybody in western Kansas and Colorado came out that were Kansas fans, so that was a home game and doesn’t count. But I’ve got to go with Missouri and probably Ames as the toughest in college to play at.
KD: It’s almost conference tournament time. I’m curious, as a player, you just ended a grueling regular-season schedule, we know KU’s success with those and the weight those have, and you’re also looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament looming. Is it hard to focus on the conference tournament? Do you look forward to it? Is there an appeal people are missing as a player?
SP: No, I completely subscribe to the Roy Williams book of conference tournament thought process. It’s about making money for the conference. Why did you play the regular season? And I know he has said all these things and I’m absolutely parroting all of these things he said. I believe that conference tournaments are worthless. You just won the league or just placed in the league, whatever you did for the season. That’s what matters.
We have a tournament coming up that’s one loss and you’re out, so in between there, you want me to play some more games against teams I just beat, in Kansas’ case, when I was playing? We just beat these teams, we just won the league, and now I have to play them again? I just beat them. We’re trying to stay healthy or get healthy and have a little bit of rest before we get to the big one that it’s one loss and you’re out. In my opinion, it’s a stumbling block at best and at worst it can deflate your changes, someone could get hurt, it could deflate your ego if you lose to a team you shouldn’t have lost to.
There’s just no, in terms of basketball itself, there’s no reason to play conference tournaments, it’s simply to make money for the institutions and that’s why I don’t like them.
KD: I do want to spend a minute on those college days and those KU teams. There’s a soft spot in my heart for some of those teams you were on because it’s when I fell in love with the game. So that 96-97 team, I’d put it easily in my top 5, probably top 3, best KU teams of the past 25 years. Are you able to appreciate the greatness of that team and what you accomplished? How do you look back on that season and has it changed?
SP: It hasn’t really changed. Of course I’m biased, and first of all, let me say that ultimately, the success of the team in terms of wins and losses determines their greatness. We didn’t win a championship, so that knocks us down a little bit because there are teams that have won championships at Kansas that I will now say we were better than. I think that we are in the top one or two of the best teams of all time because we had guys on our bench that would have started at most of the other Big 12 schools, if not any of them. Ryan Robertson, TJ Pugh, you’re telling me that guy wouldn’t have started at Iowa State or Nebraska? (Pugh) could have started at a lot of places and he ended up playing backup for me and Raef LaFrentz.
The bench factor itself is why I’m so confident in saying how good our team was because we were missing Jacque Vaughn at the beginning of that season my senior year and Ryan Robertson came in and we didn’t lose a game. I mean, that tells you how good our bench was when we’re missing our leader, our floor general, our Roy Williams on the court, who is now obviously a successful NBA coach and rightfully so. That’s why I start with the bench of saying how great that team was because it was almost like you didn’t miss a beat. Somebody gets in foul trouble, somebody gets hurt or whatever, and we kept winning.
Regardless of the fact that four of our starting five were first-round picks that played over 10 years in the league, in college, we were also very good and then the starters got better because of all those studs that I mentioned that came off the bench and battled us in practice. B.J. Williams, I don’t want to leave anybody out. The entire—our walk ons probably could have gotten scholarships at other schools but they wanted to be at Kansas.
I’m biased, and no we didn’t win the championship, but I would put that team in its prime against any KU team in its prime and I would like our chances.
Editor’s Note: Part 2 of our conversation with Scot can be found at this link.