As the new president and general manager combination installed this week by the Knicks, Steve Mills and Scott Perry currently comprise the NBA’s only African-American duo serving in those capacities for the same team.
Scott Perry’s father, Lowell, always was more of a trailblazer himself, albeit never in Portland. And in football, not hoops.
Lowell Perry became the first black coach in the NFL since World World II when he was named wide receivers coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957, shortly after his playing career was abruptly halted due to a serious hip injury.
“That’s not something lost on me,” Perry told reporters about his father following Monday’s introductory press conference with the Knicks. “I mentioned in my opening about my dad, his history in the game and that being groundbreaking.
“At the end of the day, we want to be recognized for the quality of individuals we are and what type of job we’ll do to produce a winner in New York regardless of race. But I also would be remiss not to say I don’t understand the gravity of that and embrace the gravity of that. Hopefully, if we’re successful, it will open the doors for other young, aspiring African-Americans who want to have these jobs.”
According to a lengthy feature about Scott Perry by The Undefeated in February, Lowell Perry was banned along with the team’s other black players from staying at the Steelers’ team hotel for a preseason game in Jacksonville in 1957.
Lowell Perry, who died of cancer in 2001, later became the first African-American plant manager with Chrysler, working there for 17 years. He also served as commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity commission under President Gerald Ford in the 1970s and briefly served as a football color commentator, becoming the first African-American to broadcast an NFL game nationally.
“There are a lot of the pioneers when you talk about Black History Month,” Scott Perry told the Undefeated. “Dr. Martin Luther King is celebrated, obviously, and rightfully so. But there were so many quiet and unsung heroes in the black community. I’m proud that he was one of them. Not only was he first in the modern NFL, but he was also the first plant manager for Chrysler in the early ’70s. He had a few firsts and broke a few barriers himself. I take it with pride.”
Lowell Perry, a wide receiver and safety collegiately at Michigan, was drafted by the Steelers in the eighth round in 1953, but his pro career was delayed due to an ROTC commitment and a stint as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He didn’t sign with Pittsburgh until 1956 before suffering a season-ending pelvic fracture and hip dislocation in just his sixth pro game on a hit by Giants defenders Rosey Grier and Bill Svoboda.
“He had tremendous potential with the game,” Scott Perry said in The Undefeated story. “When I worked with (former Pistons scout) Will Robinson in Detroit, obviously Will was older and saw my dad play a lot, he used to say to me from time to time at work, ‘Man, you should have seen your dad play. He was a great player.’ ”
Still, his playing days likely finished, Lowell Perry accepted an offer from Steelers owner Art Rooney for a position as receivers coach in 1957, with Rooney also paying for Perry to attend Duquesne University law school. The next year, however, Perry returned to his home state of Michigan and eventually earned a law degree from Detroit College.
“Mr. Rooney then made him the first African-American assistant coach in the modern era in 1957 and paid his way to law school his first year. That is how my dad really got started professionally. The Rooney family always was special to me,” said Scott Perry, still a diehard Steelers fan. “He learned a lot as an assistant coach, but he didn’t really want to go into coaching as a career long-term. ”
Before his death, Lowell Perry got to see Scott working in the Detroit Pistons’ front office the previous year. After subsequent stints in Orlando and Sacramento, Scott Perry was hired as the new GM of the Knicks last week.
“I always told my dad of my interest and passion to work in an NBA front office,” Scott Perry said in February. “I told him I hoped one day to be a general manager of a team. He knew that was a goal of mine. When Joe (Dumars) hired me in Detroit, at least he got a chance to see that. He saw the beginning of my journey. It brought him great pride and some peace, too, to see me work along the way to achieve my goal.
“My dad has been passed for 16 years, but not a day goes by where I don’t think about something that he gave me some nugget of wisdom. Maybe reflect on an accomplishment of his. He was a pioneer in his own right.”