Beating the odds
His childhood was marked by tragedy and heartbreak. A promising athletic career ended with a shoulder injury and unfulfilled dreams.
Marvin Scott doesn’t remind his basketball players of these things every season because he is bitter. As a coach, there is a simple message in his words: Failure happens. It’s how you respond to it that matters.
“I kind of coach on my failures,” Scott said. “I want my players to know that nothing’s given to them. I want them to work hard.”
Scott is one of those coaches who helps players achieve their full potential by preparing them to deal with the realities of life. He believes in discipline, but it’s his stories and experiences that have the most impact.
That’s because they are from the heart.
When Scott talks about hardship and survival, he speaks from experience. When he emphasizes that opportunities should never be taken for granted, he offers only one example: not graduating from college.
“That’s one of the biggest mistakes of my life,” he says.
Players can relate to that.
They relate because they can look up to Scott and see something much more than a 6-foot former track star and high school basketball forward.
They also see a husband and father of six children who overcame difficult challenges as a youth to become a veteran police officer and successful coach.
“He just wants kids to understand that no matter how bad things seem you can always pick yourself up and improve yourself,” said Tommy Dixon, a family friend who has coached the Handley High School boys basketball team for the past 17 years.
“He has those stories he can tell and I think as coaches, especially with us both being African American, we want kids to believe that in life you’re going to have failure but it’s possible to pick yourself up and go with it.”
Resilience is Scott’s mandate.
He began picking himself up and going with it long before he ever married his wife, Ruth.
The eldest of four children — he has two younger brothers and a sister — Scott was 9 years old when his father, Harold, was shot to death while trying to diffuse a scuffle that had broken out in the family’s restaurant in Winchester.
The person who pulled the trigger, a relative of one of the men involved in the fight, was convicted on a manslaughter charge but spent little more than one year in jail for his crime.
“He said it was self defense and they bought it,” said Scott, who was inspired by the perceived injustice to seek out a career in law enforcement.
“I was the last person my father saw when he passed away,” Scott continued. “He said, ‘You’re the man of the family now.’ I tried to accept that, but that’s a heck of a burden to place on a child.”
The burden was eased by sports.
Participating in basketball and track became a “stress buster” for Scott, who graduated from Handley High School in 1976 with varsity letters and scholarship offers in each sport.
He was recruited by East Carolina and West Point for his long-jumping ability, but Scott eventually enrolled at Radford, where he’d hoped to walk on to the basketball team.
Torn ligaments in his right shoulder ended that dream and he never played a game.
Scott stayed in school and nearly graduated with a degree in political science in 1980, but he returned home during his senior year when his grandmother became sick with pancreatic cancer.
“I figured I could go back and finish any time, but that never happened,” Scott said.
Scott wound up in Texas instead. He was 21 when he decided to join the state’s Department of Public Safety, but ended up at a job fair and discovered that the Texas Youth Council needed an assistant athletic director.
“I applied and they said come on,” he said.
Three years later, Scott was back in Virginia. He became a police officer in Prince William County in 1983 and has been with the department ever since — working primarily as a narcotics detective and a background investigator for Chief Charlie T. Deane.
It was police work that also led Scott back to the basketball court. He became friends with Hylton girls coach Melvin Smith during his tenure as the school’s resource officer and couldn’t resist an invitation to get back into coaching.
“We used to talk basketball all the time at school and we bonded a little bit,” Smith said. “He knows basketball. He’s one of those guys who enjoys coming in and giving his time to help the kids.”
Scott spent two seasons coaching the junior varsity boys team, two more with Smith at the varsity level and was asked to take over the boys varsity squad on a one-year interim basis in 2000-01.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Scott, who is now coaching at his alma mater, Handley, so that he can be closer to his 12-year-old daughter, Kierston, who suffers from 13q deletion syndrome — a rare chromosome disorder that prohibits growth and the acquisition of skills required for mental and muscular activity.
Reunited with Dixon, Scott just completed his first season as a junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant.
“We grew up together. He was one of those three-sport stars at Handley. He’s coached as long as I can remember,” said Scott. “We started talking basketball at states and last year he asked me to help him out.”
It was supposed to be a volunteer situation, but wound up being a paid position for Scott, who is thrilled to be in a position where he can make a difference.
“One of the things I enjoy about coaching is you have an opportunity to break some stereotypes,” said Scott, who also coaches his 15-year-old daughter Carissa in Winchester’s Amateur Athletic Unions league.
“Athletics and coaching to me is the way to help kids. Not just minority kids, but all kids,” he continued. “Being a black coach and a black police officer, I can offer a different perspective.”