Scott Perry honors his father’s NFL legacy and aims to continue making history in the NBA
Inspired by his father’s trailblazing journey, the Orlando Magic assistant general manager is paving his own way in a different league
Pittsburgh Steelers receivers coach Lowell Perry was on a team plane to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1957 for a preseason game when he got word of what was waiting for the franchise’s black personnel there.
Lowell Perry — the NFL’s first black assistant coach since the 1920s — along with a black athletic trainer and the team’s black players were told they were not allowed to stay at the team hotel because of their race. Moreover, they were not allowed to participate in a parade celebrating the preseason game, but were invited to watch from the sidewalk. Despite the news, Perry told a team media relations manager to just have them all brought straight to their hotel upon arrival.
Now nearly 70 years later, Orlando Magic assistant general manager Scott Perry is very proud to talk about his late father, whom he views as a “quiet and unsung” pioneer on and off the gridiron.
“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 was a football star at the University of Michigan as a safety on defense, an end on offense and a punt returner on special teams. He caught 68 passes for 1,232 yards and 10 touchdowns and returned 42 punts for an average of 10.9 yards per return and one touchdown with the Wolverines from 1951-53. He was considered one of the best college defensive players in the country during that time.
Scott Perry heard a lot of stories about his father’s football prowess from family friends and when he was an assistant coach with the University of Michigan from 1993-97.
“People told me great things about him as a player,” Perry said. “When I went to the University of Michigan and started coaching, I got a chance to see some film of him. He had great hands.”
Lowell Perry was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 90th pick in the eighth round of the 1953 NFL draft. The Toronto Argonauts, however, actually agreed to sign Perry for the 1953 season, but he wasn’t able to leave the United States due to the military draft. His professional football career was deferred due to ROTC obligations. He joined the U.S. Air Force, where he earned the rank of second lieutenant and was named the military’s outstanding football player.
Lowell Perry signed with the Steelers in 1956 at age 25, three years after serving in the military. He ran 93 yards for a touchdown in a preseason game versus the Detroit Lions on his first play. He showed NFL star potential as he opened his rookie season with 14 catches for 334 yards and two touchdowns, including a 75-yard touchdown catch against the Cleveland Browns, in his first six games. But in just his sixth NFL game, his season ended after suffering a fractured pelvis and dislocated left hip after being sandwiched hard on a hit by New York Giants star defensive tackle Rosey Grier and linebacker Bill Svoboda.
“He had tremendous potential with the game,” Scott Perry, 53, said. “His rookie year with Pittsburgh he got off to a great start. He returned punts, kicks and started at receiver. He was on his way to being one of the top rookies in the league. Unfortunately, he fractured his pelvis and dislocated his hip …
“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.’ ”
Lowell Perry was in the hospital for 13 weeks after the injury before being released, Scott Perry said. Either Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. or his wife visited or called Perry’s dad daily while he was in the hospital, and Rooney Sr. told Lowell Perry that he would always have a job available for him with the franchise as long as he owned the team.
Lowell Perry took Rooney up on his offer, accepting a job to be a wide receivers coach during the 1957 season for the Steelers. Fritz Pollard was the NFL’s first black head coach in the 1920s, and Perry was the league’s first black coach since World War II. Rooney also paid for Perry to attend Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh for a year. The Steelers’ hope was that he would return to play during the 1958 season, but he never recovered fully. He also worked as a scout with the Steelers in 1958 before returning home to Detroit, where he received his law degree from Detroit College in 1960.
“After my dad finally got out of the hospital and started rehabbing, he just didn’t feel like he was going to have the same level of explosion and speed,” Scott Perry, a devout Steelers fan, said. “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 …
“He learned a lot as an assistant coach, but he didn’t really want to go into coaching as a career long-term. But it was a great experience to see the other side of the game.”
Lowell Perry became a law clerk under U.S. District Court judge and former Michigan quarterback Frank A. Picard in 1960. He prosecuted unfair labor practice charges for the National Labor Relations Board in 1962 and 1963. In 1963, he began a 17-year career with Chrysler, where he eventually became the first African-American to hold the esteemed plant manager position for an American automobile company. In 1975, Perry was appointed by President Gerald Ford to be commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“I always looked at his career, both in government and with private employment, as an example of what a person can do who has got ability and the desire and the dedication,” Ford said of Lowell Perry in a statement.
Hall of Famer Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in an NBA game in 1950, also had previously credited Lowell Perry for helping him land an executive job with the Dodge division of the Chrysler Corp.
“He was a good friend of my father’s and was instrumental in getting my father on with Dodge Chrysler. He and Lowell Perry remained close friends until Lowell’s death,” said Lloyd’s son, Kenny Lloyd.
In April 1966, Lowell Perry was hired as a football color analyst for CBS Television to broadcast Steelers games with play-by-play man Joe Tucker. He was the first African-American to broadcast an NFL game to a national audience, but didn’t last long in the gig.
“He did that for a little while, but he realized that it might not be his best niche,” Scott Perry said. “He was always very self-aware of his strengths and weaknesses. It was a great experience for him, but it was something that he didn’t see as a longtime career.”
Lowell Perry died of cancer on Jan. 7, 2001, in Southfield, Michigan, at age 69. He lived long enough to see his son land his dream job in the Detroit Pistons’ front office in June 2000 under president Joe Dumars.
Perry played a key role in helping Dumars build a Pistons team that went to six straight Eastern Conference finals (2003-2008), won two Eastern Conference championships (2004, 2005) and claimed a 2004 NBA championship. The former Wayne State star guard was assistant general manager with the Seattle SuperSonics during the 2007-08 season when NBA All-Star Kevin Durant was drafted. He returned to the Pistons to become vice president of basketball operations from 2008-12. He became vice president/assistant general manager of the Magic in June 2012 and is still with the franchise.
“I always told my dad of my interest and passion to work in an NBA front office,” Scott Perry said. “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 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.”
Perry is considered one of the top NBA assistant general managers, in a league where black general managers are rare despite the predominance of black players.
Out of 30 teams, the NBA currently has three black presidents of basketball operations, including the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Lakers newcomer and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and the Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri, who is Nigerian. The NBA also now only has two African-American general managers in the New Orleans Pelicans’ Dell Demps and the New York Knicks’ Steve Mills. Scott Perry hopes that his 17 years of “learning all sides of the business” will help him eventually land an NBA general manager gig.
“Those accomplishments are hard to come by and I take great pride in what I’ve learned,” he said. “I’ve also been in the part of the business of having to build with young teams and struggle. I’ve learned a lot from that. I’ve experienced it all from this league. It’s important because in the world of sports, you are going to have up times and down times. You have to be able to navigate in both.
“I just take the approach that my dad instilled in all of us. ‘Take it one day at a time and do your best. Keep your head down. Keep trying and keep working. Keep the faith and eventually a number of people will recognize what you do and give you an opportunity. There are no guarantees in this life, but all of us can ask for an opportunity to be exposed to an opportunity to reach our goals.’ I always keep faith in that and that drives me every single day.”
The memory of Lowell Perry remains strong to this day as his son tries to reach his dream to become an NBA general manager.
“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,” he said.