Inside Washington Wizards Head Coach, Scott Brooks

Todd Dybas, Washington Times (

Classroom A was not well decorated. So, Bill Stricker was told during an evaluation that he should put photos on the vinyl covered walls to make the portable classroom more stimulating. He posted quotes from successful people, but did not bother with the pictures. He was teaching math at East Union High School in Manteca, California. Who needed pictures on the walls?

Stricker’s class focused on individualized work, which is why his student aide, Scott Brooks, had time to talk with him. They had met when Stricker gave a free basketball camp that Brooks attended when he was short, whip thin and yet to know he was about to have his guts stirred enough that a lifelong pursuit would be born.

The two talked in that detached classroom about how to get ahead. Stricker was filling a trio of roles for Brooks: math teacher, basketball coach, father figure. Brooks‘ dad had disappeared when he was two years old. There was no extra money at home, where Brooks‘ mother, Lee, worked relentlessly to provide for her seven children by rebuilding auto parts at a nearby factory, laying a foundation through both words and example. On weekends, the Brooks brood would pick walnuts or “top” onions in the San Joaquin Valley to scrape together more cash.

Stricker, Lee and Scott had this idea. Well, really, Scott had a wild ambition and they let him run with it. Scott, a 4-foot-11 high school freshman, was going to play in the NBA. He, somehow, would come out of Lathrop, this north-central California town so small that it did not have a high school, and be like Dr. J, Scott’s favorite player. Instead of shrugging off the longshot idea as fantasy of youth, Stricker and Brooks‘ mother bolstered his vision.

“I never poured any water on his dream because I know that a dream takes a young man where no one else thinks he can go,” Stricker said. “I used to tell Scott that the only person that is important, that needs to believe in you, is yourself. I said don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something because you can do whatever you put your mind to. That may be hard. That may take a long time, but you can get there. I never underestimated the power of a dream.”

Stricker was correct on all levels. Brooks‘ personal drive, learned from watching his mom, pushed him to his goals. It was difficult, from when he first went to basketball camp then began to practice all day, every day. It was long, from no scholarship offers to working through the Continental Basketball League to finally lasting a decade in the NBA as a player. After he had made it the first time? He was again told what he can’t do when the Oklahoma City Thunder fired him as its coach two years ago.

Brooks‘ new chore is to pull the Washington Wizards out of their middle-of-the-pack purgatory as their coach. When he talks about working hard each day at practice, it’s easy to see memories of sweating in the field or the hours spent alone late night in a gym. He was not blessed with playing tools. He forged them.

You have to exhaust every day’

The summer after coaching his first season at East Union High School, Stricker needed a gym. Summer school programs at the high school occupied his usual hardwood. That forced him out to the Lathrop Community Center.

Brooks was in seventh grade. He saw Stricker, all 6-foot-8 of him with a baritone voice, and became enamored. Stricker was huge and could shoot and Brooks couldn’t think of anything better. Stricker had played for the University of Pacific, overseas, and in one game with the Portland Trail Blazers. To a tiny kid in a small town, Stricker was big-time. That Saturday’s free camp birthed Brooks‘ NBA ambition.

“From that day on, I played basketball every day,” Brooks said. “I didn’t miss a day. I didn’t care if I was sick, had the flu — one time I had [mononucleosis] for a month. I still played.”

By his freshman season, Brooks only shot from the outside. Stricker told him to spend the summer working on drives to the basket, which he did. He was also aware that money in the Brooks home, where Scott was the youngest of seven children, was limited. So, Stricker conjured up “scholarships” for basketball camps. If someone on the team couldn’t transport Brooks, Stricker would pick him up and bring him to practice. Meanwhile, Brooks‘ mother kept working and encouraging.

“She did what all moms do,” Brooks said. “Make you feel you’re the best and anything you could possibly want to do, you can do it. Dream it and it can happen. She gave me all the positive thinking that I can be an NBA player. Deep down, she was probably saying, ‘Ohhh, man. I really feel sorry for my youngest one. He’s going to be disappointed in a big way.’ But, I never felt that and I really thought I had the makings to be an NBA player. She also told me, you have to exhaust every day. You can’t take days off. You can’t take time off. You’re on the court. You’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to compete. She taught me all the valuable lessons. You have to be coachable. You have to be a good teammate. You have to do things for the right reasons.”

Brooks averaged 28 points in his senior season. He had always wanted Pacific to be part of the path he laid out for himself. It wasn’t interested. The coach at the time, Tom O’Neill, said the Tigers needed big men, but Brooks, and others, felt it was his size — a full 5 foot 11 by then — that deterred O’Neill from extending an offer to join the team. Brooks went to Texas Christian University for a season instead, then to San Joaquin Delta College near home, in Stockton, California. Again available, Pacific chose not to offer him a scholarship. That decision sent Brooks to UC Irvine. He played Pacific four times and did not lose. The night he scored 43 points against the Tigers, a boisterous group of locals stood and yelled, “Too short!” with each field goal.

No NBA team selected Brooks in the six-round 1987 draft. He had to wait until the third round of the CBA draft to find his first professional home. The Albany Patroons picked him. His coach was the fiery Bill Musselman.

“Back then, the CBA was basically like the NBA,” Brooks said. “After we lost a game, I think we were down in Savannah. He just went nuts after the game. He always wore like a brown leather jacket. He ripped that thing off, throwing it and kicking it. Throwing water bottles and things throughout the locker room. Yelling at us, saying we’re not any good and we haven’t beaten anybody. I’m thinking to myself — wait, there’s 10 or 12 teams, we’re 24-2 now, we’ve played every team two or three times. We’ve played everyone in the league. We’ve obviously beaten somebody. But, yeah, he taught me you play every game. You don’t take games off. You don’t take practices off.”

The next year, Brooks was in training camp with his beloved Philadelphia 76ers. Julius Erving was so ubiquitous, his fame and grace made it all the way to Lathrop, where he had become Brooks‘ favorite player (Brooks can still recite Erving’s birthday on command). Erving was gone by the time Brooks made it to Philadelphia. The team belonged to Brooks‘ temporary housemate then — Charles Barkley.

“I just said to myself, ‘This kid’s scrappy, man. I mean, this kid is scrappy,’” Barkley said. “He was amazing just from an effort standpoint. I wasn’t sure he was going to make the team. That’s one of the reasons I had him staying with me. I wanted him to stay with me until he made the team.”

“He was nuts, but in a good way,” Brooks said of Barkley.

Brooks survived the first cut, then made it through late December, when his contract became guaranteed for the rest of the season. That started a 10-year run in the NBA and a house hunt. His time at Barkley’s palace, “100,000 square feet and 10 stories high and he had Porsches and Mercedes and BMWs everywhere,” was over.

“So I was living like a king and all of a sudden I was trying to scramble in Philadelphia for a 1-bedroom apartment,” Brooks said, smiling. “What a great time.”

Brooks averaged 4.9 points and 2.4 assists for his career. He blocked 30 shots, played for six teams and won a title as a member of the 1994 Houston Rockets.

“I’ve always thought as my career ended, I’ve always reflected on why me?” Brooks said. “Why did I make it? There’s a lot of players, millions of players that have more talent, faster, quicker, can jump higher. Better shooters, you know? But, how did I make it? How did I make it over a decade in the NBA?

“I always go back, my mom gave me that drive, that inner drive and motivation to achieve greatness every day. I’ve always believed that if you need somebody else to motivate you, that’s short-lived and that’s day-to-day and that’s going to be very inconsistent. But, if you have that innate self-motivation, that’s who you are. That’s how you’re wired. That’s your DNA. That’s how you’re going to be forever. She gave me that. So, when I did make it, I knew she was the reason. I keep going back to her because I saw her every day work to feed her family. To make sure we had clothes and food and shelter above our head. She’s the reason. I didn’t do it because I wanted to prove anybody wrong. I did it because I wanted to make her proud.”

From coaching obscurity to the pinnacle

Brooks‘ coaching route mirrored his playing one, traveling from obscurity to the pinnacle. His first job was as an assistant for the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association. Next was as the coach for the Southern California Surf. Jeff Bzdelik brought Brooks back into the NBA when he hired him to be an assistant on his staff in Denver in 2003.

“He’s someone you can meet for the first time and there’s no ego,” said Bzdelik, now an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets. “There’s a confidence. There’s a respect, there’s a communication that you feel very comfortable with him. There’s a connection. You have to have trust. The first foundation for success is trust. Trust between the players and you. Trust between management and you. Trust between ownership and you. If you have trust, you can speak freely and hold people accountable because people will trust you and you can look somebody right in the eye and respectfully disagree. If you can’t have trust, then you can’t respectfully disagree without a barrier going up. You can’t have accountability with the players without a barrier going up. He makes people comfortable and draws people in.”

Brooks outlasted Bzdelik in Denver before moving to Sacramento then Seattle as an assistant. He survived the odd circumstance of helping to coach a team while its just-completed sale and tumultuous relocation prospects were whirling about as the Sonics prepared to move to Oklahoma City. He became the interim coach in November of the 2008-09 season. The next year, he was in charge without caveats. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka were at his disposal. The strip-mining of the roster in Seattle set this group to bloom in Oklahoma City. It was Brooks‘ duty to make it happen.

He was named the NBA’s coach of the year following a 28-win improvement. In 2012, the Thunder reached the NBA Finals, which would be both a boon and detriment for Brooks. Such swift ascension recalibrated expectations. The next season, Oklahoma City lost in the conference semifinals. In 2014, its postseason ended in the Western Conference Finals. Grumbling about Brooks‘ coaching carried from the league Finals loss to the failure in a six-game series against the San Antonio Spurs two years later. He was accused of being too loyal to certain parts of his team and unwilling to make proper adaptations within a series. Brooks was fired after missing the playoffs in the 2015. That year, Durant played just 27 games. Westbrook played 67. After seven seasons that included four consecutive division titles, Brooks was out.

“It’s tough being fired,” Brooks said. “Nobody wants to be fired. Nobody wants to be told you’re not good enough to be the coach of the team that you really, along with your staff, developed into a very good team. We were able to mold all the players and develop all the players to be pros and true professionals. It was a great challenge. Very rewarding, but very demanding and difficult.

“You have to have a lot of patience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I had a great group of guys to work with and a great group of guys to develop. But, it’s difficult hearing those words, ‘We’re going to let you go. Go on your way.’ But, with that being said, you have a choice — and my mom taught me this — you have a choice to be bitter or be better. I always chose the route to be better. Even in situations I didn’t feel were right. I learned those lessons and I moved on. It took a while, but I moved on and I’m excited about the position I’m in now.”

The constant drive to get better

Without a job for the first time, Brooks, 51, went back to California. He spent time at high school practices and took a trip to Spain to watch its national team. He thought about what went wrong in Oklahoma City, plus what went right.

After the Wizards missed the playoffs last season, Brooks was brought on board to re-light the competitive fires.

There is a talent gap between the starting points of Durant and Westbrook versus John Wall and Bradley Beal. But, Wall and Beal are past the raw stages that Durant and Westbrook were in when Brooks took over. This new duo has been to the playoffs. Two years ago, they were one unlucky fall from the conference finals.

When the Wizards are discussed locally and nationally, the recent near-miss in the playoffs is often of little note, particularly after last season’s swoon back to mediocrity (41-41) and languishing past.

The Wizards lag in popularity behind the other three professional teams in the District. This season, Washington will play five nationally televised games, the same number as the woebegone Philadelphia 76ers. Brooks was given a five-year contract and a younger roster than recent seasons to change those things with his disarming self-deprecation and what Wizards forward Markieff Morris described early on as a “militaristic” coaching approach.
He has taken care not to put labels on the systems he will use in his new job. He wants ball and player movement on offense. He harps on defense. He expects to be a better coach than he was in Oklahoma City. He surely expects grand effort.

“I think I’ve always looked at myself as I need to improve,” Brooks said. “I was wired that way as a player, I’m wired that way as a coach. I want to always get better. I want to have a staff that challenges myself and challenges our team and vice-versa. I’ve learned a lot from players, I think that’s the biggest teacher. They can teach you a lot about the game. I think going into this season I have a great understanding on what I want and how I want it done.”

His mom is not around to see this next step. She died a little more than three years ago. Stricker, 68, is trying to stave off kidney problems. He hopes to make it to the District at some point in Brooks‘ first season. But everything they taught Brooks remains in his bones. The nights Stricker opened a gym for Brooks after all the others had closed so he could do extra work. The days when his mom told him to never look for anything to be given to you, to instead do it yourself. When he makes demands of the Wizards and talks of playing in the NBA as a privilege, those are the thoughts in the back of his head. What seemed unlikely to others always appeared possible to him. You just had to work at it.

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