ORLANDO, Fla. — Scott Brooks always dreamed of being an NBA All-Star, even when only one other person believed in his dream.
That person was his mother, Lee.
“She didn't tell me I was going to be an All-Star coach,” Brooks joked. “I thought I was going to be a player all this time.”
All that matters now is he's made it.
After guiding the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference, Brooks will coach the West All-Stars in Sunday's 61st NBA All-Star Game at Amway Center in Orlando.
The things that got Brooks here were his unadulterated love for the game, his mother's undying support, his commitment to his craft and, of course, the GM who took a chance on his unproven coaching ability.
When Brooks is announced as the man who will captain 12 of the conference's biggest stars — including Thunder players Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — it will serve as his one shining moment, a scene that will best illustrate how Oklahoma City's coach has grown up with his talented young team.
Three years ago, Brooks was an interim coach battling the league's most brutal forces: middling talent, mounting losses and mounds of frustration. Now, he'll bask in the spotlight of being the conference's best coach at the break.
“It's not something that you go into the season having as one of your goals,” Brooks said. “But it's a great honor for the organization, because everybody is a part of what we do here.”
Toughness and pride
Scott Brooks still remembers his mother breaking her back to provide.
Lee was a prideful woman. Her family was on government aid for a time, but by the time Brooks was about 7, she had grown tired of relying on what she considered a handout.
As a single mother of seven, four boys and three girls, Lee began working seven days a week. She worked in a plant, rebuilding used automotive parts. The tin factory that housed the laborers would exceed 100 degrees in the summertime.
On weekends, Lee secured additional income by rounding up her children, Brooks being the youngest, and taking the family to pick walnuts and top onions.
Brooks can't recall his mother missing a single day of work.
“Seeing that instilled toughness and pride,” Brooks said. “It made me realize I better make something out of my life, because I don't want to see her do this the rest of her life. So from seventh grade on, I told myself I was going to be an NBA player.”
It became Brooks' single focus — against all odds.
As a freshman at East Union High School in Manteca, Calif., Brooks stood 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 98 pounds.
“And she still thought I was going to make the NBA,” Brooks said of his mother.
Brooks quickly adopted the discipline he saw in his mother. After Brooks' father ditched the family when he was 2, Brooks' high school coach, Bill Stricker, became a father figure. Stricker would soon become the second and only other person to ever believe Brooks could make it to the NBA.
Stricker, who now visits Brooks in Oklahoma City at least once a year, pushed Brooks to be all he could be. Stricker, though, didn't have to push hard.
“He's always been the kind of guy that whatever needed to be done he'd get it done,” Stricker said. “It wasn't about him. It was about the team. I wish I would have filmed my high school practices to show how hard a guy could work for two hours.”
That work ethic helped Brooks carve out a 10-year NBA career that laid the foundation for his future as a coach.
Soaking up knowledge
To this day, Brooks can't explain why Jim Lynam gave him a chance.
But when the former Philadelphia 76ers coach stuck his neck out for the undrafted 5-foot-11 point guard out of UC Irvine in 1988, Brooks wasn't about to blow it.
“I wasn't sure how long I would be in the NBA,” Brooks said. “Every player hopes for a 10-year career. But my first year, I knew that this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to coach at this level.”
Brooks became a sponge. He soaked up every shred of information he could get. Along his journey, Brooks played for coaches such as Bill Musselman, Rudy Tomjanovich, Dick Motta, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Fratello. But Brooks leaned even more on assistant coaches and video coordinators, scouts and support staff.
“I tried to pick those guys' brains,” Brooks said. “I spent a lot of time watching and listening and taking notes.”
After averaging 4.9 points and 2.4 assists in 680 career games, Brooks' playing career in the NBA came to an end when the Los Angeles Clippers released him in the 1999 preseason. He broke into NBA coaching in 2003 as an assistant under Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik.
When Bzdelik was fired midway through the 2004-05 season, George Karl took over. Within a month, Karl knew Brooks had the makings of a head coach.
“I knew he wanted to pull the triggers. He wanted that challenge someday,” Karl said. “A lot of the assistant coaches say they do. But deep down inside they don't. They might want the paycheck, but they might not want the pain to go with it.
“But Scotty was very obvious. He wanted to be on that stage. And I think a lot of it was his upbringing of being a competitor and being disciplined from the standpoint of being a point guard. And being a guy who kind of had to be an overachiever to be successful. Scotty wasn't out there because of his skill set. He was out there because of his attitude and because of his brain and his intensity.”
Thrown into the fire
Sam Presti stopped Brooks just before he was about to board the team plane.
It was Nov. 21, 2008.
Presti, the Thunder general manager, had just fired coach P.J. Carlesimo after an embarrassing 25-point home loss to New Orleans dropped the team to 1-12.
Presti was naming Brooks interim coach.
“He said, ‘We had a tough decision to make tonight. We had to let P.J. go. You will be coaching the team on an interim basis. I'll give you more information when you land,'” Brooks remembered.
In all his groundwork, Brooks had never prepared for this moment. He had always assumed his first job would come in the summertime, not in midseason and certainly not at the expense of a good friend. It was Carlesimo who hired Brooks as an assistant, even after Brooks had interviewed with Presti for the head coaching job while the team was in Seattle in 2007.
For the next two hours, as the team's charter plane made its way to New Orleans, Brooks became a magnificent mess, trapped somewhere between confused and fearful.
“‘Oh no,” Brooks thought. “'What am I going to do now?'”
When the team arrived at the hotel between 2:30 and 3 a.m., Brooks briefly addressed the team before calling it a night. Later that evening, the Thunder was scheduled to face the same Hornets who made a mockery of the team hours earlier in Oklahoma City.
Brooks was being counted on to return the team to sea level and replace bad habits that quickly had set in with good.
“It was not a fun night,” Brooks said.
There weren't many fun nights over the next 1½ months.
Brooks started his coaching career with the same 1-12 mark that had gotten Carlesimo canned. That record soon swelled to 4-20 by early January.
Presti now labels those days “dark nights.” He spent several of them alongside Brooks in the old coach's office, which has now been turned into sparkling new courtside club inside the renovated Chesapeake Energy Arena. There, the two of them would just sit, staring at each other from opposite ends of a table, searching for positives. They needed something, anything, to maintain hope, to know the team had something to build on, something that would carry over into the next contest.
How difficult was that then?
“I’m an optimist by nature,” Presti said, “but there were nights where we might have had one sharp defensive rotation. It was tough, but it’s also an important part of who we are and what we are built on.”
Brooks couldn’t even point to something basketball related.
“Here's the positive,” the coach said. “After a game, our ownership would allow us to have a good spread. So we knew we were going to have a good meal. Clay Bennett, Aubrey (McClendon) and the group, they take care of us after games.”
Brooks, an admitted emotional eater, says he would have put on some serious weight that season had it not been for the stress keeping it off.
That's not all.
“I thought I was going to live to 100 prior to that year,” Brooks said. “Now, I'm probably going to make it to 97. That definitely took a couple of years off my life.”
It's easy to laugh at now.
But back then, the Thunder was the league's laughing stock.
At 3-29, the Thunder was on pace to finish as the worst team in league history. As an as assistant and the interim head coach, Brooks shared responsibility for a 14-game losing streak. As the interim coach, Brooks also had skids of seven and eight games.
The defeats took a toll. Brooks began blaming himself. Suddenly, a guy who had always been supremely confident in himself started doubting his abilities.
“Every shot was being made in the last second on us,” Brooks remembered. “We had like four last-second losses. I was thinking, ‘Maybe I'm the jinx. Maybe they ought to put someone else up there standing on the sidelines.'
“That bothered me more than anything because I saw how hard Kevin, Russell and Nick (Collison) worked. And they didn't deserve those types of losses.”
Motivated by losses
Brooks misses three things from his playing days.
Winning games and being on a winning team. The locker room and the friendships with everyone in the organization. And losing.
You're not alone if you're a bit baffled by that last one. But Brooks can explain.
“That feeling you have after a loss, you can't get that feeling in anything else you do,” Brooks said. “You can't get that feeling that you just blew a game or lost a game. And that heartache, that anger in your belly, you can't create that any other way. I miss that because that is what motivated me to get up the next morning to get to practice and work my butt off to help the team win the next game.”
More than anything, that's what gave Brooks hope. He knew he had top-notch competitors on his side, driven players who would use the defeats to fuel their desire to get better.
That's when the Thunder began showing the makings of what soon became the organization's slogan: Rise Together.
“A winning culture and a culture where you can win are different things,” Presti said. “We were just trying to establish an environment and the standers where consistency was possible and good habits could be rooted. While he was trying to work on the floor, I was trying to support him anyway possible.”
The pieces began to trickle in.
Nenad Krstic…Thabo Sefolosha…Ron Adams…Eric Maynor…James Harden.
“There were these small upticks,” Presti said.
Suddenly, games that once were all but over by halftime became relevant in the third quarter. Soon, ballgames started being decided in the fourth quarter.
“We weren't winning games, but we were learning how to win games,” Brooks said.
The Thunder went 10-14 over the season's final month and a half. A culture conducive to winning had been created.
“There was a gradual improvement taking place,” Presti said. “But you couldn’t go from 1-11 to 11-11 over night. There is no path of least resistance. But as they say, belief is a sustained initiative, and we believed in Scott as our coach, the overall character of our team and that the path we were committed to was best for Oklahoma City.”
Presti now credits Brooks for captaining the change.
“Scotty really embraced the organizational vision of building from within and establishing player development as the foundation of the program,” Presti said. “He’s done an exceptional job and has been absolutely critical to our progressions as a team. The best compliment that I can pay him is that he’s built our style of play and our basketball habits from the ground up.”
Doing it the right way
Bill Stricker's eyes welled up as he thought about how proud he is of Brooks.
The man who Brooks emulated since the seventh grade no longer could hold back the tears as he thought about all Brooks accomplished.
“I can tear up talking about him real easy because he makes you proud,” Stricker said. “It's one thing to do it well. It's something else to do it the right way.
“He's taken everything that I did and gone farther. And then he's done it with class. Every organization he's been in, people appreciate him because of how he handles himself as a man, as a person.”
Striker sees Brooks' passion. As much as anyone, he knows how committed his former star is to bringing this community a championship.
“He loves this community. He loves how the city treats the people,” Stricker said. “He knows the appreciation they have and he appreciates the appreciation. And I think he wants it for the people.
“While he's here, he'll leave no stone unturned to figure out how to get them to be the best they can be.”
A look at Scott Brooks' coaching record since taking over the Thunder.
SEASON, RECORD, W/L%, PLAYOFFS
2008-09, 22-47, .319, DNQ
2009-10, 50-32, .610, Lost first round
2010-11, 55-27, .671, Lost conference finals
2011-12, 27-7, .794, ?