James Harden was one day away from returning to Oklahoma City to face his former teammates. Predictably, every Thunder player was insisting it was “just another game,” that no special feelings were involved.
Not coach Scott Brooks.
“No, it's not another game,” Brooks said with conviction, piquing the interest of unsuspecting reporters who thought they were destined for a “just another game” quote.
Brooks hesitated slightly, like a point guard about to execute a crossover move, and then continued. “They traded me in the second championship year (1994-95),” Brooks began as the media contingent quickly learned he was up to his old tricks. “It took me five years to get over (Rockets coach) Rudy Tomjanovich. Now, we're best buddies. But, yeah, it's still personal.”
A smile crept on Brooks' face before he finished himself off with one final self-deprecating swipe. “That was the truth many years ago, but I wasn't really good enough to say, ‘Oh, I'm going to really go at 'em next time we play,' ” Brooks said.
When used properly, humor can be completely disarming. It can breathe life into exhausted players and make critics readjust their bearings.
Since the NBA's territorial draft ended in 1965, only 37 undrafted players have been good enough to play in the league for 10-plus seasons. Scott William Brooks is one of those players, going unselected in the 1987 NBA Draft, even though it lasted seven rounds (161 picks).
“Whenever anybody asks, I tell them I was picked in the third round,” said Brooks, who indeed was drafted in the third round of that year's Continental Basketball Association draft.
Even though Brooks' career achievement in the NBA puts him in the top 1 percent of anyone who has ever played the game, he still pokes fun at himself.
What makes this self-deprecation so effective are Brooks' qualifications. He seemingly has experienced everything possible in the NBA during the past quarter century.
As a player: Brooks went undrafted; started out in the CBA; was traded four times (once at halftime of a game), signed as a free agent three times and waived twice; was traded from a good team (Philadelphia) to a bad team (Minnesota) to a great team (Houston) to a bad team (Dallas) to a good team (New York); spent five days with the famed Boston Celtics before being waived; suffered a knee injury that ended his NBA career; and played his final season in the semipro rekindling of the ABA.
As a coach: Brooks was as an assistant and head coach in the ABA; returned to the NBA to become an assistant with Denver, Sacramento and a Seattle franchise that relocated to Oklahoma City; served as interim head coach for 69 games before finally having the title removed; and in just three full seasons as the Thunder's coach has won two division titles, a conference crown and was named NBA Coach of the Year.
SCOTT AND THE SUPERSTAR
Brooks played collegiately for one season at TCU, transferred to San Joaquin Delta College (in Stockton, Calif.) for one season and played his final two seasons with UC-Irvine, where he would become the best pro player in school history.
As a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior, Brooks averaged 23.8 points and shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range. On a night the school opened its new events center, Brooks poured in 43 points against Utah State. When he faced Pacific, the school 10 miles from his mother's house that refused to offer him a scholarship, Brooks scored 41.
Brooks reportedly made $3,417,500 as an NBA player, considerably less than he'll make with the four-year deal worth $16-$18 million he signed last July to remain Thunder coach.
It took three-time NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant ($16.7 million salary) just 17 games this season to match Brooks' career player earnings, but the guy who stands one foot shorter is the one calling the shots for a player on the cusp of becoming the league's Most Valuable Player.
“He's quick to say something to anybody if we mess up — miss a rotation, if we're playing as hard as he wants us to play,” Durant said of Brooks. “He's not afraid. He's a great guy to lead us.”
Wise well beyond his 24 years, Durant is fully aware sometimes Brooks manufactures criticism in an attempt to prove Durant is not above reproach.
“He's got a quick trigger on me,” Durant said with a smile. “He came in (the other day), looked at me for 10 seconds and said, ‘KD, get a haircut.' ”
The main differences between Brooks and Durant? “He's a little bit more boring than I am,” Durant said.
When Durant was quick to sign a five-year extension with the Thunder in the summer of 2010, part of the reason was Brooks.
“We really click, man,” Durant said. “He's family. I consider him part of my family. He's helped me so much since I came into this league, even my rookie year when he wasn't the head coach (at Seattle). He gave me encouragement every single day. He saw the potential in me. He believed in me. It's very important that we have a very good relationship, which we do and it's getting better every single day. We can laugh and joke at each other, too.”
Durant said one reason he appreciates Brooks' sense of humor is he never makes himself the center of attention.
“Naw, never,” Durant said. “He's the most humble guy I've ever been around, never gives credit to himself. Whenever he makes great adjustments and puts us in great position to win, he always says it's because of us. We know without him we wouldn't be able to win a game, or have a good stretch, or (have a winning) month. He does so much for us, man. He's always humble about it and we really respect that about him.”
SCOTT AND RUDY T
It was the 1994-95 season and if Brooks wasn't going to get any playing time with the defending world champion Houston Rockets, he wanted to be traded to a place where there were minutes.
At least that's what Tomjanovich thought when the Rockets traded Brooks to the Dallas Mavericks at halftime of a home game against the Detroit Pistons the night of the league's trade deadline on Feb. 23, 1995.
Brooks had won a championship ring with the Rockets the previous season and would have won another had he not been traded. As mentioned before, Brooks was not happy with the chain of events.
“It was a hard thing to do because Scotty was so important to me, and I know that doesn't seem like it's a true statement,” Tomjanovich explained. “If he couldn't play, he wanted to go somewhere and play. He ended up out of our (guard) rotation. It was a tough situation because I cared about the guy so much. There was talk about him really wanting to go somewhere and play.”
Brooks' relationship with Tomjanovich immediately was strained.
“It was really hard to trade him. In fact, I cried,” Tomjanovich said. “He was upset and I was really surprised about that because I thought he wanted it. I never really talked to him about it. I found out later how much it hurt him.”
Tomjanovich attends many Houston home games and will attend Saturday's game when the Thunder visits. Brooks does not telephone Tomjanovich for coaching advice, but they chat before games when Brooks spots him.
“I just cannot tell you how proud I am of the guy,” Tomjanovich said. “It's the way he handles himself. I was one of those coaches that no matter what, you always support your players. No matter what, and that's how he's been.
“That kind of positive energy he throws out there is so important. You have to make corrections and tell guys when they're wrong, but there's a way you do it and Scotty does it the right way.”
When Tomjanovich once complimented Brooks on his game-day demeanor, Brooks replied: “I might look calm, but there are certain parts of me that aren't very calm at all.”
SCOTT AND THE THUNDER WAY
Brooks' humor is not a string of one-liners. He is neither Henny Youngman nor Rodney Dangerfield.
Brooks habitually spews those familiar Thunder company lines. Thousands of questions are being asked, but 99.7 percent of the time Brooks reverts to 10 patented responses uttered by every card-carrying member of the tight-lipped franchise.
What's refreshing is no matter how many times Brooks is asked the same question, he'll answer politely. On many occasions, prominent national basketball writers have expressed their pleasure in dealing with Brooks, and it's not because of the Thunder's rapid rise to NBA prominence.
What separates Brooks from others in the profession is how he treats reporters, no matter what their market size. Big or small, famous or not, Brooks treats people equally. He might take potshots at himself, but Brooks does not take aim at others.
“He takes his coaching very seriously, but I think he's learned to laugh at things,” Tomjanovich said. “You have to do it or this game will eat you up. It's so competitive.”
- On Nov. 21 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, a Los Angeles reporter had a question about the superior court presence of Clippers point guard Chris Paul and asked Brooks if he thought in the same manner when he was an NBA point guard.
“It's hard for me not to smile when you're mentioning Chris Paul and myself (in the same sentence),” Brooks said with a grin. “Everybody here was thinking that, but nobody was wanting to say it.”
- Two Decembers ago, Brooks was interviewed for a story about the sudden surplus of scoring point guards in the NBA.
“You should do a story on nonscoring point guards,” Brooks told the reporter. “I was the last one, and that was just because I couldn't score.”
- Thunder veteran Nick Collison, who at 32 is the oldest Thunder player, once was asked if he remembered seeing Brooks playing in the NBA playoffs.
“I remember some towel waving,” Collison deadpanned. “I vaguely remember those series, but I was pretty young. I could be wrong. Maybe he played huge minutes.”
- In April of 2010, when the No. 8-seeded Thunder faced the No. 1-seeded, defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round of the playoffs, Brooks was trying to convince visiting media the best-of-seven series was going to be closer than people thought.
“We always felt that we were going to be in this series and that the series was going to go long,” Brooks said. “We weren't thinking that we would sweep them.”
A few reporters laughed immediately, but not enough to please Brooks. “That was a joke,” Brooks said, after which everybody laughed.
Before Brooks' comedy act could continue, the interview session suddenly was cut short. “But I'm not finished,” Brooks said, feigning frustration.
SCOTT AND HIS WAY
Brooks' childhood somewhat mirrors his basketball career — some highs, lots of lows and many struggles. Asked if he uses humor as a defense mechanism, Brooks was quite serious in his answer.
“I'm very lucky to be in my position, and I've always felt that,” Brooks said, “Even as a child when I grew up with no father, the youngest of seven children, working hard to get everything and seeing my mother work all the time, I still felt I had an opportunity to make a difference.
“I feel lucky that I'm in this position. Not a lot of guys make it in the NBA as a player and not a lot of guys make it who are under 6-foot and not drafted. I always have everything in perspective. I definitely want to enjoy what I do and I want our players to enjoy what they do, because this is the time of their lives. I had the time of my life as a player and they need to have that same experience.”
Brooks, who averaged 4.9 points and 2.4 assists in 680 career games, admits getting frustrated when he evaluates his playing days in bits and pieces.
“I always wish I could have done more,” Brooks said, “but reality sets in pretty quickly and I realize I did everything I could with what I had.”
A smile crept on Brooks' face when he learned he was one of only 37 undrafted players since 1965 to have lasted at least 10 seasons in the NBA.
“That's great,” Brooks said, using that slight hesitation again, “but the sad thing about it is I'm probably the 37th best player on that list.”