When the clock ticked inside of what could best be described as a harrowing final hour of contract negotiations between Scott Brooks and the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer, the thing that ultimately kept the team's coveted free agent coach from now pacing the sidelines of the Portland Trail Blazers was a text message.
It came from Kevin Durant.
“It was like the day before they got something done,” Durant said. “I think that day was the toughest.”
The message moved Brooks, who had been tied up in tense on-again, off-again talks that had put his future with the Thunder in jeopardy.
“During negotiations, it can be stressful at times,” Durant said. “One day it looks like something's going to get done and then the next it might not. So I reached out to him and just told him I loved him and let me know what happens.”
Thunder assistant coach Rex Kalamian, a close friend of Brooks, facilitated the conversation, encouraging Durant to reach out to his head coach and tell Brooks how he felt. Kalamian thought it would do a world of good. It was one thing for Durant to communicate his feelings about Brooks to the other assistants. It was a whole other, especially during those final days that were filled with doubt and frustration, for Durant to dial up Brooks directly.
“I'm the leader of this team,” Durant said. “And I don't think he had heard from me until that time. So I wanted to let him know that I wanted him back and I really enjoy playing for him. So that goes a long way, and I guess that helped him a little bit with his decision. I'm glad he's back. I'm glad he's with us.”
When the deal finally got done — a four-year extension that will pay Brooks roughly $4 million annually — both sides put smiles on their faces and said all the right things in front of the cameras. Their united front belied the battle that had taken place, with both sides suffering bruises by holding firm to their positions.
Brooks had helped the Thunder blossom into an elite team, rapidly developing players alongside his staff while doing all the right things as a loyal employee on the notoriously tightly run ship that's been crafted in Oklahoma City. He took the team to the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 and wanted to be compensated accordingly, for his sacrifices and his successes.
On the Thunder's end, there was a desire for continuity, a chief tenet of the franchise. But when the consummation of a deal dragged, it was natural to wonder whether the Thunder thought Brooks ultimately was the coach who could captain OKC to the title.
The differing attitudes had created a chasm sizable enough to stall talks that had originated before the start of the 2011-12 season. Numerous reports last summer cited sources that said Brooks had turned down multiple three-year offers in the neighborhood of $11 million.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti tabled negotiations during the team's playoff run, which set off both an unexpected waiting game and a flood of press coverage. Presti, one of the league's new age analytical executives, is believed to have a formula for everything, including what price Brooks should have been penciled in at — and the data on championship coaches didn't point to up-and-comers like Brooks but slanted heavily to older, more experienced coaches.
Meanwhile, vacant head coaching jobs were up for grabs in Orlando and Portland.
The Blazers had just hired Neil Olshey, the former GM of the Los Angeles Clippers, to the same position. Olshey shares Brooks' agent, Warren LeGarie, and is believed to have a personal relationship with the Thunder coach. Olshey had watched Brooks from afar as he helped build the Thunder into an NBA power and, if the proper opportunity presented itself, was widely believed to be interested in making a run at Brooks had talks with the Thunder continued to lag.
While no talks with the Blazers took place, it would have been a risky career move to say the least for Brooks, whose contract with the Thunder expired on June 30. Though he could have been compensated quite handsomely behind deep-pocketed Blazers owner Paul Allen, Brooks would have had to leave a core that included Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and, at the time, James Harden, for a Blazers team powered by LaMarcus Aldridge and little else. Rookie of the Year front-runner Damian Lillard entered the league to high hopes but had only been a pro for two days.
Brooks maintains that Oklahoma City is where he always wanted to be, but the longer negotiations took, the more rumors began to swirl. Revered but retired coaches like Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan soon became linked to the Thunder. Presti famously dismissed the notion of Jackson possibly coming to OKC by calling the report “rubbish.”
But Brooks was at a crossroads, with those close to him firmly believing that months of brutal haggling over money had burned the bridge between the coach and the team.
His heart was in Oklahoma City. But he appeared headed for Portland.
Until his phone buzzed.
First by a fateful text from his franchise player, and then, finally, by a lucrative offer that rewarded him as one of the top five paid coaches in basketball, joining Gregg Popovich, Rick Adelman, Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle.
“Kevin is family to me,” Brooks said. “I've been with him from his rookie year and we've been through a lot together … I've said this many times, I am blessed to be able to coach the guys I coach. I love the guys I coach. I love being around them. They drive me bonkers at times, but I love those moments too because I know their heart is always in the right place.”