When Scott Brooks took his turn addressing the frenzied Thunder faithful, following team chairman Clay Bennett and general manager Sam Presti during the trophy presentation crowning the Thunder as Western Conference champions, the crowd inside Chesapeake Energy Arena showered the coach with cheers.
On and on the ovation went, postponing impending questions from emcee Ernie Johnson. As Brooks, misty-eyed and choked up, stood to the right of his team's sparkling new championship trophy he bit both his lips and dropped his head, letting the magnitude of the moment wash over him.
“I could let 'em go,” Johnson said. “But I think I do have to ask you a question.”
Brooks was willing to wait.
“Keep going, keep going,” Brooks said, smiling and waving both his hands upward to spur more shouts.
It's taken four years for Brooks to be on the receiving end of that type of recognition. Until that very moment, Brooks had been one of the game's most underappreciated head coaches, both locally and nationally. But that ovation ended all doubt about how the hometown fans feel about their coach.
“That was a great feeling,” Brooks said Sunday, curt and careful to avoid feeding into a story line about him.
One week prior to that trophy presentation, Brooks was rapidly blossoming into the scapegoat. People far and wide were throwing him under the bus for the 2-0 series hole the Thunder faced against San Antonio. Every decision Brooks made — from sitting Serge Ibaka for the entire fourth quarter in Game 1 to his insistence on playing Derek Fisher over Thabo Sefolosha — was being picked apart.
Four wins later and Brooks is now beloved.
“It's just kind of become part of our business these days,” said Thunder veteran guard Derek Fisher when asked about the sudden swing in his coach's perception. “Four days ago, Erik Spoelstra was the worst coach in the league and the Miami Heat didn't have the will to win and the big three were going to get broken up. And now (they're in the Finals). It just kind of comes with the territory unfortunately. The smart ones just kind of respect it but tune it out and keep at it.”
Brooks and Spoelstra have a lot in common in that sense. Both are young coaches whose reputations have yet to rise above criticism. The microscope on Spoelstra is significantly more intense thanks to LeBron James' “Decision.” While Brooks has proven his coaching mettle to most by advancing to the NBA Finals, it seems Spoelstra must lead the Heat to the title for him to get his due.
But Brooks isn't bothered by the outside noise, whether good or bad.
“I don't focus on what people say,” Brooks said. “I know what I have to do. My job is to coach our guys. My job is not to coach our guys through the media. Everybody has an opinion. I respect the media members and I respect the guys that played the game that are talking about our team. And I respect the guys that don't play the game that talk about our team. They have a job to do.
“But my job is to coach the team and lead our guys to the best of my abilities. I'm not concerned whether they say I'm a good coach or a bad coach. I know I have a job to do and our players seem to respond and seem to get better.”
Now flashback to the trophy presentation.
Front and center when Brooks was summoned by Johnson stood Russell Westbrook. Immediately, the All-Star point guard unleashed two roars as Brooks sauntered over. Westbrook ignited the ovation, clapping his hands and stepping forward to pump his arms in the air so the crowd could give it up to his coach. Serge Ibaka stood in the background doing the same. Soon, 18,203 followed.
It illustrated how the players really feel about Brooks, which is really all that matters. They've seen his growth and they know his worth to the team.
“I just think coach does a good job of sticking to what he believes in,” said center Kendrick Perkins, “and also we do a good job as players of backing him up and supporting him. We never put the pressure on coach to do anything because we're all learning together.”
And together, Brooks and his guys are now four wins away from the one thing that can silence all the critics.
“As a coach, you have a lot of pressure on you,” Brooks said. “It's so many different dimensions that are coming at you that you have to be able to respond to. But I have a good position that I'm in. I have a group of guys that I love to lead. It's a great job.”