The defeats kept mounting. A 14-game losing streak. An eight-game losing streak. A five-game losing streak. The Thunder was 3-29 and headed for the wrong kind of history.
And Scotty Brooks, handed the reins of that woebegotten team in November 2008, kept his chin up. Stayed positive. Stayed upbeat.
Even had a standard message for his browbeaten players.
“We weren't losing games,” Brooks would tell that team of Damien Wilkins and Johan Petro. “I was telling the guys we were learning how to win games, and there's a big difference.”
Good line. If only it were true. The Thunder most certainly was losing games, and its fledgling coach took the defeats hard.
“I put on a pretty good face,” Brooks said of going 2-17 in his first 19 games as an NBA head coach. “There's no question it hurt. Every day you go to work you want to have success.”
If not for the glimmer of hope he saw in how hard Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook worked, Brooks doesn't know what would have become of his chance to run an NBA team.
“That's what kept me going at that time,” Brooks said. “Because if it wasn't for that, I would have been looking at our record and going, ‘Oh, there (goes) my chance. I'm done. I'm moving on.' But those guys really kept me going.”
They keep Brooks going still. From the dredges of 3-29, the Thunder approaches the summit. The NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, starting Tuesday night in OKC. In only 3 1/2 years, the Thunder has gone from talk of worst team in league history to Finals favorite.
It happened so fast. Such acceleration. The Thunder became competitive by that first season's end. Then won 50 games in 2009-10. Made the 2011 Western Conference Finals. Now owns home-court advantage in the Finals.
“You can look at it as a negative,” Westbrook said of that 3-29 start, “but I think as a group and as an organization, we've seen some light, and we've seen that one day we'd be at this moment, and one day we'd have an opportunity to win a championship.”
Hard to believe that anyone saw it at 3-29. Durant was superstar special, and Westbrook was promising, but that first Thunder team was otherwise a mismash of mediocre talent. Nick Collison is the only Boomer remaining from that roster.
And Brooks was asked to coach it on the fly.
“You definitely don't dream about being the coach of the worst team in history,” Brooks said. “Trust me, there were a lot of nightmares over that month-and-a-half when we were flirting with that nine-win total.”
But Brooks swears it was bearable because of the work. The work and the attitude and the franchise philosophy.
“When we were 3-29, they still treated us as champions, and our players felt that,” Brooks said of Sam Presti's organization. “Kevin, Nick and Russell, they did not deserve to have that.
“Nothing's tougher than going through that type of losing. But looking back at it kind of helps you through a lot of situations … being able to stay together and stay positive and to be able to overcome that is always going to help moving forward.”
Losing breeds a certain culture. Players build defensive mechanisms. They quit caring so much, because caring coupled with constant losing hurts. Hurts so bad, it's easier to just quit caring.
Brooks claims those temptations never seeped in to the lowly Thunder.
“A lot of times of times when you have a bad record, the work the next day in practice shows that you have a bad record,” Brooks said. “But it never showed. You would have never guessed we were 3-29 the way they were attacking each practice and looking forward to challenging each other to get better.”
Easy to say now. But also easy to believe, because we saw the results. The Thunder did improve dramatically. The Thunder did get better and better. The Thunder did reach heights that not even the sappiest soul could imagine so quickly.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.