PHILADELPHIA — Scott Brooks took a trip down memory lane on Tuesday as his team concluded its practice session at the Sixers training center inside Evans Hall on the campus of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The Thunder coach talked about his old apartment being around the block. He remembered how his Sixers used to practice just down the road, on City Line Ave., when he was a rookie. And Brooks lit up at the thought of his favorite spot across the street — T.G.I. Friday's.
“That was my kitchen,” Brooks said. “Lunch and dinner. Twice a day I would go to Friday's.”
Brooks broke into the NBA in Philadelphia. The city and the Sixers, he said, always will be special. It's the place and the team that allowed him to fulfill his dream of playing pro ball.
“There are a lot of great memories,” Brooks said.
As much as anyone, Brooks knows what it means for the Sixers to be relevant again. And he has great admiration for the coach who has captained the turnaround.
“This is a great organization, and for what Doug Collins has done, I'm sure he feels some ownership in this because he's building a great young team that's playing hard and has a great foundation,” Brooks said. “He probably has the same feelings that I have (for the city and team) now that he's coaching his former team.”
When the Thunder faces the Sixers on Wednesday night inside Wells Fargo Center, it will be a matchup of two franchises that have withstood 20-win seasons and quickly righted their ships. It'll be a story of teams that benefited from two strong-minded head coaches who hung in despite bleak situations and are now reaping the benefits.
“I have a lot of respect for him because he's done it at all levels and he had a great career playing,” Brooks said of Collins. “Now he's bringing a young team along and playing good basketball.”
Like Brooks, who won the award two years ago, Collins is now at the front of the line for Coach of the Year honors because of the job he's done with the Sixers.
“He's definitely up there,” Brooks said. “There are so many coaches having great years. (Gregg Popovich) is having a great season. Rick Adelman is having a great year. Even George Karl. With all those injuries they've had they're still fighting and battling. But Collins is obviously right in there. Every year, there's five or six guys deserving of it and he's definitely one of them.”
What Collins has done has been nothing short of sensational. He's taken a team that won 27 games the year before his arrival and slowly turned it into a hard-nosed troop, a team that thinks it can play with anyone despite a roster in which the top 10 players in minutes have an average age of just 24.2 years — 1.5 years younger than the Thunder's top 10.
“The biggest thing I notice is they play hard every possession,” Brooks said. “Coach Collins demands that style of play.
“I think that's one of the biggest talents that you can have. We don't usually look at playing hard as a talent. But I think teams that play hard are the toughest teams because they're going to get better every day and they're going to get better every year. And then if you have the right pieces, then you become a special team. But he has some good pieces that play hard. That's why they had some success.”
The Sixers started 3-13 last season. By the All-Star break, they were 27-29. By the end of the season, they were a playoff team. At 41-41, it was only the Sixers' fourth 40-win season in eight years.
Now, the Sixers are 21-14 following their win at Detroit on Tuesday night. That puts them on pace for another 40 wins. Translated to a traditional 82-game season, the Sixers' current winning percentage would put them on pace for 49 wins.
More impressively, Collins has changed the culture without a true star. His best players are Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand. And they're fourth and sixth, respectively, in the team's scoring.
Instead of scheming around a star, Collins has coached team ball. Six players average in double figures scoring. Eight players average at least eight points.
“They have a group of players that play well together,” Brooks said. “They play good basketball defensively. They trust one another.”
The city has rallied around the rebuild.
Attendance is up for the third straight season. The team now ranks in the top 20 in attendance for the first time since the 2004-05 season, when Allen Iverson led the league in scoring with a 30.7-point average.
Brooks, who helped turn a 23-win team in 2008-09 into a 50-win outfit a year later, said the hardest part of leading a turnaround is sticking to principles the team believes in and preaching them every day in the face of losing.
“You have to stay consistent,” Brooks said. “There's a lot of times you're tested in what you do and how you do it because you want to have success immediately. But as a coach, it's all mental. You have to just keep mentally grinding it out every day and build your team day by day.”