The Good Mother, The Faithful Son

Washington Wizards Head Coach Scott Brooks didn’t have much in the way of material possessions growing up in Lathrop, CA. The youngest of seven siblings, his father left his mother, Lee, when Brooks was just a toddler. Brooks recalls, “You worked every day to earn what’s on the table, literally. It was a week-to-week thing. And I wouldn’t change it. I would not change it for anything. I don’t like the fact that she [Brooks’ mother] has suffered a lot of tough times financially, but she doesn’t complain and I wouldn’t change anything.”

Brooks adds, “She provided toughness every day. Every day, she would wake up whether she wasn’t feeling good or sick. When you don’t have much and you need to be at work, there’s no such thing as being sick. To see her do that, it inspired me and my brothers and sisters. I was able to see that every day.”

It’s no surprise then, that Brooks credits his mother for playing the biggest role in molding him into the head coach he is today, “The most influential person in my life has been my mother… She taught me many important lessons.” It seems what Brooks lacked in material possessions, his mother made up for in spades by imparting lifelong wisdom to her youngest son. As it turns out, Brooks was fortunate indeed.

To Brooks’ credit, he listened. (Not all do). Of particular use has been his mother’s answer to adversity: Better, not bitter. When Brooks was fired by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 this was his response. Be better. Not bitter. It was a testament to Brooks’ character, more the man than the coach. Lee Brooks would’ve expected nothing less.

At 79 years old, Lee passed away in 2011, but to this day, her legacy is felt by everyone Scott Brooks touches, be it an usher or player.

When Brooks returned to Oklahoma City for the first time in November 2016, as the Wizards head coach, one Thunder usher described his return as “a friend among friends.” The Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd echoed these sentiments during pregame introductions, acknowledging Brooks’ time in OKC with a thunderous (pun intended) ovation, cut short only by Thunder game management dimming the lights and cranking the home team’s intro music.

2016-17 MVP Russell Westbrook has an affinity for his former coach.

“Scotty’s my guy. He gave me a real shot to be able to do some of the things [I do] and make mistakes and he always had my back in that situation. Especially when I first got here. He was always the one who had my back through those times, and he’s obviously a good coach as well.” (Russell Westbrook)

This past February, former OKC star Kevin Durant gave Brooks what some might consider the ultimate compliment a player can bestow upon his coach, “He’s a good coach, man. A good coach. He’s one of those guys you would run through a wall for.”

OKC journeyman Nick Collison sees the goodness in Brooks as well, “You’re not going to find anybody with anything bad to say about that guy,” says Collison. “He had a way with people.”

In a league where consensus opinions on persona can be tough to come by, Scott Brooks is a notable exception. It’s hard to argue there’s not a direct correlation between Brooks’ character and Brooks’ results.

Among all active head coaches with more than 300 games coached, only Gregg Popovich (.694) has a better win percentage than Brooks (.617). Brooks also only trails Popovich, Mike D’Antoni, and Doc Rivers among active head coaches for the largest win percentage improvement from season to season. In addition, Brooks, Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau are the only active head coaches with 5+ seasons experience who can claim just one season below .500. Let that marinate. Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Erik Spoelstra, Tom Thibodeau. It is pretty good company, to say the least.

Still, there have been plenty of knocks on Brooks over the years including a stagnant offense and unsatisfactory coaching in the clutch, but it’s clear that his players respond to him and continue to improve under his guidance. In turn, his teams perform consistently at a very high level.

Yes, maybe Brooks’ less than optimal offensive strategies did result in stagnation, but as Brooks, himself, is quick to point out, the Thunder were top-10 in offensive rating in his last five seasons in OKC. This includes Brooks’ final season in 2014-15 when Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka missed 55, 15 and 18 games respectively.

And yes, maybe his late-game coaching left something to be desired, but then again, watch most NBA teams in crunch time and it’s clearly evident how the league’s hierarchy works. It’s not about coaching acumen leading to ball movement and better shots. All those things take a backseat to a superstar’s ego in the final seconds. Hero ball may not increase a team’s chances for success, but it’s a reality nonetheless. Brooks had a tendency to lean on the otherworldly talents of Durant and Westbrook in late-game situations, but that’s the norm; Brooks’ actions weren’t the exception, they were the rule.

Oddly enough, in Brooks’ first year removed, the Thunder were in the driver’s seat of the 2015-16 Western Conference Finals, up 3-1 against the Warriors. Suddenly, Brooks’ perceived shortcomings became those of OKC’s first-year head coach, Billy Donovan. In the final three games of the series, the Thunder averaged 19.7 assists per game, which would have been good for 26th in the league during the regular season. Moreover, hero ball on the part of Durant and Westbrook was largely to blame for the Thunder’s implosion. The Warriors went on to win the series 4-3.

It’s impossible to know but maybe Brooks was the missing piece in those moments. Unfortunately, the one man who had led them into battle countless times before and who had earned the players’ trust, respect and loyalty over the course of 9 seasons (2 as an assistant, 7 as the head coach) was nowhere to be found. In an effort to place a premium on the organization’s development, the Thunder had betrayed an important piece of their continuity. You certainly can’t fault the organization for going a different direction and hiring Donovan, but it’s also fair to say that Brooks probably deserved at least one more season of his team at full strength.

As it stands now, the NBA landscape looks very different. Paul George has joined Russell Westbrook in OKC and Kevin Durant has an NBA Championship with the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, Scott Brooks looks forward to his second season as the Head Coach of the Washington Wizards.

In 2016-17, Brooks helped lead the Wizards out of a 2-8 hole, to a 49-33 record and the East’s 4-seed, eventually bowing out to the Celtics in 7 games in the Eastern Conference Semis. Ironically, the Wizards went 20-9 during the regular season in games decided by 5 points or less, which was good for the 3rd best winning percentage in such games, trailing only the Rockets and Jazz. Washington also ranked 6th in assists per game. Somewhere Lee Brooks was smiling. Be better. Not bitter.

The 2017-18 season looks to be a promising one for the Wizards and their second-year head coach. While most contending teams spent their off-season interchanging various aspects of their roster, the Wizards stayed relatively quiet, preferring to keep their core intact. Some think the Wizards have reached their ceiling, but this team isn’t shying away from high expectations after the successful re-signings of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., nor should they. And if they follow Brooks’ lead, sustainable success isn’t just probable, it’s likely.

“I like expectations. I think we should have high expectations,” Brooks said. “I think every team in this league should have expectations of winning the championship. We’re trying to establish [a championship mentality] here. We want to have consistent and sustainable success. We don’t want to ride the rollercoaster ride of an NBA team going down, up and down each and every year. To prevent that from happening, we obviously have to have good players and we have that here.”

And not only are the players good, maybe even more importantly, they believe in their head coach. Says Bradley Beal of Brooks, “He’s got a magical touch. He’s a mix of old-school and new-school. He’s the best of both worlds.”

The Wizards hope is that all this talent and belief culminates in their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since 1978-79. Should it happen, Brooks is a likely shoo-in for his second Coach of the Year Award.

And if the cards don’t fall Washington’s way and the team falls short? I imagine Brooks will turn to his players, just as his mother once turned to him, and say, “Be better. Not bitter.” And believe it or not, they’ll listen.

 

photo via llananba