Blindingly quick, with this little hitch jumper that seemed to be released near his right hip — one of those pre-shot-clock Cousy specials — he was, at 5 feet 11, about five inches shorter than I was. He’d back up a decent Division I guard, I figured, before hitting the city league circuit. That’s where we all went to play after the dream died.
Almost 11 years went by before we spoke again.
“You played at American River?” he said when I told him in the home locker room at Madison Square Garden.
“Well, ‘played’ is pretty strong,” I replied. “If we were up or down 20, I might get some time.”
Sure enough, in 1996, Brooks had been running the floor with firemen and accountants in Irvine, living the gym-rat life. Then the Knicks called. They needed veteran leadership in their back court, signing a player who had fed Charles Barkley on the break in Philadelphia, won a championship with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston and brought the ball across half court with a young Jason Kidd in Dallas and would now be paid to dump the ball inside to Patrick Ewing.
New York was the fifth of six NBA stops in 10 years for Brooks, an undrafted free agent who paid dues with the Fresno Flames and Albany Patroons. As he sat up on a lectern in Oklahoma City on Monday night, eight wins from coaching Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the league’s most enthralling young team to a title, I had one thought:
Many of us say we would do anything to play in the NBA for one day, make any sacrifice to coach the world’s greatest athletes for just one week. But Scott Brooks actually meant it; he wanted it more than I could ever fathom.
“I look back at my career, I played over a decade, I just think — sometimes I get emotional, I’m like, ‘How did I make it?’ ” Brooks said over the phone when we caught up last week. “I’m coaching these guys that are so much better and athletic, quicker, stronger. But I made it, and I made it for a long time.”
Jimmy Lynam gave Brooks his first shot in Philly, where he became a bit of a cult hero, the California surfer with the rainbow shot from beyond the arc. Never mind that his high school, East Union in Manteca, Calif., was inland and that he was more 4-H farm boy than “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
“I would let them believe anything they wanted as long as they didn’t cut me,” he told me while he was playing for the Knicks and I was covering the team.
Brooks coached two years with the ABA’s Los Angeles Stars before he got on the NBA assistant treadmill, “just to make sure I had the passion, to see if I was ready to really do it 100 percent,” he said. “I knew I had it; I just wanted to make sure.”