“Washington D.C. was like another country to me when I was a kid,” the native Californian observed, as he walked past the National Sculpture Garden and the Natural History Museum.
Finally Brooks fell into line with the tourists and schoolkids and joggers for the meat of his route, just one more anonymous 51-year-old in jeans and a hoodie heading toward the Washington Monument. Once there, he stood at the northern edge and peered at the White House, then approached the Monument and faced east toward the Capitol Building.
“It’s a magical city,” Brooks said, one hand resting on the Monument, which he religiously touches during each of these walks. “Everyone says it’s a powerful city, but it’s a magical city.”
You’ll be forgiven for thinking Brooks might have a bit of magic about himself. Maybe his first 10 months in this city could have gone better, but it’s hard to imagine how. He helped turn a .500 team with a downtrodden fanbase into an Eastern Conference heavyweight, boasting the best record in the East since Dec. 1. He won Washington’s first division title in 38 years, clinched home-court advantage in the opening round for the first time in 38 years, and is flirting with 50 wins for the first time in 38 years.
After last summer’s disappointing dip into free agency, Washington’s future seemed drab. Now, it’s possible to at least imagine a sustained run, behind two star guards and a coach who’s averaged more than 52 wins over his past seven seasons. That coach has imagined it, anyhow.
“We have a good enough nucleus that we should be good for a long time. This could be a good run,” Brooks said later that morning. “John and Brad should be better next year than this year, and then the next year after that they should be [even] better.”
Better in two years than they were this season — when Wall, 26, was an All-Star, and Beal, 23, probably should have been?
“They better be,” Brooks said. “And if they’re not, it’s my fault.”
That the Wizards have a coach so comfortable talking about a distant and promising future is itself a novelty. He signed a five-year deal last spring; only one of the team’s 11 previous coaches lasted for a full five seasons. And if you’ve followed the Wizards at all over the past 40 years, you’re used to feeling more optimistic about airline hospitality than about the team’s chances for long-term success. Maybe one strong season doesn’t change that, and your battered heart probably appreciates your continued caution. But it’s worth reading Beal’s theory about the improvement, anyhow.
“Everything changed this year with the arrival of our coach, Scott Brooks,” he recently wrote on his blog. “Ever since he got here, the culture has been different.”
“One of the nicest things I’ve ever heard a player say about a coach,” said Brooks, who read Beal’s comments. “I’m going to have him represent me at my next contract.”
But mention how the turnaround he helped engineer feels slightly stunning, and Brooks will interrupt.
“See, I disagree with that,” he said. “I expected it. I expected it. When I had my conversation with Ted [Leonsis] and Ernie [Grunfeld] and Tommy [Sheppard], I knew. I wasn’t saying things just to get the job. I knew I wanted this job, because I knew the potential the team had. When you have a good backcourt, you have a chance to win in this league.”
After taking last season off, Brooks relocated to the rare NBA city he’s never inhabited. His playing and coaching careers have taken him to 14 cities in 30 years, not counting that week spent in a Boston hotel after being traded to the Celtics. He jokes that he and his wife could be professional packers and movers, yet only once did he buy a place in his basketball home, when he was a backup point guard for the Houston Rockets in the early 1990s. When he was traded from Houston to Dallas in 1995, he cried for two hours, and then wouldn’t talk to Rudy Tomjanovich for years. (They’ve since reconciled, and are now “best buds,” according to Brooks.)
So why has this basketball nomad already bought a place in D.C., a few blocks from Verizon Center and an easy walk from the National Mall.
“Because I love it,” he said.
(“I can always sell it,” he later joked.)
That helps explain his morning walk, which he has done probably 50 times since moving here. His short course goes from his condo to the Washington Monument and back. His longer course continues to the Lincoln, MLK and Jefferson Memorials, and then to the Capitol Building. That runs more than eight miles, and lasts more than two hours, during which time Brooks looks at scouting reports, watches video, studies personnel, makes work calls, and blends into the sight-seeing crowd. In those 50 walks, he has been recognized just a half-dozen times.
“They probably think I’m a tourist; I’m looking at my phone, bumping into people,” he joked as he walked past the Hirshhorn Museum.
He once walked from Verizon Center to Nats Park. He thought about living in Georgetown, but wanted to be able to walk to the arena for practices and games. He has lived in Washington for 10 months, and put about 800 miles on his car, many of them driving to the airport. And even when he’s working during his walks, he stops to take in the sights.
“See, where else can you go and have all this, and it’s all right here?” he said, gesturing around the Mall. “Look at this — this whole city,” he said a few minutes later, approaching Pennsylvania Avenue.
Brooks’s first coaching job came in the ABA, where he drove the team van, made sure games had enough referees, and taped his players’ ankles. Fifteen years later, he has a contract that will pay him $7 million a year, or more each season than he made over his entire 10-year playing career. And yet, at every step — starting with his rookie season with the Sixers — he figured he had found a permanent home.
“Maybe I was a little naive, but I thought that seven times” he said. “And as a coach, I wanted Oklahoma City to be my last team. But very rarely do you have a Jerry Sloan career in coaching. You’re going to do the best you can, and hopefully it works out and you stay there a long time.
“But this — I’d like this to be my last job,” he went on. “I know that’s probably being a little high schoolish in my thinking, but that’s how I’ve always approached it. I’m giving everything to this team and to the city, and hopefully we can do great things together.”
It’s only been one year. His Wizards haven’t played a single playoff game yet. They might come up short in their quests for 50 wins. But here’s a coach who can talk convincingly of building a bright future in Washington, who can make you believe it’s possible. There’s some magic in that.