“What the [bleep] do you think it is? I’m vacuuming!” Charles Barkley told young Brooks. “I can’t sleep if the lines in the carpet aren’t straight.”
“Well, I’m a clean fanatic,” Barkley said in a phone conversation, confirming Brooks’s 30-year-old tale. “If I get up in the middle of the night and all my lines aren’t going in the same way, I always vacuum.”
The Wizards coach, as you probably know, has packed his life pretty full of vivid basketball memories. He was a mid-major star, won a minor-league title, played for six teams in a 10-year NBA career, won a ring, served as an ABA player-coach, bounced around as an NBA assistant, coached one of the greatest young trios in league history into the Finals, and now has the Wizards flirting with the conference finals in his first year in D.C. Even amid all that, the two months he spent shacking up in Barkley’s Philadelphia mansion stand out.
And they probably should. This was the fall of 1988. Brooks was a 23-year-old kid with a funny-looking jump shot, just a few months removed from the Albany Patroons, clawing for a chance at an unlikely NBA career. Barkley was already a two-time all-star, coming off his first of four consecutive first-team all-NBA honors. The point guard who was listed at 5 feet 11 wasn’t supposed to be in the league — “Brooks has a more realistic chance of hooking on with a professional team in Europe, or with the Continental Basketball Association,” an L.A. Times staffer predicted the year before — and he definitely wasn’t supposed to be palling around with superstars.
“I’m right out of college, 23 years old, hanging out with Charles Barkley, living with him, driving his cars,” Brooks recently recalled. “I knew I was lucky.”
An L.A. Times reporter suggested to Barkley at the time that theirs was an unusual friendship.
“You got that right,” Barkley agreed. “I’m tall, muscular, dark and handsome, and he’s a short little geek.”
The story — or at least the story Barkley and Brooks have agreed upon — goes like this. Brooks was in his second preseason camp with the Sixers, and had a decent shot to stick around, thanks in part to a groin injury suffered by starting point guard Maurice Cheeks. Brooks decided to look for an apartment with a six-month lease, and Barkley overheard him talking about it.
“Ohhhhh lil’ fella, why don’t you hold on for a second and make sure you’re gonna make the team before you put all that money in a lease,” Barkley remembered telling Brooks. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but if I’m not sure if he’s gonna make the team, I didn’t want him to put all this money into getting a lease.”
This was something the future Hall of Famer had never done for a teammate before, and something he never did again. He still can’t exactly explain his feelings toward Brooks.
“I don’t know why, but I just really liked him,” Barkley said. “I just had a connection with Scott for some reason. I’m not sure I’ve seen a guy undrafted work harder to make an NBA team or make an NBA career.”
So Brooks, with zero NBA minutes to his name, became roomies with one of the league’s biggest stars, moving into a third-story guest room. Barkley gave him the keys to all his cars: ” I loved his Porsche,” Brooks once told the UC Irvine Web site. They started spending free time together: “I hung out with him every night,” Brooks said. And you can’t really hang out with Barkley every night without having some stories.
Like the time Brooks got ready to head to the Spectrum for his first NBA home game, suiting up for the team he grew up supporting. It was late afternoon, and he figured he would have plenty of time to make the 20- or 30-minute drive and then start preparing. Barkley noticed him fixing to leave.
“And he said, ‘WHAT? Oprah’s just starting!'” Brooks said.
“Don’t everybody watch Oprah?” Barkley asked, when this story was relayed. “You know how these young guys are: They’re in the gym like 24 hours at a time. So I’m like, ‘Dude, nobody gets to the game three or four hours in advance.’”
Or the time — well, times — when Barkley handed Brooks a $100 bill and told him to run and get them some Popeyes.
“Because it was right by where we practiced at, and I love Popeyes,” Barkley explained. “Just get a bunch of legs and wings, Cajun rice, red beans and rice. Just get a lot of it; we’re gonna eat it, ’cause neither one of us could cook.”
For Brooks, this was doubly delicious: He got free lunch, and Barkley would also tell him to keep the change. That wasn’t his only gift, either. Brooks, by his memory, was surviving largely on per diems until his first paycheck arrived in November. Barkley filled in the difference.
“He would always give me money: ‘Hey, go to the movies,'” Brooks said. “I mean, Charles is the best.”
Then there was the time they stopped off at a grocery store on the way home from practice. “Grab a basket, knucklehead,” Barkley said, and both men started shopping.
“So I have a big basket, he has a basket, and then we’re going down the aisles and we’re putting stuff in there,” Brooks said. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘This guy is living up to his reputation as the Round Mound of Rebound.’ We’re getting everything: bread, Oreos, milk, cookies, crackers, you name it. This thing is piled.”
They checked out — “bags and bags and bags and bags,” Brooks said — and then Barkley starts driving in the wrong direction. Brooks didn’t say anything, often his default mode around his famous roommate.
“Now we stop underneath an underpass, and now all of a sudden, I swear, it was like 30 or 40 or even 50 homeless people just converge on our car,” he said. Barkley “opens up his trunk and he passes out the groceries. And that day right there, that made such a lasting impression on me — on who he is, and what it is to be a professional athlete.”
There are more stories, too, ones they maybe wouldn’t share with a reporter. (“Most of the stuff we did I won’t tell you about, in fairness,” Barkley said. Quipped Brooks: “Put it this way: I could not live his lifestyle and be able to play the next day.”)
Of course, Brooks did not wind up being cut that fall. Instead, he played meaningful minutes for the Sixers and almost instantly became a fan favorite. By late November, the Sixers were already hosting Scott Brooks Night, with posters of Brooks standing on the beach, and discounted tickets for the height disadvantaged. And his relationship with Philadelphia’s best player was irresistible.
“I love the little guy,” Barkley told the L.A. Times around then. “He’s the little, little guy everybody wants to do well in life. People want to see a guy like that go against the norm, an underdog. I call him, ‘Wonderdog.’ “
It soon became clear that Brooks wasn’t going anywhere, which meant he didn’t need Barkley’s help, and he didn’t need the free bed.
“It’s time to move on, man,” Barkley remembers telling Brooks. “Now go get that lease.”
“He kicked me out,” Brooks confirmed. “He said, ‘Get out, man. Go get your apartment.’”
Their friendship, needless to say, didn’t end, even when Brooks left Philadelphia after just two full seasons. They stayed in touch as they both found success after retiring, and they remain in regular touch still. Barkley called Brooks when he was fired by the Thunder — “because I thought it was unfair,” he said — and he called to congratulate him when he was hired by the Wizards. He said he tries not to bother the coach in season, but he texts every so often “just to tell him he’s doing a great job, because he has done a great job.” Brooks, meantime, follows Barkley’s television exploits — it’s hard not to — so he knows that Barkley started praising his Wizards earlier and more enthusiastically than most national analysts.
Nearly 30 years ago, Brooks called Barkley “one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met,” and he describes him similarly today. And Barkley? He still has a liking for the scrappy kid he once welcomed into his home.
“When you get an undrafted kid who ends up having the success he’s had, it just makes you feel proud,” Barkley said. “We’re probably similar in age, but it makes me kind of feel like a very proud older brother.”