NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — It’s his final weekend at home before his first training camp as coach of the Washington Wizards, and Scott Brooks chooses the 9-iron.
He’s on the fourth hole at a golf course named Pelican Hill, a postcard-perfect vision of Southern California. There are panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, and somewhere beyond the bunker is Kobe Bryant’s multimillion dollar estate. Brooks also lives close by, but he seems to only spend time here for special occasions like this one, hosting an annual golf invitational to raise money for athletes at his alma mater, the University of California-Irvine.
His name is on the pamphlet, but for 18 holes he beelines to the young athletes who moonlight as concierges and extends his right hand.
“Hi,” he says. “Scott Brooks.”
After the smiles and small talk, Brooks pulls out his club of choice and shifts his black and gray Nike SBs in a wide stance. His right knee buckles in slightly, no doubt the lingering effect from the injury that effectively ended his 10-year NBA career — a torn meniscus suffered while diving for a loose ball in the closing seconds of a 1998 preseason game with the Los Angeles Clippers.
He takes a whack. It’s a measured, smooth swing and the ball lands on the green. A chorus of “Attaboy, Scotty” rises from his buddies in the foursome.
“We all know who didn’t have a job last year,” quips John Ireland, the radio voice of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Basketball has tried to kick him out, but Brooks wouldn’t quit. Fans know his story. He’s the short, white guy who busted into the NBA from the lower levels of minor league basketball. He’ll joke about his career, saying he made it so long because he was passing the ball to Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing.
Jeff Bzdelik counters such self-deprecation. As an opposing coach who watched Brooks the player hunt for every 50-50 ball, Bzdelik says, “You don’t survive 10 years in this league and have success without having that internal drive.”
When his NBA playing days were finished, Brooks went back to the minors as a player and assistant coach. He finagled a Clippers media credential for the 2002-03 season, and before every home game he would walk through the security doors at 4 p.m., sit 15 rows up in the stands, pull a notebook out of his backpack and chart the drills.
“I’d say 80 percent of the time, nobody knew I was there,” Brooks says. “I wasn’t there to be seen. I was there to see.”
The next year, Bzdelik hired Brooks to be an assistant on the Denver Nuggets.
Brooks rose to head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009, charged with molding lottery picks into the league’s most marketable stars, each year balancing team success with the personal growth of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
“He found ways for Kevin and Russell to play together,” says Rex Kalamian, Brooks’s former lead assistant with the Thunder, “when it didn’t look like it was going to be so easy.”
Yet despite winning 62 percent of his games and leading the franchise to three Western Conference appearances and the 2012 NBA Finals, Brooks was dumped after failing to make the playoffs after an injured-riddled 2014-15 season.
In response, he took the next year off. He didn’t work on his golf game. Instead, Brooks finally worked on himself.
“I felt like I needed to get better,” he says. “That’s just how I was raised. My mother taught me that.”
A long history of assists
Lee Brooks had a tough go in life. Her father died when her mother was pregnant with Lee. Then her mother passed away while giving birth. Lee was adopted and raised around various spots on the West Coast before ultimately settling in the agricultural town of Lathrop, Calif.
As a single mom, she worked two, sometimes three jobs. After a while, she refused welfare because she wanted to teach her children that if they wanted anything in this life, they better earn it. The lesson resonated with her youngest child, Scott. When he was old enough, he worked 16-hour shifts through a hot Northern California summer on a buddy’s family almond farm.
“I would take my money and buy a new set of rims for my 1979 Camaro,” recalled Mike Kooyman, a longtime friend of Brooks. “Scott never had a car. He brought his mom a lawn mower. He would take his money and try to do something for his mother.”
As Brooks’s wealth grew, so did his generosity.
Martin Catterick is a Thunder fan from England who met Brooks during the coach’s first season leading Oklahoma City. When Brooks learned before a game in Portland that Catterick had traveled thousands of miles to see his team, he gave the fan a postgame pass to hang courtside, then shipped Thunder gear to Eastbourne in the southeast corner of England. That would have been enough, Catterick thought, but their friendship was just beginning.
When Catterick visited Oklahoma City, Brooks took him out for pizza at his favorite spot, Upper Crust, ordering the Some Like It Hot pie without cheese. Then this summer, Brooks drove to the Los Angeles International Airport to pick up Catterick, his wife Natasha and their baby daughter, opened his beach house and left three passes to Disneyland.
“Our story is unique,” Catterick says, “but I have a funny feeling that he is like he is with me and Tash as he is with everyone else.”
It’s true. Brooks’s inner circle extends as far as the rings of Saturn.
In 2012, after doctors discovered a softball-size tumor in Lorelei Decker’s chest, the Oklahoma City teenager told the Make-A-Wish Foundation how she wanted to be the Thunder’s head coach for a day. It was late in the season and the team was in a tight race for the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs but Brooks yielded his whistle and gave Lorelei charge over his players — and he didn’t stop there.
After he had a bad loss, she’d text: ‘Keep your head up.’ After she had a rough round of chemotherapy, he’d send a goofy picture of his dog wearing his eyeglasses with the caption: ‘I forgot to shave today.’ Brooks paid for her family’s trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Two years ago, when Decker got married, Brooks brought silverware as a wedding gift. She hesitates in revealing more. She knows her friend would squirm while reading this.
“He’s done too much for me,” she says. “I never expected this friendship with Coach Brooks. He never went away.”
Resoluteness and regret
Brooks was 2 when his dad abandoned seven children. He never learned much about the man. Brooks heard that he was a salesman, or something like that; he still doesn’t know. When Brooks was 18, his father tried to reach out. Brooks shut it down.
When telling this story, of the only time he closed his heart to a stranger, Brooks pinches his right arm and his voice softens with regret.
“I never allowed him. I actually said some things I don’t want to repeat to him but I felt that was the right thing to do,” Brooks says, “and if I had to do it all over, I would’ve listened.”
At that time, however, Brooks just wanted to be like his mother: Keep his head down and keep moving forward.
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of things that I did,” Brooks says, “if she didn’t have that fighting spirit.”
In January 2013, Brooks was still trying to be like her when he should have been mourning.
Lee was 79 and healthy. She never took a sick day in her life because if she didn’t work, then seven kids didn’t eat. However, that month the family learned she had Stage 4 cancer. The morning after a win in Dallas, Brooks rushed back to California. Thirty minutes after he arrived at the hospital, his mother died. Suddenly, his greatest childhood fear swept over him like a wave:
If something ever happened to mom, I’d have no one to take care of me.
His inspiration was now gone, but Brooks stopped thinking about himself. He followed the instinct to fight through the pain and hopped a flight to Denver. He had a game to coach.
“I went back to work the next day because I knew that’s what she wanted. But for me, that’s another regret,” Brooks says. “I [should’ve] took some time off.”
Getting better instead of bitter
A strange thing happened after April 22, 2015, the day he was fired by the Thunder: Brooks resisted the urge to fight his way back into the game.
People close to Brooks say the Nuggets expressed interest. But, this time, he decided he needed a break.
“I knew I wasn’t ready to get back in and I had some opportunities to go to some teams but it wouldn’t have been right. It would’ve been unfair for the team because I wasn’t mentally ready for that next challenge,” Brooks says. “I didn’t like how it ended [in Oklahoma City] and I wasn’t ready to begin another challenging position.”
Brooks wanted to learn again. This time, he didn’t sit high up in the stands with a bootleg media pass and handwritten notes. Instead Brooks hit the road, visiting five NBA training camps in October 2015. He watched the Sacramento Kings in San Diego. He drove to Santa Barbara to observe the Memphis Grizzlies. He flew to San Antonio for four days and spoke up only during the morning staff meetings when Gregg Popovich pitched questions his way about defensive coverages. Brooks describes it as his sabbatical year.
“It was great to see all the stress on the coaches’ face,” Brooks says, “and not mine.”
Brooks ran practices for an Orange County girls’ high school team and visited Spain for over a week with that country’s national team coach, Sergio Scariolo, as his guide. He also spoke at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, gaining a greater appreciation for bio-analytics and the stat geeks who work behind the scenes.
While at home, Brooks made good use of his NBA League Pass subscription. He would mute the volume and observe the frazzled men on the sidelines, asking himself: What offensive set would I have run? When would I have called a timeout? How long until I would have made that substitution?
Brooks allowed his mind to wander. It was therapy, more than anything.
“I can honestly say I was a little numb that I wasn’t working and I wasn’t with a team,” Brooks admits. “But I still sat there and watched the games.
“I enjoyed my year but if I had my choice, I wouldn’t have been in that situation,” he says. “But I’m not bitter that it happened; I wanted to make sure I became better.”
Finally a family man
Last year wasn’t just about basketball.
Every morning Brooks drove his daughter, Lexi, to school, breaking the ice by blasting Justin Bieber songs.
“To have a 15-year-old girl in your car in the morning,” Brooks says, smiling. “Some days she was nice to me and some days she didn’t say a word.”
He watched USC football games with his son, Chance, an undergrad there. Between Brooks’s training camp visits, the pair went on a road trip for a Trojans game at Notre Dame.
He scheduled a Napa Valley getaway with his wife. And as Sherry Brooks was taking hot yoga classes, there he was three or four times a week, the guy hiding in the back of the room because he couldn’t touch his toes.
His lived the life of a dad and husband.
“And I loved it,” Brooks says.
Brooks realizes that every coach reads from the same script after they lose their jobs. I want to reconnect with family, they all say. But Brooks meant it. He wears colorful woven bracelets on his wrist, signifying the bond with Sherry, Chance, Lexi and Melo, the family’s Portuguese water dog (named after his daughter’s favorite player when Brooks was in Denver). So during that year, he made sure they remained tied together.
“He was able to become the family man he probably wished he could be for the last eight to 10 years,” says Bill Stricker, Brooks’s high school coach and longtime mentor.
By April, Brooks was refreshed and ready to work again. That’s when Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, President Ernie Grunfeld and vice president Tommy Sheppard flew to Newport Beach. The interview at Pelican Hill lasted eight hours and Sheppard stuck around an extra day. The joke around Verizon Center: Sheppard wouldn’t leave, and risk another team swooping in, until Brooks said yes. Or maybe Sheppard just found it hard to leave Brooks’s Southern California paradise.
And the view from the seventh hole? Picturesque. That’s why back at the UC Irvine fundraiser, Brooks pulls out his iPhone. He wants to troll his good friend Kalamian, who now is an assistant with the Toronto Raptors.
“Let’s take a picture right now and send it to him,” Brooks tells Ireland, the Lakers announcer, framing the selfie so that the sparkling blue ocean is in the background. “We the South!”
A few days later, training camp opens. Then, the grind of an 82-game season. The Wizards will see a different Scott Brooks — a better one, he hopes — because he took a little time to help himself.