But when Brooks was asked the Thunder question, he responded without sentiment.
“Never really thought about it until you just mentioned it,” Brooks said, shrugging.
“Just another team that we’re going to try to beat.”
There was a fault to that question. To get Brooks talking about his past, ask directly about Westbrook and he will slip into a monologue in praise of and defense for his oft-maligned former point guard.
Bring up Harden, and Brooks, as he did unprovoked last season, will cast his MVP vote for his former player, whose style of play is like a pumpkin-spiced beer: You either love it or detest its very existence.
Though Brooks’s allegiance belongs to the Wizards (1-2), who host the Rockets on Wednesday in their home opener, he is a big fan of Harden and Westbrook.
“They’re two of my favorite players I’ve ever coached,” Brooks said after practice Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve got a lot of respect for them because I’ve seen all the work that they’ve put in.”
Brooks may come off as curt when addressing the Thunder. And why not? He was fired in 2015, and any homecoming narratives have grown stale. He has long since moved on, and that franchise no longer looks like the one he coached to the 2012 NBA Finals. But on the topic of any of the three league MVPs he coached as young pros — Kevin Durant, Harden and Westbrook — Brooks gushes.
“He’s going to go down as one of the best point guards to ever play the game,” Brooks said of Westbrook. “He’s averaged a triple-double for multiple years … and it’s, like, not a big deal. I think you guys are doing him a big disservice, the media, by not talking about that more.”
Last week, from his hotel room in Oklahoma City, Brooks watched Westbrook’s debut with the Rockets and Harden, the first time they have been paired as fully realized superstars. Almost a week later, Brooks can recount the score and segment of the game in which things started to slip away from the Rockets as the Milwaukee Bucks came back to beat them. He watched closely not just because Houston was an upcoming opponent but because he has a rooting interest in the lives and careers of Westbrook and Harden.
“To see those guys where they are now and being up front and close and very personal with their growth,” Brooks said, “I feel good about my little bit that I’ve helped them throughout their career.”
In those early years in Oklahoma City, Durant, Westbrook and Harden, without the overgrown beard, were high lottery picks on their way toward stardom. Still, someone had to teach them how to be pros. Arguably, one of Brooks’s greatest coaching strengths has been developing young talent, a reputation he gained with that trio.
In Washington, Brooks has shown that same quality; for instance, Bradley Beal has become an all-star in two of the three seasons he has played in Brooks’s system. While there are other circumstances in play — Beal’s drive to improve; the larger role he adopted as John Wall healed from injuries — a coach also deserves some recognition for creating opportunities for the player to flourish or for simply getting out of his way.
Five of the Wizards in Brooks’s 10-player rotation are 22 or younger, making the coach lean on his developmental skills more than ever.
“Playing the right way always wins games,” said 20-year-old Troy Brown Jr., repeating the message he has heard often in his brief time under Brooks. “He emphasizes that a lot. He’ll stop practice and literally be like, ‘Make the extra pass,’ and correct us to play the right way.”
Brooks, at least publicly, doesn’t reflect on his Oklahoma City days. The Thunder lost in the 2012 Finals, and the slow erosion of the dynasty that never was began. Harden was traded before the next season. Three years later, Brooks was let go. Durant left as a free agent a season after that, and this past summer the team had to rebuild after trading Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, setting in motion Westbrook’s once-unthinkable departure.
When asked what he would like his legacy to be as the first NBA coach to develop three MVPs, Brooks initially punted the question, interpreting it as another chance to express awe of the players. When asked again, however, Brooks took a moment to recognize how he will be intertwined in the early narratives of what should be three Hall of Fame careers.
“I would like people to know that they all were challenged to be great pros, and myself along with my staff helped them to build a foundation to have a great pro career,” Brooks said. “I mean, I had them at 19 and 20. You can’t imagine having them all three together now. It would be pretty special.”