In early spring of 1985, when I still believed I could play, a stumpy point guard approached me in a postgame handshake line. After his junior college team had drubbed mine in Stockton, Calif., I think I nodded, blurted out “Good game” and grasped his palm.
Scott Brooks, then starring for San Joaquin Delta College, the No. 1 team in the state, made eye contact beneath his sand-colored mop. In almost one syllable, he replied “Goodgame” and kept walking.
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.”
He was named NBA coach of the year in 2010 and led the West all-stars this year. On Monday night, he coached a team that knocked out Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in five games. Oklahoma City is suddenly headed to the conference finals for the second straight season, where the young Thunder will take on the aging Spurs in a classic generational struggle.
Brooks paused, seeming to grasp the moment. “I’m very thankful for my career and I’m really excited I was able to play that long,” he said. “Now that I’m coaching I really look back on it and just say, ‘Wow, what an incredible time in my life.’ ”
When my friend Chris Johnson asked Brooks to compare the memory of my game to Durant’s, Brooks didn’t hesitate: “A lot of similarities — other than Kevin does like to play defense.”
We all busted up laughing.
If I’m honest, I think I almost felt sorry for Scotty when he went on to put up numbers and star at UC Irvine the next two years. Unlike most of us who accepted our station in the game and came to terms with how good we weren’t, excelling at the next level seemed like a tease for a guy who was going to have his heart broken just a rung below the embedded childhood fantasy.
Any player who worked his game and dreamed his dream knows the death of an athletic career to be a lasting, numbing hurt. The more rungs climbed past grade school, the longer the mourning period.
The only comfort for those of us who knew early we weren’t tall enough, fast enough or skilled enough? At least fate gave us a head start so we could earn our keep elsewhere; it told us to let go of that unrealistic hope.
Brooks, though, wouldn’t listen to that voice. That sawed-off point guard kept motoring up and down the floor nearly as fast as Jason Kidd, pressuring opposing point guards, being the perfect teammate. And now, as Brooks said, “I can’t believe I’m coaching some of the greatest players in the world. Sometimes, I think back to Manteca or Delta College and think, ‘How did that happen?’ I’ve just been blessed. My wife and two children and I have really been blessed. “
It’s almost surreal to think the same little dude who darted around that gym 27 years ago played 10 years in the NBA and now stands on the precipice of coaching in the NBA Finals.
Seeing Scott Brooks still want it more than all of us makes an old ballplayer want to lace up his sneaks, shoot a few jumpers and stop mourning the game he never had. Maybe the dream never does die. Maybe we can all live vicariously through a good guy who reached, grabbed and never let go of his own.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.