On Wednesday night, the Washington Wizards closed out their best season in nearly 30 years. On Sunday, they’ll face the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs one year after missing the postseason completely.
What has been the Wizards’ key to success? A big part has been first-year coach Scott Brooks. And what has given Brooks the skills to turn around this team? Well, the 51-year-old coach has had a long history with the game of basketball.
Brooks was raised by a single mom, something he has said helped him succeed. “My mom, she gave us the work ethic and the tools to accept challenges and to not run from them. And to challenge yourself to succeed by giving great effort and to never expect anything—but to work for it.”
After finishing high school in California, Brooks went to Texas Christian University, where he once guarded the legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon, a player more than one foot taller than Brooks. He then transferred to San Joaquin Delta College to be near his mother. He transferred again for his last two years of college, to the University of California-Irvine. He continued his basketball career there, averaging almost 24 points per game.
Though he was not drafted the following year, he began his career in the Continental Basketball Association, or the CBA. NBA scouts were impressed by his play, so in November of 1988, he made his debut with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Brooks played 10 seasons with six different teams. He never made it as a superstar but gained some important knowledge that he could use for coaching.
“Those were some of the greatest times of my life,” he said. “Being an NBA player was not easy, back then. There were 23 teams with rosters of 12, so it was even harder to make it than it is now.”
One of those great times happened in 1994, when Brooks, Olajuwon, and the Houston Rockets won the NBA championship. “To win a championship was the peak of my career as a player,” said Brooks. “To be part of that team—well, there’s only one NBA champion at the end of the season, and in 1994 I was lucky enough to be a part of it.”
After the 1998 season, Brooks had a dilemma. He knew he was done playing, but what should he do next? “I was only 33 years old, so I had a lot of life to live, and I didn't want to be a beach bum back in California. I wanted to stay in the game, do something I love to do, and [being a coach] was a natural progression for me,” he said.
And yes, Brooks turned out to be pretty good at coaching too. He bounced around for a few years as an assistant coach until he found his place and took the Thunder to the postseason in five straight years. He helped to make players like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden into the players they are today.
Despite winning 338 games in seven years, Brooks was let go by the Thunder in April of 2015. When asked if he talks to his former players he said, “I still connect with Westbrook. I text him throughout the year. I’m very excited and happy for his success this season. He has deserved it. He is one of the best workers I’ve ever been around. Even more importantly, he is a great role model off the court. I’m proud to be a part of his development.”
After departing from the Thunder, Brooks left coaching for a year. He did this to “regroup and to recharge the batteries,” as he put it. “I think it gave me a chance to reconnect with my family, my wife and two kids. When you're a coach, there are so many things to do, so it’s hard to spend time with your family. It also helped me really improve as a coach. I spent a lot of time observing coaches. I went to five NBA training camps. All in all, it was a great year off.”
Last year, Brooks was hired by the Wizards, who had just finished 41–41 and missed the playoffs. Brooks set out the change that. “I wanted to establish an attitude of work,” he said. “We come in every day to work. Our job is to do a little bit every day, some days more than others. We are going to continue to build our winning habits every day. And I think if you do that and just focus on the process of getting better, you are going to get better—instead of being worried about the big picture. I think our guys have done a good job of really accepting the challenges of improving every day.”
One highlight for Brooks this year was blowing out the Thunder almost two years after he left. When most coaches beat their former teams, they won’t admit that the win was special, but Brooks was quick to say that “it was a good feeling.”
Many analysts have drawn similarities between the 2010–11 Thunder and the 2016–17 Wizards, and Brooks agrees. “Russell [Westbrook] and John [Wall] are probably the top two fastest point guards in the entire league,” he said. “They’re aggressive, they attack, they get to the free throw line. And Bradley Beal is a lot like Harden once was. It’s a shame Beal didn’t make it to the All-Star game this year. He played like an All-Star all year and he’s only 23 years old. He’s going to keep improving.”
Brooks is part of an exclusive group of players-turned-coaches, so he has an opinion on playing vs. coaching. “Playing in the NBA is the best job in the world; coaching in the NBA is the second-best job in the world,” he said. “Coaching is great, but playing is so much fun. We all did it as kids, and they’re able to play as adults and make good money doing it. It’s a dream life and to live in that dream for 10 years…”
Brooks has channeled his playing career into coaching. Many players have called him an untraditional coach. He didn’t know why but offered suggestions. “I’m a fair coach, a player’s coach,” he said. “I love players and their energy, their excitement. It’s a game we all love, so we should enjoy playing it.”
The Wizards are quick to agree that Brooks is a player’s coach.
“He’s younger and more energetic than coaches I’ve had in the past,” said shooting guard Bradley Beal. “He has a relationship with every player on the team, no matter their skill level. He grants us freedom but holds us responsible for our mistakes. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Other players had similar testaments. “He’s played the game, so he knows what players’ tendencies are,” said forward Kelly Oubre Jr. “He makes sure we’re all on the same page and puts us in a great position to win. He pushes us to be the best players we can be.”
During a recent game, Brooks displayed his calm coaching demeanor. He sat courtside, intently watching the game and occasionally pacing during particularly tense moments. As players cycled in and out of the game, Brooks offered encouraging words and pats on the back. During the postgame press conference, Brooks supported his players, even though they had just lost to the Heat. He said his team played well and that he took full responsibility for decisions that led to the loss.
Brooks has the fifth-best winning percentage of active coaches and the 21st best all time. He has been a head coach for eight seasons, but he’s been around the game all his life. What advice does he have for kids aspiring to make the NBA?
“It’s a great goal to have,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen without some obstacles in the way and even major setbacks. But you can’t accept those things and give in. You have to fight through it. It’s important for all kids to get a great education to go along with athletic skills. It has paid off for me. It gave me a scholarship and opportunity to play in college and then a chance to play in the NBA. Dreaming big is so important. It’s a big dream, but it’s very doable if you are willing to work hard, pay the price, and achieve it.”
Photographs by: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images (Brooks coaching); Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images (Brooks as a player); Aidan Kohn-Murphy (Brooks interview)