Thunder Thrive Under Former UC Irvine Standout Brooks
The list is short.
Only 11 individuals in the history of the National Basketball Association have won world championships both as a player and a coach.
For former UC Irvine men's basketball standout and current coach of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder – Scott Brooks – he hopes that list has enough room for a dozen.
Brooks played 11 seasons in the NBA, culminating his career with a championship in 1994 as a member of the Houston Rockets. After taking over the Oklahoma City head gig on an interim basis during the 2008-09 season, Brooks steered a young Thunder squad down a fast track into last season's NBA Finals.
The result – a five-game defeat to the Miami Heat – wasn't what Brooks wanted but the chances are great that a future opportunity to reach the pinnacle is looming. It wasn't a fluke that the Thunder advanced that far in such a small period of time.
"Being in the NBA Finals gave us a great experience," said Brooks, who was in the Orange County area recently to participate in his own charity golf tournament for UC Irvine athletics. "It doesn't guarantee that we're going to get back next season and win it all, but it does help going into the season knowing we can get there if we continue to play good team basketball."
It's a well-known adage that sometimes failure is necessary in order to achieve success. Michael Jordan endured it. So did Dirk Nowitzki. And LeBron James exorcised his demons at the expense of the Thunder, but only after a couple of missed attempts for the trophy.
Brooks knows he has a hungry bunch of talented players who needed some seasoning. Culinary students don't just go on right away to compete in Top Chef Masters. But now the ingredients are in place for the Thunder to feast on everything in sight.
"Our best player is Kevin Durant. He just turned 24. Russell Westbrook will turn 24 in November. James Harden just turned 23 in August. There's no question that experience does help. But one of the things that we never use as an excuse is our age," cautioned Brooks. "We all have a job to do and we have to do it at a high level."
<Thunder practices are notoriously intense and competitive. Brooks breeds a work ethic in his players that is unrivaled by most. He counts on getting great effort every day on the practice floor, and credits much of the franchise's success to those disciplined habits.
It's no surprise that his teams mimic the style that he learned under Coach Bill Mulligan. One of the most colorful coaches in the game, Mulligan mentored the UC Irvine program for 11 seasons (1981-91). Brooks played under Mulligan for two seasons (1985-87), averaging 23.8 points as a senior in 1986-87 when he was named first team All-PCAA (now Big West). The guard still owns the UCI record for career free throw percentage at .859 (220 of 256) while ranking No. 4 in school history in career steals (123) and No. 7 in three-point field goals made (142).
Brooks points to Mulligan as a coaching role model both in the way he has molded his Thunder players and with the exciting, up-tempo style of play that anchors fans to their seats.
"Coach Mulligan was such a fun guy to be around. He was crazy though," reflected Brooks. "He got after us every practice. And the thing I love about him – you can never play fast enough. He wanted you to play fast, and there was no such thing as a bad shot, so the guys really enjoyed playing for him."
"He's a big part of my success. He taught me NBA basketball when I was at Irvine. We played an NBA style. His fast break was way before its time. Every team and every program is now running the ball and pushing the break, but he was doing that in the 70s. I was with him in the 80s. We were as fast a team as could possibly be and it was because of his philosophy. He had all of us in great shape."
Brooks isn't big on stats. He doesn't relish talking about them much. But Mulligan enabled him to accumulate gaudy ones on a few occasions, such as the time he scored 43 points against Utah State on opening night of the Bren Events Center Jan. 8, 1987.
On another occasion Brooks had scored 29 points in the first half alone against Fresno State at home. The Anteaters were up by eight or nine points, and things were good.
"I could remember at halftime he's on me like crazy, and he's screaming at me, and I'm not doing this or that. And all I'm thinking I just scored 29 points in 20 minutes. Get on the guy that only has two points and no rebounds," said Brooks, the Red Auerbach NBA Coach of the Year for the 2009-10 season when he led the Thunder to a 27-win improvement from the previous season.
"He always challenged me. He made me a better player."
And a better coach from all accounts. NBA clubs don't make 27-win improvements without strict guidelines and a passionate individual to implement them.
It's a reason that Coach Brooks smiles when he looks to the current UC Irvine program and the man in charge there.
Russell Turner is entering his third season at UCI. The Anteaters led the Big West in scoring offense at 75.3 points per game in Turner's first season, and they ranked 22nd in the nation in assists (15.41) last season.
An up-tempo, tough-minded brand of ball is being established at UCI. Like Brooks, Turner also has NBA ties. He served six seasons as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors. The two know each other, having done clinics together during the summers.
And Brooks sees a bit of a connection from his old college coach to the one currently pacing the sidelines. The hard work being put in at practice. In conditioning. The preparation.
"They both love the game. You can see that. They're both passionate about the game of basketball," said Brooks. "Coach Mulligan loved coaching UC Irvine. Russell, he loves being part of the UC Irvine family. I see the passion and I see the dedication. The organization, his ability to connect with the players, and the players really respond. I'm excited for the future of the program."
Turner nurtured one of the nation's youngest programs to a 25-39 mark in his first two seasons. The success has not been there right away. But keep in mind the Thunder went 23-59 in that interim season (2008-09) under Brooks. The next season was 50-32.
It's all about laying the groundwork.
What will Brooks do if UC Irvine succeeds in making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history?
"I will do my best to get there. That would be a dream," he said. "We never had a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. It would be a thrill to be a part of the program that got there."
In the meantime, one of the most decorated players in UCI history will focus his attention to the task at hand, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA mountaintop.
Two rings. One as a player. One as a head coach. Succeed, and Brooks would join the company of such NBA legends as Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.