Scott Brooks spent more than a decade as an NBA player and went on to guide… (Jonathan Bachman / Associated…)
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The undersized point guard didn't think he could do it.
Scott Brooks was trying to make the eighth-grade basketball team as a seventh-grader when he shared his growing doubts with his mother.
"I told her, 'I can't make the eighth-grade team,'" Brooks recalled Saturday.
The phrase contained a word that was unfamiliar to Lee Brooks, a single mother who supported her seven children in the Northern California hamlet of Lathrop by rebuilding automotive parts at a nearby factory. On weekends, the family would venture into the fields of the San Joaquin Valley to pick walnuts and uproot onions.
Lee Brooks quelled her son's fears by ordering him to write a 10-page composition, the same five words repeated over and over.
Can't is not a word. Can't is not a word. Can't is not a word.
Brooks made the team.
He never doubted himself again, embarking on a playing and coaching career that sprouted as if it were fertilized by Miracle-Gro.
The kid who once tossed dirt clods at his siblings in the fields as if he were shooting baskets scored big, lasting more than a decade as an NBA player and guiding the Oklahoma City Thunder into the Finals last season as one of the league's top coaches.
"I never had a Plan B," said Brooks, 47, whose team is again near the top of the Western Conference standings. "Most people I ran into said, 'Don't put all your eggs into one basket.' I did it twice. I did it as a player and I did it as a coach."
Consider him two for two.
Brooks was such a heady player that former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich coveted his services even though Brooks' resume before reaching the NBA included a who's-nobody list of stops.
He played for Texas Christian, San Joaquin Delta College and UC Irvine, hardly a pipeline to the NBA. Undrafted out of college, his early pro stops were with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Assn. and the Fresno Flames of the World Basketball League before finally getting a shot at the big time in 1988 with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He went on to start only seven of 680 games in the NBA. His career averages — 4.9 points and 2.4 assists per game — were modest but his impact was, at times, immeasurable.
"He did the things that coaches love — play defense, hit the open guy, make the open shot," said Tomjanovich, who helped orchestrate a trade for Brooks and coached him for 2 1/2 seasons. "And he had smarts. He was intelligent. He would carry out the plan that you wanted."
Boyish and only 5 feet 11, Brooks was once shooed away by a security guard at the players' entrance.
"Hey, you can't sneak in here," the guard told him. "This is for NBA players."
Brooks also had to enter the coaching ranks through the back door.
He was an assistant under Paul Westhead with the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Assn. and then the head coach of the Anaheim-based Southern California Surf. Stops as an assistant with the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Seattle SuperSonics followed before Brooks was promoted in 2008 to interim coach with the franchise that would become the Thunder.
He might never leave. Oklahoma City signed Brooks to a four-year extension last summer that reportedly will pay him more than $16 million, making him among the top-paid coaches in the NBA.
"He has been critical to our success and will play an even more important role in our ability to build a sustainable franchise," Thunder General Manager Sam Presti said of Brooks, who was selected the NBA's coach of the year for the 2009-10 season. "With that said, his personal values run absolutely parallel to those that we aspire to as an organization and we value him greatly."
Brooks has taken the Thunder from 23 victories in his first season to the Finals in his fourth, all the while doing it with a demanding yet self-deprecating style.
Asked about the transition Kevin Martin was making from starter to reserve, Brooks said he would have to check with Martin.
"I never as a player had to deal with that type of thing," Brooks said.
Brooks is a master at team-building, creating allies among his players while insisting on improvement from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, 24-year-olds already among the best in the world.
The morning after Durant scored 36 points and played lockdown defense in the second half of a victory over the Lakers, Brooks told him he needed to play better defense from the opening tip.
Sometimes the demands aren't so serious.
"He came in today in front of everybody and looked at me for about 10 seconds and he said, 'You know, K.D., you need a haircut,'" Durant said earlier in the week. "So he's quick to say something to anybody if they mess up. If we miss a rotation, if we're not playing as hard as he wants us to play, he's going to say something to us.
"He's not afraid, no matter who you are. It's really good to see that and we respect him more for doing that."
It all goes back to the mantra instilled in Brooks by his mother.
"You work hard every day, ask for nothing along the way and you live with the results," Brooks said. "I've never worried about not making it because I never let myself worry about that being an option. My option was I was going to figure out a way to make it."