After Brooks decided he wanted to get into coaching, the ladder was even steeper. He started in the dicey newer version of the ABA, working under Paul Westhead in Los Angeles, and began a climb that eventually took him through assistant jobs in Sacramento and Denver. Hired in Oklahoma City, he was an assistant again before moving over a seat on the bench to become the interim head coach. How has it worked out for Brooks? Well, he was NBA coach of the year last season, and he currently has the talented Thunder in first place in the geographically challenged Northwest Division of the Western Conference.
This wasn't Brooks' first trip back as a head coach, but it was the first time he has returned to face a Sixers team that appears to be heading in the right direction. Coach Doug Collins didn't want to call the matchup with Oklahoma City a statement game, even though the Sixers are playing well enough to measure themselves against a talented team like the Thunder.
"What does that mean? Does that mean if you lose it's a bad statement?" Collins said. "Let's play them and see what happens."
What happened was an overtime loss, but the statement itself wasn't bad for the crowd of 19,283, the largest home attendance since a December game against the Lakers. It was entertaining and probably should have been a regulation Sixers win - a five-point lead with less than 40 seconds to play - but the level of play can't be faulted. Entertaining has become the norm for the Sixers, in a drastic switch from a season ago. They don't have anyone on the roster to compare to the individual talent of a Kevin Durant, or maybe even a Russell Westbrook, but they have an infectious team cohesion that makes them a difficult out.
Brooks prepped for Wednesday's game by watching the tape of the Sixers win at Indiana the previous evening, and he saw what the rest of us have seen.
"That's as hard as I've seen an NBA team play in a long time. When I played here, we had a hardworking team. Coach Collins is bringing that back," Brooks said. "A team has to believe in the coach's vision. If they don't believe it, they roll their eyes and look elsewhere. You can tell with the team they have they believe in him and what he does and how he does it. You can't fake players out. They know if you're passionate or if you're phony. If you're passionate, the players love that."
Brooks has it, and his players respond. He has always been competitive, whether it was timing his morning drive to the practice arena each day - trying to beat his best time - or in succeeding through diligent effort in upgrading his driver's license height to an even 6 feet.
"A little white lie," Brooks always called it, which is as close to a devilish joke as he gets.
Wednesday night's game was no joke, and it would have been a win if Durant hadn't hit a three-pointer to tie it with 6.9 seconds left in regulation. The Sixers messed up their defense on the play, but Durant doesn't need much room even when everything goes right.
"What Oklahoma City has is what we're working to build," Collins said. "We want to build our team the way they have. Good players and great chemistry. We've got good young pieces, but the difference between us now is they've got that big shot blocker in the lane."
That's one of the differences, and the Sixers do need a better defensive presence in the paint. Getting from where they are right now to where the Thunder are might be as difficult as the climb from last year's depths to their current situation. Having a Kevin Durant would help, but there aren't that many of them.
"Down five late and we got lucky and won the game," Brooks said.
It's amazing how the good teams always seem to get lucky. Brooks is willing to keep getting lucky right along with them. At the moment, he's on a 20-year roll of good fortune himself.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
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