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Scott Howard-Cooper

George Karl, left, and Scott Brooks at a game in Denver last year.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Brooks learned how to coach under friend, mentor Karl

Posted Apr 21 2010 5:23PM

Scott Brooks, in his first full season in the No. 1 chair for the Thunder, in his first full season running the sideline for anyone beyond the minor-league ABA, has been named Coach of the Year from a field of several worthwhile candidates. What a moment.

What a swirl of emotions. Brooks helping to shape the wave that turned Oklahoma City into a basketball town, Brooks deflecting credit to players and management, Brooks ready to be swamped by cheers at the Ford Center during a pre-game trophy presentation Thursday, Brooks sending a composed, scrappy team in his image out of the huddle for the first NBA playoff game in Oklahoma City's history.

Brooks thinking about his friend with neck and throat cancer.

Friend doesn't really cover it. Maybe not even mentor. George Karl is nothing short of the guy that helped make this all happen.

Brooks is a deserving Coach of the Year winner. Few, if any, would say otherwise, least of all his friend Karl, who is fighting throat and neck cancer and has been forced into a playoff sabbatical from the Nuggets. That's the tearing part for Brooks, not the 0-2 deficit to the Lakers as the best-of-seven series shifts to the raucous Ford Center in a historic sports moment for the city.

"You hate to see a good man go through this," Brooks said. "It's hard to see."

Brooks has tried to find a balance between staying in contact to offer support and keeping a distance to allow Karl as much rest time as possible. Usually, Brooks will text. Karl sees it when he sees it, without expending the energy that a phone conversation can require as radiation treatments strain his world.

But there is no doubt of the impact, on this of all days.

"He gave me the greatest gift as an assistant," Brooks said. "He did not want to bog my mind down with a lot of the duties assistant coaches will have to do during the game. I had to do all the scouting reports and do all the film work and do the stuff that all the guys do. But during the games, all he wanted me to do was look at the game as if I was coaching the team.

"No one ever gave me that opportunity. I never thought about it that way. But from that day on, I watched every game as if I was coaching the game myself. He was putting me in the position to be a head coach. He'd always felt that I walked, talked and presented myself to a team as a head coach. He basically forced my development. Which is pretty cool. Not a lot of guys will do that. George has never had to worry about me going behind his back or anything like that, but he was very secure in his position. He wanted me to keep developing as a coach."

Brooks spent three seasons on the Denver bench, from 2003-04 to 2005-06. They were the start of his NBA coaching career, after 11 years in the league as a shooter and another in the CBA. Karl obviously saw something to put Brooks in that position.

A season with the Kings followed, by which time Brooks had become a candidate for a head-coaching job. He went to Seattle as an assistant to P.J. Carlesimo, was part of the relocation when the SuperSonics became the Thunder, and took over on an interim basis when Carlesimo was fired 13 games into 2008-09. Oklahoma City went from a 1-12 start to 22-47 under Brooks, and he got the permanent job on April 15.

All that has happened since, with added depth but the same starters as the season before, is a 27-game improvement that ties for the ninth-best swing in league history. The young players are developing. The veterans are providing leadership. The entire team has become a rallying point for the city, so new that fans can't believe all this good is actually happening this soon.

"He's just energetic," Kevin Durant, the superstar small forward, said of his coach. "He's relatively young for a coach anyway, being one of the newer coaches in the league, and that makes it easier for us. It's been a great fit. He's been great ever since he got here as an assistant coach."

That was, what, 10 minutes ago?

Now, he is Coach of the Year, while the man who gave him so much battles cancer.

"I take away the toughness that he would throw at his team every day, every night, every game," Brooks said of Karl's continued impact, years after their actual association ended. "I like that. I think that is the way you win in this league -- by showing toughness and showing a commitment to play tough basketball. Not only physically, but mentally tough. And George is mentally tough. He loves the gym. Loves the gym. Every day, he has to be in the gym.

"He has a line that I use to myself every day. 'You gotta smell the gym.' That's a great line. You never think of that. Most people say. 'You gotta smell the roses. You gotta go to the park and smell what nature has to give you.' But you never think as a player or a coach that you've got to smell the gym. But there's something about the smell of the gym that you're attracted to."

What a thing.

What a moment.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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