Basketball: Five starters keep Brooks on his toes at Thunder

 

Coach Brooks is talking gobbledegook. The microphones and the cameras are pressed against his face and you are reminded that in NBA basketball the questions tend to be technical, specific and to uneducated, English ears, baffling. There is very little talk of “giving it 100 per cent”.

Once when Louis Armstrong came to England, he was accosted by an aristocratic woman who demanded: “Mr Armstrong, what is jazz?” Old Satchmo turned to her and said: “Lady, if you have to ask...”

It would be tempting to ask: “Mr Brooks, what is basketball?” but Tuesday night will provide a better answer when a little slice of the NBA comes to Manchester when Scott Brooks’ Oklahoma Thunder face the Philadelphia 76ers.

The match closes off a pre-season tour that has taken in Spain and Turkey. Significantly, they played tight games against Bilbao Basket and Fenerbahce but, here, partly because there is no British club side that could be relied on to give them a decent game, they are playing each other.

Even for what is essentially a friendly, the media commitments are relentless. “Do I mind them?” said Brooks before his team set off for Europe. “No, obviously I don’t because I am talking to you on my day off.

“I have never really thought if it is strange to have cameras in my locker room because I’ve grown up with it. To me it is natural that people should want to know what goes on.”

You hesitate to tell Brooks that no English coach in any major sport would have a television camera in his dressing room and that Sir Alex Ferguson ruled Manchester United without feeling the need for so much as a post-match press conference.

Brooks is 48, relatively young for an NBA coach, and he has been at the helm of the Thunder for five years which at this level is a significant achievement.

“There are 13 new coaches in the NBA, so that will give you some idea of what the pressure is,” he said. Is it more or less than when you played for the New York Knicks?

“Oh so much more. I spent one year with the Knicks and I was kind of the last pick. I wasn’t a star player. I wasn’t expected to change the game.

“I was, however, one of those players who always wanted to be a coach. When I was on the bench I would study the game and ask why the coach was doing something. I thought I’d be good at it but nothing prepares you for  actually stepping up and taking charge in the NBA.”

When Alan Curbishley was taking Charlton Athletic to the kind of heights they are unlikely to scale again in the Premier League, he famously asked how a football manager motivates 11 millionaires.

Few NBA coaches manage mere millionaires. The payback for the constant media intrusion and the grinding pressure is considerable. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook signed five-year deals that are worth a reported $89m (£55m) and $74m (£46m) respectively. Their coach is paid an estimated $4.5m (£2.8m) a year, less than Arsène Wenger but rather more than Roberto Martinez.

“The big difference between soccer and basketball is that I can only pick five to start,” said Brooks. “Then some on the bench and some are not even in your team. Sometimes you do lie awake and think how you can get that little extra from an athlete at the very top of his game because that is what will make the difference.”

At 39, Derek Fisher is the senior member of what is essentially a young Oklahoma side. “To get a team to win a title, a coach must get every one of his players outside his comfort zone,” said a man who has won five titles with Los Angeles Lakers. “When you are dealing with human beings and human beings who have had success, that is hard because we want to be comfortable.”

Basketball is one of the sports closest to Hollywood hearts. Durant starred last year in Thunderstruck, playing himself. The films invariably end with a great speech by the coach which turns the match. “Yes I know,” Brooks laughs. “What amuses me is that they only have to think about what to say in one game. I have 82.”

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