Father’s Day basketball resonates with Brooks
MIAMI — Bill Stricker has an idea for Father’s Day.
“A win would be a great present,” Stricker said of Scott Brooks coaching Oklahoma City against Miami in Sunday’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
No, Stricker isn’t actually Brooks’ father, but Brooks looks at him that way.
When Brooks was not quite 2 years old and growing up in Lathrop, Calif., his father abandoned the family and Brooks never saw him again. The man is now deceased.
Scott’s mother, Lee Brooks, raised him and six older children by herself. Stricker, a local basketball coach who had played one NBA game for the Portland Trail Blazers earlier in the decade, entered Brooks’ life in 1978, when the boy was 12.
“He was the male role model that I needed in my life,” said Brooks, now 46. “He came and did a free basketball clinic in my community when I was in the seventh grade and he has been a part of my life ever since. If it wasn’t for that free clinic, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. He was definitely a father figure. . . . He’s helped shape the way I think, and he’s always been a great influence on the decisions I’ve made.”
Stricker offered encouragement at that free clinic to Brooks, who was 4-foot-8 when the two met. Brooks did at least grow three more inches before he enrolled at East Union High School in Manteca, Calif., which is near Lathrop and about an hour’s drive south of Sacramento.
By the end of his sophomore season, Brooks had made the varsity, coached by Stricker. Eventually, Brooks would shoot all the way up to 5-foot-11 as a senior, his listed height while an NBA point guard from 1988 to ’98.
“I was 4-foot-11 as a freshman in high school and still had dreams of being an NBA player,” Brooks said. “(Stricker) was such a nice man, he wouldn’t tell me the truth that it’s never going to happen at 4-11. But he gave me hope and always inspired me to be my best and give everything I had and exhaust all opportunities. Until they tell me no, I still have a chance.”
No, Stricker never thought that Brooks, then shorter than Muggsy Bogues, would eventually become an NBA player. But Stricker noticed something special in Brooks, so he took him under his wing.
“When I first met him, he was just an itty-bitty guy,” Stricker said. “But he hung around the gym all the time. He worked so hard and he was just a master craftsman. He didn’t make mistakes. And when he didn’t play, he was the most positive guy on the bench.”
By the time he was a senior at East Union, it wasn’t often Brooks didn’t play. Armed with a potent outside shot, he averaged 28 points per game.
The relationship between Brooks and Stricker grew beyond just player-coach. During Brooks’ last two years of high school, Stricker, who also taught math at East Union, used Brooks as a teacher’s assistant.
Rick Inderbitzin, a high school teammate who remains close with Brooks and now teaches at East Union, said Brooks was greatly influenced religiously by Stricker, a devout Christian. Brooks would go on to join Christian organizations, and he attended chapel regularly before games while playing in the NBA.
Stricker helped Brooks make his decision to enroll at Texas Christian after his graduation from East Union. And when Brooks became homesick for Sherry, the woman who eventually would become his wife, Stricker told Brooks there was nothing wrong with returning to California. So Brooks transferred to San Joaquin Delta College, a two-year school in close-to-home Stockton, for his sophomore season, then played his final two years at UC Irvine.
“Through the end of college, I was the guy he turned to for fatherly advice, and even sometimes in his pro (playing) career and in his coaching career,” said Stricker, 64, who stepped down as East Union basketball coach in 2000 after 21 years and served as the school’s athletic director for nine years until retiring in 2009. “We talked basketball and we talked life. We’ve done a lot of things together. It has been a special relationship.”
Naturally, Stricker is thrilled that Brooks, in his fourth season as Thunder coach, has steered the team to the Finals, which is tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 at AmericanAirlines Arena. While Stricker attends Thunder games several times a season, including visits to Oklahoma City, he won’t be able to make it to the Finals because of an ongoing vacation in Hawaii with his wife, Susan.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Stricker said of the Thunder having gone so far. “Obviously, I’m very proud, especially with the way he’s done it. He’s never compromised to get ahead. He’s always done it by hard work. He’s the right kind of person. He doesn’t take shortcuts.”
Stricker will be watching on television when Sunday’s game tips off at 2 p.m. Hawaiian time (8 p.m. EDT). Before then, if he has any advice, he might just send a message to Brooks, who will be acknowledged on Father’s Day by his son, Chance, 16, and daughter, Lexi, 11.
Stricker and Brooks talk and text regularly, although it’s mostly texting during the playoffs since Stricker knows how busy Brooks is. Stricker hasn’t regularly provided basketball advice, but sometimes it arrives.
When Brooks asked his former coach about a Thunder player who was struggling with his shot, Stricker suggested mental imagery. When Stricker was coaching, to correct a player’s form, he would have him go through a shooting motion, without a ball, in front of a mirror 20 times, three times a day.
Stricker knows something about shooting. After all, he was a 66.7 percent marksman during his NBA career, which would have been a record had he made 1,998 more field goals to qualify.
Stricker was 2 of 3 from the field in the one NBA game he played. He came in for the final 2 minutes, 12 seconds and scored four points in Portland’s 126-116 win over Cleveland on Nov. 14, 1970.
The 6-foot-9 forward was then a rookie out of the University of the Pacific in Stockton. For the first 16 games of the season for the expansion Trail Blazers, Stricker sat on the bench, never taking off his warmups.
“The fans would yell, ‘We want Stricker. Put in Stricker,’ ” he said, recalling the Trail Blazers started the season 5-11 before he ever played. “When a team’s not doing very well, people say, ‘How come that guy never plays?’ “
Shortly before the game against the Cavaliers, Stricker was informed he soon would be waived, so he knew his first game for the Trail Blazers would be his last when coach Rolland Todd inserted him in for mop-up time.
“Before they finally put me in that last game, I pulled a boneheaded rookie maneuver,” Stricker said. “I stepped on the court before they waved me in, and they gave me a technical foul. One of the stories I tell is I’m the first player in NBA history to get a technical before he even played.”
Stricker hit two short jumpers for his points and committed a foul. He didn’t figure then it would be his only NBA game, but he never was picked up by another team. He played the 1971-72 season in France and then, after getting married, returned to California to become a coach and teacher.
“I averaged more points per minute in my career than Michael Jordan. More than twice as many points,” Stricker said. “I had a whole new expression from having your 15 minutes of fame. I had two minutes of fame.”
One of Stricker’s teammates in Portland was Geoff Petrie, who would go on that season to be chosen co-Rookie of the Year. Petrie is now Sacramento’s general manager and hired Brooks to serve as an assistant coach in 2006-07.
“I’ve run into Bill a few times over the years and he always talks about that (one game),” Petrie said. “It’s getting harder for me to remember anything from that season, but Bill is a very close friend of Scotty’s and a really good guy.”
While Petrie might not have told Brooks stories about Stricker’s one game, that’s not a problem. Brooks has heard about it plenty of times straight from the source.
“It’s quite a story,” Brooks said. “Most people would love to have one game in the NBA, and he can be one of those guys that says, ‘You know what, I had one game.’ It’s a great story.”
For a while, it looked as if Brooks might not even have one game. After averaging 23.8 points per game for Cal-Irvine in 1986-87, he wasn’t drafted. He spent 1987-88 with the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons and later played for the Fresno Flames of the World Basketball League, which was for players shorter than 6-5.
But Brooks got his NBA opportunity when Philadelphia signed him as a free agent in 1988. In his 10 NBA seasons as a reserve point guard, he also toiled for Minnesota, Houston, Dallas, New York and Cleveland. The highlight for Brooks, who had a career scoring average of 4.9 points while shooting 37.2 percent from three-point range, was winning an NBA title with the Rockets in 1993-94.
Now, Brooks is back in the Finals, but on the bench. It comes after he had been an NBA assistant with Denver, Sacramento and Seattle/Oklahoma City for five-plus years, then was elevated to head coach when P.J. Carlesimo was fired after a 1-12 start in 2008-09.
“I just know coach Stricker is super proud now,” Inderbitzin said of Stricker, who has a son, Matt, 32, and daughter, Stacia, 29. “He considers Scott just like one of his sons. I called him right after (the Thunder) made it to the Finals and he was really emotional.”
No wonder. Brooks’ NBA career sure has turned out a lot better than Stricker’s.
“It’s nice to see that he was able to do more than me,” Stricker said. “It is like a father wanting his son to go farther than he did. When you’re that close to somebody, as I am with Scott, you become involved in their dreams. When somebody that close to you reaches a dream, you feel fulfilled for them because you know how hard he worked for it.”
The ultimate dream for Brooks and Stricker would be for Oklahoma City to defeat Miami for the NBA title. A win on Father’s Day would help that become a reality.