Scott Brooks was having a “get to know you” dinner at a sports bar in Los Angeles with Russell Westbrook’s father, who is also named Russell. This was years ago, before Westbrook, then a promising player on the Oklahoma City Thunder, had made an All-Star team. Brooks was his coach.
“I remember him telling me, ‘Russell will be M.V.P. one day,’” Brooks said. “I don’t know if my jaw dropped or whatever. I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, this thing is not going the way I want it to go.’ He has these unrealistic expectations of his son, which I can appreciate, having a son.”
Brooks said he told the senior Westbrook: Let’s make him into an All-Star first.
“He obviously knew the inner drive that Russell had, more than I knew,” Brooks said.
Westbrook did end up making the All-Star team (nine times, in fact) and winning the Most Valuable Player Award, although under another coach, Billy Donovan. But Brooks and Westbrook developed a close relationship in their seven seasons together in Oklahoma City, when the team regularly made deep runs in the playoffs, and went to the N.B.A. finals in 2011-12.
Brooks said that Westbrook was among the first people to call him after he was fired in 2015 and that they had remained in touch. More than a decade after that meeting with the elder Westbrook, Brooks finds himself reunited with the younger one, this time as head coach of the Washington Wizards.
“Usually, the sequel is not as good,” Brooks said. “But I knew it would be really good for us, because I knew what we needed.”
So far, the results in Washington have been uneven, to put it charitably. Before their game on Wednesday, the Wizards were 14-24 and on course to miss the playoffs. But Westbrook is averaging 21.2 points, 9.3 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game — star numbers but also inefficient, coming on a below-average true shooting percentage of 49.5 percent. His teammate Bradley Beal is also having one of the best offensive seasons in the N.B.A. Yet the partnership hasn’t led to many wins.
Even so, Brooks insisted that Westbrook has been an asset, particularly as a mentor to younger players, and that he has seen a different side of the guard in their second professional pairing. In their first run together, Westbrook was 20 to 26 years old. Now, he’s 32.
“I’ve grown with him, and I love this version of him,” Brooks, 55, said. “Married with three kids. He’s gotten to see me raise my kids. Now I get to see him raise his kids. I love the first version because that was fearless: ‘Only thing on my mind is basketball. I can’t wait to practice. It’s Game 7 today, guys,’ and he would be salivating during practices.”
Westbrook, Brooks said, is more well-rounded today.
“There’s so many times that mask is just covering my smile when I see him say things to the group as a leader, or talk to him and he’ll say things about his wife and kids,” Brooks said.
Westbrook, who declined to comment for this story, told NBC Sports in December of their previous time together: “We were young, Scotty was young, he was learning. I believe he’s become a great coach.”
M.V.P.-level players rarely have just one coach their whole careers, as did Tim Duncan, who played only for Gregg Popovich on the San Antonio Spurs. Bob Cousy and Bill Russell came close, playing only for Red Auerbach on the Boston Celtics — when they weren’t directing themselves as player-coaches. Most M.V.P.s cycle through several head coaches: LeBron James has had seven. Shaquille O’Neal had 11. Brooks, Donovan and Mike D’Antoni have been Westbrook’s coaches over 13 seasons.
Whether it happens because of aligned circumstances or mutual affection, it is also rare for a former M.V.P. in his prime to reunite with a coach, as Westbrook has done with Brooks.
The closest example might be Moses Malone, who played for Tom Nissalke twice, as a rookie on the 1974-75 Utah Stars in the A.B.A., and then on the Houston Rockets from 1976 to 1979. He won the first of his three M.V.P. awards playing for Nissalke in the 1978-79 season.
Kevin Garnett won the 2003-4 M.V.P. award under Flip Saunders in Minnesota, then was traded to Boston before the 2007-8 season. He would find his way back to Minnesota to play for Saunders again during the 2014-15 season as a veteran mentor for a young roster.
Wes Unseld was named M.V.P. his rookie season, 1968-69, when he played for Gene Shue, who left the franchise but returned and coached Unseld’s final season. Steve Nash won two M.V.P. awards as the engine of the D’Antoni-led Phoenix Suns. They reunited on the Los Angeles Lakers at the end of Nash’s career — a disappointing stop, in part because of Nash’s injuries. Now they’re together again, although in a different sort of partnership: Nash is the head coach of the Nets, and D’Antoni is his assistant. And the Nets’ reunions don’t stop there: This season, the team acquired James Harden, who won an M.V.P. award while playing for D’Antoni on the Houston Rockets.
The most famous and unusual example of an M.V.P. and coach reuniting involved Michael Jordan, whose two highest-scoring seasons came when he played under Doug Collins from 1986 to 1989. Jordan handpicked Collins to be his coach in Washington when he came out of retirement (again) to play for the Wizards after selling his ownership stake in the team. In the book “When Nothing Else Matters” by Michael Leahy, Jordan was repeatedly described as toxic and Collins as too deferential to him.
“It was clear that Doug Collins was there to really make M.J. look good and have the most chance for success,” Etan Thomas, who was Jordan’s teammate in Washington, said in an interview. “He wanted for M.J. to go out on a positive note, and that was really his focus.”
Sometimes, star-coach reunions can be both awkward and successful. Kobe Bryant won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers under Phil Jackson. A tumultuous 2003-4 season, with locker-room infighting and Bryant facing a criminal rape charge, led to a split after three titles. Jackson then lambasted Bryant in his book “The Last Season,” but returned a year later, and the pair patched things up. They would go on to win championships in 2008-9 and 2009-10.
Derrick Rose is the only former M.V.P. to reunite with a coach twice, as he has done with Tom Thibodeau. Rose won the award in 2010-11 in Chicago, during Thibodeau’s first tenure as coach, when Rose led the Bulls to the conference finals. Injuries derailed Rose after that, but he resurrected his career in Minnesota, spending parts of two seasons under Thibodeau, and now he is a reliable veteran role player trying to help Thibodeau’s Knicks reach the playoffs.
“They’re very aggressive in the way they approach their craft,” BJ Armstrong, Rose’s agent and a former player, said of Thibodeau and Rose, adding that their biggest similarity is that they “are very expressive in how they communicate with their body language.”
For Brooks and Westbrook, a warm relationship has come full circle. In Oklahoma City, Brooks used to try to motivate his players at shootaround by asking them when the game started. After the players would respond with the tip-off time, Brooks would tell them that, no, the game started right then with preparation.
This season, during a preseason shootaround, Brooks overheard Westbrook using that same tactic with the Wizards.
“I trademarked that and he didn’t even give me credit,” Brooks said.
Brooks said he doesn’t coach Westbrook the way he used to. Because Westbrook is older, the job is more about managing physical expectations and less about teaching the game.
“I’m smart enough to realize that he’s no longer 25, and he’s smart enough to realize that he’s no longer, either,” Brooks said.
Brooks’s biggest evolution as a coach, from his own telling, is in becoming more even-keeled.
“When I first started coaching in Oklahoma, every loss was gut-wrenching and every win was the greatest one ever,” he said.
Has Westbrook made the same evolution?
“No,” Brooks said. “That guy is still crazy as heck.”