Ish Smith was taking a nap after a training session when he woke up to find his phone illuminating with calls and text messages.
"From the basketball standpoint, everybody knew how great he was,” Smith told CSNPhilly.com Tuesday evening. “But as a person, Coach Rooks was unbelievable. He was special."
Smith clicked easily with Rooks, who, like Smith, carried himself with a smile on his face. One of their biggest topics of conversation was family. Rooks frequently spoke of his pride for his son and daughter, both basketball student-athletes. Those discussions stand out most to Smith.
“He was always caring,” Smith said. “He loved his children.”
When it came to coaching, Rooks approached Smith, a point guard, with his 12 years of NBA experience as a big man. Rooks saw an important relationship between guards, forwards and centers.
While Smith was a top scoring option for the Sixers this season, Rooks wanted him to get the frontcourt players more involved in the offense. He pulled Smith aside for a conversation that changed Smith’s perspective of running the floor and helped elevate his game at the one spot.
“‘Ish, get them going early and then get yourself going late,’” Smith recounted Rooks telling him. “‘Always try to get the ball to the right position, the right place with the bigs. If they’re not doing right, I’m going to get on them. You come to me.’
“He was always, always challenging me to get those guys going and keep them happy. If I keep them happy then they’re going to set screens for me, they’re going to rebound, they’re going to run the floor, they’re going to do everything it takes for our team to be successful."
Smith appreciated the manner in which Rooks delivered his coaching critiques. Rooks was honest and sincere, as players knew his words were intended to help them.
"He would always try to make everybody have a smile,” Smith said.
Rooks also let it be known to the young Sixers squad that he still had game. More than 12 years since his last NBA game, he often had shooting competitions with other members of the coaching staff and showcased his skills.
“When I heard about it, it was shocking because he used to always get out there and play and shoot with us,” Smith said. “He’d always say, ‘This is what a real shooting four is.’ And he could stroke it."
Smith cherishes the relationship he built with Rooks during his time on the Sixers. He remembers their most recent conversations breaking down the Western Conference Finals, all the advice Rooks offered, and fun times they had simply joking and laughing.
“We lost a great man and a great coach,” Smith said. “He’s going to always be in my heart because of how he affected me on and off the court."