When Scott Brooks first arrived in Washington as head coach of the Wizards, reporters who covered the team quickly learned there was one subject he preferred not to discuss; the specifics of his time with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. You could see on his face he was uncomfortable with going there, that there was baggage, possibly tied to the unfinished business he left behind.
On Friday, Brooks struck an entirely different tone when discussing Westbrook, who is now reuniting with him in Washington following the blockbuster trade that sent John Wall to the Houston Rockets. After five years apart, they are back together again.
"I have a longstanding relationship with Russell and a lot of respect," Brooks said. "His professionalism, his toughness, his intensity, his leadership, his drive, his determination... He's going to provide a lot of things that we need."
Brooks was effusive in his praise of Westbrook; who he is as a basketball player, a man and how he will help the Wizards sharpen a new mindset and culture with a roster full of recent draft picks. Brooks recalled the first time they ever met, when Brooks was an assistant coach for the Seattle Supersonics and Westbrook came in for a rookie workout.
Brooks said he had never seen a point guard as intense and dynamic as Westbrook. They took him fourth overall, the team moved to Oklahoma and the rest is history.
"With Russell, you never have to worry about him not playing hard. That's what he does," Brooks said.
Brooks also told a fantastic story about Westbrook's competitive drive. He is widely known as one of the most relentless players in the NBA with an approach to the game that has been compared to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Ask NBA players around the league who most embodies the cuthroat competitiveness of those guys and many will tell you it's Westbrook.
The story Brooks told sums that up well.
"I said 'Russ, you seem like during games and before games, you're so angry.' He said 'Coach, I don't like 58 point guards in the league.' I get that. He's not friends with other teams. I appreciate that. It's almost a little bit like old school. All of his teammates love him. He's not into making friends," Brooks said.
"I came back and was like 'what if there are three per team?' He was quick, like '87 point guards I don't like in the league.' He brings intensity. That's something that is very valuable and you can't teach. That's who you are and who he is."
Brooks believes Westbrook will not only help the team win, but the example he sets for younger players like Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Thomas Bryant and others will help lift the organization as a whole. He said early in his coaching career, Lakers great Magic Johnson told him about the importance of having strong leaders in a locker room, that players can sometimes deliver messages to their peers that coaches can't.
Brooks and Westbrook helped lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals back in 2012. In the time since, Westbrook has won the MVP award and two scoring titles.
He is a different player now, in some ways much better than he was with Brooks. But not everything is different.
"He's still a horrible singer. He can't sing," Brooks joked.