- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scott Brooks is 50 now, though his face has been able to beat back the crinkling spurred by time, preserving the age-defying baby-faced look he has carried for life. There wasn’t even a gray hair on his head on Wednesday when he was introduced as the Washington Wizards‘ 24th coach.

When he was first a player in the NBA, his youthful features made him a target of renowned heckler Robin Ficker, who would sit close to the court at Bullets games and torment just about everyone. When Brooks arrived in 1988 as an undrafted 23-year-old point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, Ficker latched on and addressed 76ers coach Jim Lynam.

“Hey, Coach Lynam! You’re not allowed to play your son!”

For the next two years, Brooks was referred to around the 76ers as Lynam’s son. Charles Barkley, in particular, found great joy in the idea.

The incident is one of the memories Brooks has about basketball in Washington. Taking over a 41-41 team that missed the playoffs last season will produce so many more, the kind to be determined.

After signing a five-year contract a day earlier, Brooks wound through the local media gamut on Wednesday at Verizon Center, talking about why he chose to work for the Wizards, player development and accountability.

Brooks‘ arrival brought a rare public session with the Wizards‘ coach, general manager, Ernie Grunfeld, and owner, Ted Leonsis, in the same place. Brooks will be the fifth coach to work for Grunfeld in the 13 years he has been making decisions for the organization. Considering the team is 444-606 during that time, questions about Grunfeld’s job status accompanied the firing of coach Randy Wittman. Leonsis said on Wednesday that he did not consider making more sweeping changes in the organization this offseason after firing Wittman.

“Not really, because we were executing the plan,” Leonsis said. “If we had varied from the plan, and the plan didn’t work, then I think I would have been within my realm of responsibility to take a look. But, we were executing a plan we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago.”

Leonsis explained that the Wizards are in “Phase Three” of the plan. First, he said, was deconstruction. Next was building through the draft and creating salary cap space. The Wizards will have almost $28 million in salary cap space this summer to pursue free agents, most notable among them Kevin Durant. Leonsis swept aside the past failings of the organization to win more often since Grunfeld was hired as president of basketball operations in 2003.

“I only look at since I’ve owned the team,” Leonsis said. “That’s important. I wasn’t here back then, so I’m only focused on since I’ve bought the team.”

Leonsis became majority owner of the team in 2010. In 1999, he bought a 44 percent ownership stake in the Wizards and Verizon Center. Grunfeld was hired four years later.

It was clear on Wednesday that Grunfeld and Leonsis had been focused on hiring Brooks since Wittman was fired on April 13. Grunfeld and senior vice president of basketball operations, Tommy Sheppard, flew to California last week to meet with Brooks. They spent 10 hours together the first day. Word that they had an agreement in principle surfaced on April 21 before Brooks signed it on Tuesday.

“He’s been to where we want to be, and want to go to,” Grunfeld said.

Brooks is 338-207, good for a .620 winning percentage, as a coach. He helped develop the young stars of the Oklahoma City Thunder into dynamic players, guiding the Thunder to three Western Conference Finals appearances and an NBA Finals appearance in six full seasons before being fired following the 2015 season.

Brooks said looking at a roster with John Wall, who is 25 years old, as well as 22-year-olds Bradley Beal and Otto Porter and 20-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. intrigued him. He thinks Wall has “another level” to go to. The Wizards‘ point guard is already a three-time all-star who averaged 19.9 points, 10.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds last season.

Grunfeld had said previously that the new coach would pick the team’s remaining coaching staff and style of play. Brooks, explaining he was just settling in, said he had not determined those two things yet, though he mentioned that during his season out of the league, he attended high school and college practices. He took a 10-day trip to Spain to meet with national team coach Sergio Scariolo. Brooks also attended the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, a haven for the league’s number crunchers.

“[Those things] really gave me a proper perspective going forward what I want,” Brooks said.

The elephant in the room was kicked in the hide six questions into the press conference. Brooks was asked directly — for the first of numerous times on the day — about the possibility of Durant joining his former coach with the Wizards, his hometown team. He bobbed and weaved.

“I’m excited about the team,” Brooks said. “We have a great group of guys. I understand the question, but I’m excited about the group of guys we have here. When this season ended, when I was looking around, I knew that this was the place that I wanted to be.”

He’ll no longer be referred to Lynam’s son in Washington. Instead, Brooks is in charge of a team that Grunfeld and Leonsis feel is on the brink. Leonsis reiterated Wednesday that the minimum expectation is to make the playoffs.

“It hurts watching NBA playoff basketball,” he said.

Brooks was targeted to turn that pain into joy, something the Wizards have struggled to do for decades.

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