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PHILADELPHIA STORY : UC Irvine’s Scott Brooks Has Taken a Roundabout Route to Happiness in the NBA

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Times Staff Writer

Is this a great country or what?

In six years, Scott Brooks has gone from Horned Frog to Anteater to Patroon to Philadelphia 76er. Me? Oh I’m staying with a teammate of mine, perhaps you’ve heard of him. Charles Barkley .

One moment a guy is too small to play in the National Basketball Assn. and is happy to find work in the Continental Basketball Assn.; the next he’s the starting point guard for the team of his dreams, the 76ers, and in so doing develops something of a cult following.

“Philadelphia has been real good to me,” Brooks said while watching the Fullerton-Irvine game Saturday night.

How good? Try a Scott Brooks poster, with California boy Brooks standing on a beach in his 76er uniform holding a surfboard.

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The fact is that Brooks grew up landlocked near Modesto in a town called Lathrop. Cowabunga.

But what are facts in the face of a burgeoning legend? The posters were given away during Scott Brooks Night at Philadelphia’s Spectrum.

“They gave everyone 5-11 and under a $4 discount on their ticket,” Brooks said. “They got a pretty good turnout.”

Said Barkley: “He’s the little, little guy everybody wants to do good in life.”

The little, little guy is 5-feet-11. He has always had a certain strut to his dribble drive, a chest that seemed perpetually puffed. A UC Irvine teammate, Joe Buchanan, dubbed him Coffee Mocha because, “his game has a certain funk to it.”

All of that, and the fact that he led the West Coast in scoring (23.8 per game) his senior season (1986-87), got Brooks a lot of admiring looks.

“I thought he was a good little player at Irvine,” said NBA scout Marty Blake. “Anyone who averages 23 points a game can play the game.”

But the pats meant nothing come put-up time. Brooks wasn’t drafted in 1987, even though the Washington Bullets picked 5-3 Tyrone Bogues in the first round.

“When he (Bogues) went I thought I would too,” Brooks said.

Blake summed up the book on Brooks when he said: “I thought he’d be perfect in that 6-4 and under league.”

Well, the 6-4 and under league is nowhere to be seen, but there is a growing number of short players on NBA rosters. Consider that during the 1986-87 season, only two players under 6-feet--Spud Webb and Michael Adams--were in the NBA. At the start of the 1987-88 season, there were nine players under 6-feet in the league, which paved the way for Scott Brooks, an idea whose time had come.

“I’m very thankful to players like John Stockton and Spud Webb,” Brooks said. “They’ve made it possible for someone like me to make it. I think teams are actually looking for one player under 6-feet now, because they make things happen.”

Brooks has had more of an opportunity to make things happen while Maurice Cheeks, the 76ers’ usual starting point guard, has been injured. Though averaging five points per game for the season, Brooks has been in double figures in each of his six starts.

He had a career-high 18 against Washington. He’s averaging about five assists a game, and even when Cheeks is healthy, he’s playing 15 to 20 minutes per game.

So Scott Brooks is the latest in the NBA’s growing collection of short stories. Watching him sign autographs and be generally revered upon his return to Irvine Saturday--he had a couple days off because of the All-Star break--one could only surmise that this was the stuff of a happy ending. But he’s had his share of dramatic tension.

“Nothing has come easy for me,” he said.

He came to Irvine after playing one season with the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs.

“Liked the school, hated the state,” is how Jim Killingsworth, TCU coach explained Brooks’ departure.

At Irvine, Brooks eventually blossomed into a big-time scorer. He shot ceiling scraping jumpers, something he taught himself to do when he was a 4-11 high school freshman.

Another thing he brought from growing up was a work ethic bordering on possessed. While at Irvine he would regularly practice on his own after practicing with the team.

“He basically put himself through two-a-days all season,” said Mike Hess, a teammate of Brooks and now an assistant at Irvine. “He worked so hard. He, I and Wayne Engelstad used to live across from a Boys’ Club, and Scott would constantly be over there working out.”

But when his college career ended, the NBA never called. He considered Europe and the 6-4 and under league, but ended up playing for the Albany Patroons of the CBA.

“Going to Albany is what got him in the the NBA,” Blake said.

Brooks turned from scoring to passing, pushing the ball upcourt and playing defense.

“He became a much more rounded player,” said Bill Musselman, Brooks’ coach in Albany and now head coach of the NBA expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. “The NBA isn’t interested in 6-foot scorers, they want guys who are going to make a lot of things happen with the pass or playing defense.”

Now that Brooks can do that and because, as Musselman observed, “He’s the toughest kid pound for pound I’ve ever seen,” he’s found a home in Philadelphia.

“Things are really going great,” Brooks said, while signing yet another kid’s program.

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