Throughout his career, it has been the misfortune of Michael Brooks to perform in the shadow of players whose extraordinary skills have almost made them candidates for deification. Despite the fact that he set a bunch of records at West Catholic High in the Philadelphia Catholic League, college recruiters and fans flocked around his childhood teammate and friend Gene Banks, now a star at Duke. And although in this, the senior year of a distinguished career at La Salle College, Brooks should break nearly every significant school record established by the legendary Tom Gola, Gola remains, in the minds and hearts of most Explorer fans, the best basketball player in La Salle history.
It has been 26 years since Gola, a 6'6" forward, led the Explorers to the NCAA championship—La Salle's first and only national title in any sport and the last time a team from the Northeast won the NCAA crown. Besides that victory, the Gola era included an NIT championship in 1952 and, in 1955, a second-place finish in the NCAAs behind Bill Russell and the University of San Francisco.
Gola wound up his collegiate career as La Salle's leading scorer (2,462 points) and followed it with an illustrious 11 seasons in the NBA, with the Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Knicks. Then, in 1968, after La Salle was put on NCAA probation, Gola took over as coach for the 1968-69 season and led the Explorers to a 23-1 record, their finest ever, and a No. 2 national ranking.
While La Salle fans certainly have longed for a second national championship, they seem to have yearned even more for another Gola. Before Brooks, three players were likely candidates. Bill Raftery, a slick guard, arrived in 1959, but he was hampered by a bad back. Raftery, now the coach at Seton Hall, says, "When I went to La Salle they said I'd be the one to make them forget Tom Gola. By the end of my career, all they wanted to forget was me." Larry Cannon, a star forward from 1966 to 1969 and now an assistant coach at his alma mater, was slowed by blood clots in his leg. Ken Durrett, who ranks third on the Explorers' career scoring list behind Gola and Brooks, came closer than the others, but late in his senior season (1970-71) he ripped the ligaments in his right knee, which curtailed his NBA service with the Royals-Kings and the 76ers to four painful and mediocre years.
But of all the pretenders to Gola's throne, it has been the enthusiastic and energetic Brooks who has staked the strongest claim. "He has awesome physical and mental energy," says La Salle coach Dave (Lefty) Ervin. Ervin, a starter for the 1965-66 La Salle team, took over as coach on Aug. 30 after Paul West-head, who had guided the Explorers for nine years, packed up his shoot-first, play-defense-never style and moved to Los Angeles as an assistant to the Lakers' Jack McKinney.
Gola greatly influenced Brooks' decision to stay in his hometown and play for La Salle. "When someone like that comes to talk to you, you feel honored," says Brooks. "Also, he has a nice Cadillac. When I first met him, I was in shock. He drove me from my high school to the campus and I couldn't say anything. I just sat there in amazement and watched him drive."
Gola's message to Brooks was a lesson he had learned nearly 30 years ago when he entered La Salle as the Golden Boy and fulfilled the promise an adoring press had predicted for him. "I told Mike that all the sportswriters knew and respected him," Gola says, "and that if he moved to another town, he'd have to convince a lot of other sportswriters that he was a good player."
But that wasn't the only reason Brooks remained in Philadelphia. With the overwhelming amount of publicity given Banks and his talented West Philly teammates, the less flamboyant Brooks was almost completely overlooked. In fact, only five schools—Villanova, La Salle, Rutgers, Memphis State and St. Joseph's—expressed any real interest in him. It had always been this way, even when Brooks and Banks were teammates on the Sherwood Recreation Center's 14-year-old team. And when Banks' play began getting rave reviews as soon as he entered high school, Brooks was just around the corner at West Catholic, languishing on the bench as the 19th—and last—man on the team. "I couldn't do anything right in practice," he says. "I was even thinking about quitting, but then one of the starters, who didn't play in one game, was crying and threatening to quit, too. I thought to myself, 'God, here I am not playing and this guy is crying.' So I waited until the last game of the season and told the guys I was going to start the next year. They all said, 'Aw, get outta here.' I figured maybe I'd bitten off more than I could chew. But I started."
And Brooks has been a starter ever since. Now standing slightly more than 6'7" and weighing an exquisitely proportioned 221 pounds, Brooks has a combination of power and quickness that has NBA coaches drooling. "He has the perfect body for basketball," says Ervin. And Brooks is not only a prolific scorer—with 2,106 points he will pass Gola late this season and become La Salle's all-time leading scorer—but he is also a powerful rebounder at both ends of the floor.
After winning East Coast Conference Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman in 1977, the next season Brooks led a La Salle squad dominated by sophomores to a surprising 18-12 record and a berth in the NCAA East Regional. He was the only player in the country to rank in the Top Ten in both scoring (ninth) and rebounding (seventh). In 1978-79 Brooks averaged 23.3 points and 13.3 rebounds a game and earned All-America recognition for the second consecutive year, despite severely bruising his thigh in the second game against Kentucky, an injury that bothered him for virtually the entire season.
Nonetheless, the word on Brooks was that his ballhandling and defense were questionable and that his outside shooting needed improvement. Many La Salle boosters, disappointed by last season's 15-13 record, laid the blame at the feet of Westhead. A few even offered to buy up the two years left on his contract.
Westhead's system was designed to allow players one of five specific shots from six feet to 17 feet from the basket, and it relied on the fast break on every play—especially after an opponent scored. Westhead would release two men down the court early in various defensive situations, daring the other team to shoot. But although it worked well in 1977-78, Westhead's system broke down last season after the Explorers lost Brooks and two other starters, Kurt Kanaskie and Mark Spain, to injuries, and as opponents figured out how to stop it.
Under Ervin, La Salle, which has a 5-4 record, still fast-breaks, but the emphasis this season has been on a crisp half-court offense and pressure defense. With the arrival of Center Stanley Williams to provide rebounding and defense. Brooks is free to operate at forward, his natural position, for the first time since his freshman year. "He's playing much more patiently now," says Ervin. "He's much more secure. He has got almost premier confidence."
This attitude is paying dividends. Against BYU in the finals of the Cougar Classic three weeks ago in Provo, Utah, Brooks scored a tournament-, school-and personal-record 51 points, including 28 in a row during one stretch, in a 108-106 triple-overtime loss to the 18th-ranked Cougars. He also established records for most field goals made (24) and attempted (36). "We tried one, two and even three men on him," said Cougar Coach Frank Arnold. "He went over, through and around them."
Says Michael's mother, Rita, "I called him up the day before the game and told him to go out and score 50. Little did I know he was going to do it." She ought to know better than that. Brooks would do anything for his mother, like wait to score his 2,000th career point, which he did against Rider three weeks ago, until she could attend the game in person. "It was the first time she had seen me play all season," he says.
Since 1966, when she was divorced from Rudolph Brooks, Rita has raised Michael and his two sisters, Rita, 20, and Aleta, 13, alone. Michael calls her his "best friend." "If everyone else abandons me, she'll always be there," he says. When the Brookses moved from their old neighborhood in Southwest Philly into a comfortable, three-story townhouse near the La Salle campus in November 1978, Michael, who had spent his first two years in a dormitory, returned to live with his family.
Brooks occasionally goes back to the old neighborhood, to visit friends and watch play in the street at the corner of 58th and Willows, where an old backboard is nailed to a light pole. "There were a lot of good games at 58th and Willows after the sun went down," he says. Basketball, he says, allowed him to resist the pressure of joining a neighborhood gang. "All the guys knew that I wanted to play basketball," he says, "and besides, who's ever seen a tall guy in a gang?" A student in criminal justice, Brooks is proud that he will graduate in May, on time.
Last week at the Lobo Classic in Albuquerque, N. Mex., Brooks scored 31 points, hiking his season's average to 25.0, and had 23 rebounds in an 89-88 loss to Utah State and an 88-83 victory over Idaho.
Brooks was a member of the U.S. team that won the gold medal at last summer's Pan-American Games and finished as the second leading U.S. scorer and the team's leading rebounder.
Which is why Bobby Knight, who coached the U.S. team, is now a very big supporter of Brooks. In a letter to Lawrence Fan, La Salle's sports-information director, Knight wrote, "He [Brooks] is one of the most enjoyable people to be around and coach that I have ever had.... If I were to be allowed to start my own team tomorrow and pick anybody for it that I chose, the first person I would pick would be Michael Brooks."