The first thing to understand about Spring Grove, Penn. is that it’s a small town’s small town.
According to the 2010 Census, it houses a population of 2,167. It’s known for a paper mill, and the smell wafting from it. Spring Grove Area High School graduates roughly 200-250 kids a year and exceedingly few go on to play any type of sport at a higher level.
This is also the place that produced Eli Brooks.
The sophomore guard stood in the Crisler Center media room last Friday, in the lead-up to the No. 18 Michigan men’s basketball team’s contest against Villanova, fielding the type of questions you’d expect for a homecoming. Jon Teske and Jordan Poole are giving up their allotted tickets for Brooks, but that’s still not enough. Brooks thinks eight people are getting tickets on their own in addition to the 12 or so he can get for friends and family.
There’s also the matter of his recruitment — one that, at a time, seemed a lock for the Wildcats. Brooks was on-record calling Villanova his dream school and when Jay Wright extended an offer, it felt like a commitment was a formality.
Wright himself said as much at the Final Four, the last time these two teams met.
“They do have a freshman on the team right now that I thought we were going to get from Pennsylvania,” Wright said then. “And probably not allowed to say who I really felt we were getting and John beat us for him. And he’s going to be a really good player for them.”
Reflecting on it last week, Brooks called it a “tough decision,” saying a visit to Michigan swayed him at the time. Two years removed from his commitment, it’s not too dissimilar from the language he used then.
Brooks’ 2017-18 season was somewhat antithetical to the Wolverines’. He broke into the rotation early, and was the first freshman to earn a starting spot, unseating Zavier Simpson two weeks into the season. He kept that job until January. Then he didn’t.
The rest of the way, Brooks averaged 4.3 minutes per game. Simpson lapped him, then Jaaron Simmons passed him in the depth chart. Brooks was, in all but name, out of the picture.
“I think that it happens to the seniors, who come to college as freshmen,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They basically don’t have days where — they’ll have a day or two and then they get back to it. They don’t have Zavier Simpson guarding them every day in practice. Or sit on the bench, and then go in two minutes and do something good. So, you lose all your confidence.”
This year, Brooks’ role is already more defined. He has played over 20 minutes in both of Michigan’s first two games, knocking down two 3-pointers in the opener to go with four assists. As the Wolverines look for ways to score, it’s Brooks who could reap rewards.
But back to Spring Grove.
The first inkling that Eli Brooks might have a future in basketball came when he was 11. His dad’s men’s league was down a player, so they asked Eli to step in. He dropped six points, holding his own against a bunch of bigger, better dudes.
“They tried to block my last shot,” Brooks said, “then it went in. So it was pretty fun.”
By the time Brooks was a junior in high school, he was the best player the town had seen, maybe ever.
“I’ve never seen anyone who can create an atmosphere like Eli did,” said Greg Wagner, Spring Grove’s athletic director. “We would travel … and people would come to see Eli. Not just the game, but to meet Eli. And after games, there would be mobs on the court of people who wanted to meet Eli, get a picture taken with Eli, have Eli sign their shirts and things like that.”
The stories start to flow like beer from a tap. There was the time a guidance counselor from another school emailed Wagner, prompting an internal freakout, only to have it be a picture of Brooks in the stands with a youth basketball program. There were all the road games that Spring Grove’s fans drove to so they could get a glimpse.
There was the first league championship since 1971, and then there were the crowds. In a town of 2,167, there would be crowds between 1,800-2,000 packed into Spring Grove’s gym, standing room only, the air thick with humidity.
There’s one other athlete to come out of Spring Grove in recent years: Hali Flickinger, a 2016 Olympian who placed seventh in the 200-meter butterfly. When she competed in Rio, the town held viewing parties in the park. The thing about small towns — they’re proud of their exports.
When Brooks eschewed Villanova, he became just that, an export. It’s games like Wednesday’s that will determine just how successful of one he’ll be.