There’s something to be said about knowing why you’re doing something.
When you know — down to the very last detail — the reason for making a decision, it almost always makes that decision better.
In James Brooks’s mind, this also applies to basketball.
“That’s kind of the way I coached,” James told The Daily. “You should know the reason why you’re doing the things you’re doing, so then you’ll do ‘em without me having to say to do ‘em.”
It seems pretty self-evident. A coach shouldn’t have to tell their players exactly what to do at all times. But what James preached was different; it was deeper. James’s philosophy was precise — if you didn’t know exactly why you were doing something, you asked questions until you did.
In his mind, it made smarter, better basketball players.
And it made Eli Brooks.
That idea of questioning everything — knowing not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it — is what makes Eli unique. It’s what allows him to see the game the way he does, giving him the ability to recognize opponents’ sets even before they throw the first pass. Then, he not only gets himself in position, but knows where each and every single player on his team should be in that split second.
It’s why Michigan’s fifth-year guard and now winningest player of all time has an all-too-fitting nickname: “The Professor.”
And it all started in Spring Grove, Pa.
There’s no way for Eli to remember when his family moved back to Spring Grove. Born in Sumter, S.C. while his father, James, served in the Air Force, Eli was just two years old when James’s stint ended and the Brooks’ decided to head back to Pennsylvania.
To Eli, Spring Grove was always home.
It’s where his grandparents and family were, it’s where he grew up and it’s where he started playing basketball.
Not only did James being out of the service allow Eli to spend his entire childhood in Spring Grove, it also allowed James to be his coach. From elementary school to middle school to high school, Eli’s dad coached his team.
This became an advantage, not only for Eli, but for everyone around him.
“Most high school coaches have their kids for at most four years,” James said. “So having a 10-year experience with one coach, the parents and everything that’s involved with a team, everybody kind of knows what the next (season) is expecting out of them.”
That expectation was to succeed.
“The kids were used to winning,” James said. “That group of kids I had with Eli knew how to win and knew what it felt like to win.”
Eli was the star, but their success was shared. Eli had a way of making everyone around him better. So as a team, they improved together, asked questions together and developed an understanding about what it was like to play winning basketball together.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Spring Grove High School boys varsity squad was not a team that knew what winning basketball felt like. The Rockets had won just two games the year before James, Eli and his teammates arrived. The Brooks’ and company were determined to change that.
But it took time. In Eli’s freshman season, he came off the bench and Spring Grove finished with just seven wins. The next year, following a growth spurt, Eli started and the Rockets came away with 15 wins and their first district playoff game in more than a decade.
But in his junior year, Spring Grove took off. Eli led the Rockets to a 25-4 record, claiming their first York-Adams Interscholastic Athletic Association championship title since 1971 and their first ever appearance in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 4A playoff.
They found their way to winning basketball.
“If you buy into winning basketball, it works,” Eli said “… When my dad came, they bought in, they had the right mindset. So being able to move forward with the guys that we had, everybody did their role and it worked out for us.”
While Spring Grove continued winning into Eli’s senior season, he kept impressing. Early on in his high school career, buzz quickly turned to chatter, which turned to full on celebrity. Eli Brooks wasn’t just Spring Grove’s star, he was the guy in York County.
“He came off like he was very much an ambassador for the area,” York Daily Record sports reporter Matt Allibone said. “… He definitely put a spotlight on the area.”
And the area put a spotlight on him.
“Every game was sold out,” Allibone said. “It was always an event.”
And Eli was center stage. The people flocked to see him, and that meant Eli had the responsibility to give them all he had; not just on the court, but after the game.
Eli would stay — taking photos, meeting people, talking with his fans — for at least an hour after every single game. Win or lose, Eli did it.
“Talking to kids, taking pictures with kids, I feel like sometimes some people can get annoyed with that,” Brandon McGlynn, Eli’s former AAU teammate and high school opponent, said. “And I feel like he loves that, just helping little kids get their dreams and stuff like that, like he’s more than just a basketball player.”
But it’s more than that. Whether he’d been that way forever or learned it in high school, he gives everything he can — it’s who Eli is.
If it’s signing autographs and taking pictures after a game, he’ll give you that. If it’s telling his teammate where they should be on defense as soon as he sees a set, he’ll give you that. If it’s buying into winning basketball until everyone else does, he’ll give you that, too.
And he knows exactly why he’s doing it:
It helps the people around him.
If you asked Eli at the beginning of this season why he returned to Michigan for a fifth year, he’d tell you something about “unfinished business” or mention his hunger for a national championship.
But when you ask him what he’s coming back to study, his eyes light up before he jumps into telling you about his masters in social work and about one day working to help kids.
In the tunnel after the Wolverines’ recent win over Iowa in Iowa City, when asked what he wanted his legacy at Michigan to be, Eli’s eyes strayed elsewhere. He made eye contact with a kid waiting for a picture and held up a “one second” hand signal to him before answering the question:
“I’m trying my best to pass all the knowledge I have to other people on the team,” Eli told The Daily.
As soon as he finished the conversation, he was right by the kid’s side, smiling, taking photos and signing autographs.
The common thread that runs through Eli’s reasons for returning — unfinished business, a degree in social work, making a kid’s day, supporting teammates and coaches alike — is that each reason gives him another chance to help others.
And now, with Michigan coach Juwan Howard suspended until the end of the regular season and the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, Eli once again has a chance to help lead his team more than ever before.
“When you look around and say ‘OK, who do I want with me?’ You go, ‘OK, he’s the first guy that I want with ‘em,’ ” Michigan acting coach Phil Martelli said.
While Eli maintains his leadership of the players, doing all he can to help the Wolverines secure a tournament bid, he’ll be calling on the tenets he learned from his dad and in Spring Grove: ask questions, know why you’re doing things on the court, carry a winning mentality and most of all, make the people around you better.
And that’s exactly what he does.