Eli Brooks (above) warms up for the Final Four during practice on Friday, March 30. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
SAN ANTONIO -- Eli Brooks is used to carrying the entire town of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania on his back.
He did it for four years in high school, where he led the Rockets to new heights. In the time he spent wearing a Spring Grove jersey, the son of head coach James Brooks set the school’s scoring record (2,426), more than any other player in York County history aside from former Monmouth standout Andrew Nicholas (2,504); he led his team deeper in the postseason than they’d ever been.
But most importantly, he brought together the borough of about 2,000 residents buried deep in York County -- just 10 miles north of the Maryland border -- with a sea of blue at every Spring Grove basketball game, a community revitalized by high school hoops.
And now, the pride of Spring Grove has taken the town much, much further; down to the Lone Star State, where Brooks and his Michigan teammates will take the court in the Alamodome on Saturday afternoon in the program’s eighth-ever Final Four.
“I can’t imagine being here from Spring Grove,” he said in the Wolverines’ locker room on Thursday afternoon, “but it’s been a good ride -- and we’re not done yet.”
Under the coaching and tutelage of his father, Brooks went from one of the better players in central Pennsylvania to one of the top guards in the state during his junior season, then followed that up with a stellar AAU summer with the Jersey Shore Warriors that saw him pick the Wolverines before the July live recruiting periods were over.
He then led the Rockets on a senior campaign to remember, averaging 29.7 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, with 67 steals and 53 blocks for good measure. Spring Grove won 22 games, finished in third place in District 3’s 5A tournament and qualified for the state bracket, making it to the quarterfinals before bowing out against eventual champions Archbishop Wood and fellow Final Four participant Collin Gillespie (Villanova).
When that game was finally over, the large group of Spring Grove supporters gave the team one final standing ovation -- and much of that was directed at its star player.
“Eli took our little town by storm,” Brooks family friend Nikki Wilson told CoBL by phone on Thursday. “People ask me about him all the time, and I’m just like ‘look, he’s a great basketball player, that is true. But that’s only the beginning.’”
She would know better than most, due to the bond that the town’s biggest star has formed with her son Tommy Wilson, a sixth grader at Spring Grove Intermediate School.
Nikki said she and her husband Jim had known the Brooks family since Eli was young, through Jim’s business relationship with Eli’s uncle. But the families became much closer about three years ago, when Eli was over at the Wilson’s house, fishing in their pond, and noticed a basketball hoop.
Eli Brooks (middle) with Tommy Wilson (left) and Tommy's brother Sam. (Photo courtesy Wilson family)
At that point, Tommy didn’t play the sport seriously. But the burgeoning star guard shooting around on his driveway made something click. So he tried out for his fourth-grade team, and made it.
Tommy’s love for the game skyrocketed from there.
“Eli has been my son’s inspiration in terms of basketball,” Nikki Wilson said. “We’re a big football family, but since (Tommy’s) friendship with Eli has sparked, he really, he’s really grown to like basketball...really, Eli is everything.”
Tommy and Eli stayed close over the final two years of Eli’s high school career, as he went from promising local talent to the biggest name in town.
Since Eli has been out in Ann Arbor, the friendship hasn’t stopped. Tommy still texts Eli several times a month -- “If I text (Eli),” Nikki Wilson said, “I never get a reply; if Tommy texts him, he gets a reply back immediately.”
“When I see that he’s texted,” Eli said, “it always brings a smile to my face.”
During his freshman year at Michigan, Eli Brooks only came home once, for about three days during the Christmas break. But he still found time to see his buddy, and bring some more positive vibes back to his community.
The Wilson family had plans to go visit a local boy with cancer and bring him presents, and that visit happened to be when Eli was home from college.
“The little boy was also into basketball, and everybody in Spring Grove knows Eli, and we asked if he was willing to go with us when we give gifts to the family, and Eli immediately said ‘yes,’” Nikki Wilson said. “Him and [his mother] Kelly came, and we got pictures with the family. He’s just that kind of kid.”
“He genuinely cares about Tommy too,” she added. “They are very close, and he knows what it means to Tommy to have him as a mentor, so he understands and is very loyal to that, how busy he is.”
That Brooks has gotten Tommy Wilson into basketball shows the impact that he’s had on the community. There’s now a new group of youth in Spring Grove that wants to grow up and wear a Rockets jersey, if only to follow in Brooks’ footsteps.
Count Tommy amongst that group -- though he’s just hoping to make the seventh-grade team next fall, he dreams of playing for Spring Grove one day down the line.
“He’s not one of those kids that has egos about how good he is,” Tommy said. “He’s obviously very good but he doesn’t share it with all the world and all that, so I think he’s going to be big on helping kids.”
Of course, being friends with Spring Grove’s local celebrity certainly has its perks. And Tommy isn’t shy when talking about his famous friend.
“It gives me a lot of bragging rights, yeah,” Tommy said. “My friends, they always ask me what’s happening with him...it’s really cool to have friends like him.
“He’s all the rage,” the 11-year-old added, eliciting a laugh from his mother.
Even cooler when that friendship gets you a chance to travel halfway across the country.
Nikki and Tommy flew down to San Antonio on Friday along with James and Kelly Brooks and Eli’s brother Evan, all coming to town to take in the spectacle of the Final Four and support Eli, no matter what happens during the actual competition -- which may or may not feature the player they’re coming to see.
Brooks’ freshman season has been an up-and-down one, to be sure. He’s started 12 of the 29 games he’s played in, but not since Dec. 30; he’s only played double-figures minutes once since that point. He didn’t appear in either of Michigan’s games last weekend, either the Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M or the Elite 8 win over Florida State.
But Michigan coach John Beilein said at a press conference on Thursday that Brooks “might have been the best player on the floor” during the Wolverines’ closed practice that day, and wasn’t ruling out having the freshmen take the court on Saturday against a Loyola (Chicago) team which has been the storyline of the tournament thus far.
The possibility of watching his hero play on the biggest stage college hoops has to offer had Tommy as excited as could be, but he’ll be plenty happy just to be in the Alamodome, looking at his best friend sitting on the sideline.
“We don’t care whether he plays or not,” Nikki Wilson said. “We just want to support him.”
Call it returning the favor.