As the rest of his teammates warm up before games, Oregon star Dillon Brooks typically retreats to a quiet corner of the locker room, plants himself in a chair and drapes a towel over his head.
Eyes closed and mind clear, Brooks spends the next few minutes getting into a game-ready mindset. It is here that he sheds the laid-back, soft-spoken temperament he exhibits off the court and morphs into college basketball’s notorious instigator.
“It’s the competitiveness I have that brings it out of me,” Brooks said. “When I’m off the court chilling or relaxing, I like to be very composed and calm. When the game starts, I’m so intense and so locked in that nothing can really deter me from what I want. If I acted like I do on the court all the time, people would think I was crazy.”
Striking the proper balance between playing with passion and knowing when to show restraint has been a career-long battle for Brooks. The fiercely competitive junior forward often walks a fine line between emotional and hotheaded, between intense and uncontrollable.
More often than not, Brooks’ attitude brings out the best in Oregon.
An insatiable work ethic and a competitive fire that cannot be doused have fueled his rise from unheralded recruit to Pac-12 player of the year. He sank last-second game-winning jumpers to beat UCLA and Cal this season and averaged more than 20 points the past two months, propelling Oregon to a share of the Pac-12 title and a berth in the Sweet 16.
Of course, Brooks has also gained notoriety a few times for less flattering reasons.
His showboating in the direction of Duke’s bench in last year’s Sweet 16 earned him a postgame scolding from Mike Krzyzewski. His theatrical, stumbling attempt to draw an offensive foul this season against Utah may be the most egregious flop of all time. His ejection for kicking a Washington State player in the groin could have been costly for his team, as could the technical for taunting he received in Oregon’s previous NCAA tournament game against Rhode Island.
The constant yammering and physical play can even get under his teammates’ skin in practice. There aren’t many players in the Oregon locker room who haven’t gone nose-to-nose with Brooks at some point the past few years.
“My freshman year, I was like, ‘This dude’s crazy,'” junior forward Jordan Bell said. “Off the floor, he’s really calm, cool and everyone loves him. On the floor, he’s just really intense and plays with a lot of passion. Some people take it the wrong way, but I’ve been around him for three years so I understand it.”
Those who have known Brooks longest insist he’s a lot tamer than he once was.
The first time Oregon assistant coach Mike Mennenga met Brooks, it was the Canada native’s competitiveness that made more of an impression than his talent.
Mennenga, then the co-director of a youth program in Toronto, was putting some kids through a drill called “bump and grind” in which they had to score at the rim despite heavy contact. Brooks, then a pudgy eighth grader, missed his first attempt at a layup when Mennenga bodychecked him, but he refused to quit.
“It was flat-out war,” Mennenga said. “I make him miss again, he gets the ball and from there, he was like the Tasmanian Devil. We were on the floor. We were scrapping. Eventually he scores the basket, mean mugs me and goes to the back of the line. I remember thinking I didn’t know how good that kid was going to be, but I knew he was wired differently.”
Some of Brooks’ unusual aggression likely stemmed from a difficult childhood. During grade school, he often felt isolated from his peers because of a reading and writing disability. His mother urged him to channel his frustration toward basketball and other sports.
Early in Brooks’ career, wanting to win so badly hindered his development.
Sometimes he’d lose his temper when a coach yanked him out of the game instead of allowing him to make up for a mistake he’d made. Other times he’d erupt if a teammate didn’t properly run a play or if a borderline call went against him. He also often accumulated personal and technical fouls in a hurry by playing with needless aggression.
“He believed he could win every second, every play, every loose ball, every rebound, and when he didn’t, he wanted to fight double hard to get it the next time,” said Tony McIntyre, founder of the Toronto-based grassroots basketball program CIA Bounce. “When you’d sub him out after he missed a rebound or turned the ball over, he’d get mad because he wanted to prove that he could get it done. He wanted to prove that you needed to keep him on the floor.”
The outbursts initially baffled McIntyre since Brooks was such a relaxed, quiet kid away from basketball. Only after a lengthy chat between games at the prestigious Peach Jam tournament in South Carolina did McIntyre begin to better understand how to help Brooks.
“I kept Dillon in the hotel room with our coaching staff for hours just picking his brain,” McIntyre said. “‘What do you feel? What makes you get that burst of energy? What makes you want to snap at someone or take a dumb foul?’
“That conversation was all about coming to an understanding that when he felt that happening, he had to tell us. The very next day, the ball goes out of bounds, the ref makes a bad call and Dillon looks at the bench and says, ‘I’m kinda getting that feeling.’ We subbed him out for a second, let him calm down and then we subbed him right back in again.”
Learning to recognize when the anger was building within him was the critical step in Brooks’ development. At first he’d just ask to come out of a game until the storm of emotions dissipated. More recently he has often channeled his frustration into something positive like working harder defensively or on the glass.
Having mellow-tempered coaches like McIntyre and Oregon’s Dana Altman has also helped. They both have been savvy enough to realize dialing back Brooks’ emotions is more effective than riling him up further.
“That’s why Coach Altman has been such a great fit with him,” Mennenga said. “Coach is not a yeller, screamer, cusser. He’s not going to throw gas on the fire.”
If learning to better control his emotions has been one key to Brooks’ development, working to improve his body and his jump shot have been the others.
A healthier diet coupled with plenty of early-morning workouts have helped Brooks trim down to a sculpted 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, making it easier for him to guard smaller, quicker wings off the dribble. He also has spent hundreds of hours in the gym the past three years improving the consistency and range of his 3-point shot, meaning opposing defenders can no longer go underneath screens against him in an effort to prevent him from driving to the basket.
“I’m shooting it at a high rate and guys have to really play me tight,” said Brooks, now a 40.9 percent shooter from behind the arc. “If they play big, I’m going to either take them out to the 3-point line or take them to the rim. If they play small, I’m going to post them up. I feel like the game is much easier now.”
Exploiting mismatches will be especially important in Thursday’s Sweet 16 game against a Michigan team that typically plays two big men. Brooks will have a quickness advantage against 6-foot-10 D.J. Wilson whenever they are matched up against one-another.
When Brooks is alone in the Sprint Center locker room before the game with a towel draped over his face, you can bet he’ll be focused on winning that matchup. And if he does win it, you can also bet college basketball’s most notorious instigator will let Wilson and the Wolverines know about it.
“Hitting a shot and talking a little trash makes them want to guard you a little tighter or back off more than usual,” Brooks said. “Pretty soon I’m just playing with the defender. They get a little frustrated and get themselves out of their own game.”
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