While walking through the Morningstar Marketplace with his mother during his sophomore year at Spring Grove High, something caught Eli Brooks’ eye.
It took some convincing because of the high price tag, but Brooks got his mother, Kelly, to purchase a statue of the head of Siddhartha Gautama, known as “the Buddha” and the founder of Buddhism.
Little did she know that the purchase would change her son’s life.
Brooks carried the statue in his backpack for every game of his sophomore season and into his junior year, until one night he slipped on some ice and the Buddha head broke.
Now, a junior and a starter for the University of Michigan basketball team, Brooks no longer carries the symbol of the faith in his bag. Instead, he carries that faith with him every time he steps on the court. It's a faith that has allowed him to deal with a Michigan career that's been full of ups and downs.
The tattoo on his left shoulder serves as a symbol of the faith he has and how it has allowed him to thrive, even after finding himself on the bench and working with the scout team before emerging as a team leader this season.
“It’s a visual reminder of how it got me through dark times,” Brooks said of his tattoo of the Buddha in a phone interview.
Test of faith: When Brooks originally purchased the Buddha head, he only knew a little about Buddhism. As he got older, and after spending more time learning and researching the faith, he found he was interested in it.
The point where he really found himself looking for guidance came during his sophomore year at Michigan. Brooks didn’t start a game last season after he started 12 games as a freshman following his dominant career at Spring Grove High.
Brooks was asked to work with the scout team during practices to help the Wolverines prepare to defend opposing star players. During the rare moments when he was on the floor in the real games, he struggled with his shooting and confidence.
After he averaged 1.8 and 2.5 points per game in his first two seasons, respectively, Brooks admitted the idea of transferring to another school crossed his mind, but he decided to stick it out at Michigan.
“I think that crosses everybody’s mind when you’re not getting the playing time, but I just looked at it like, 'it’s a great opportunity to get a great education,'” Brooks said. “The ball (will) start bouncing your way some time, so just take advantage of the resources that we have here and keep trying to bring up my game so I can get on the court.”
Becoming a leader: Brooks worked to elevate physically on the court, but improving his mentality and focus were just as important. His time on the court and in the gym, in combination with his faith and daily meditation before practice to get into the right frame of mind, helped Brooks earn a spot in the starting lineup this season under new head coach Juwan Howard, a former member of the legendary “Fab Five” with the Wolverines.
“It’s easy to get caught up, so just having something there to believe in and trust and get you through tough times is really good,” Brooks said.
After he had earned a starting spot, Brooks learned how important it is to be a leader on the team during a season when the Wolverines battled plenty of ups and downs.
Brooks said it was difficult at first to be a vocal leader, evident by one his nicknames, “The Silent Assassin,” given to him by teammate Isaiah Livers because of Brooks’ ability to get things done without talking too much.
Before he could lead his team, however, he had to learn how to lead himself.
“I feel like you have to be in control of yourself in order to lead someone else,” Brooks said. “If you don’t know what’s going on, it’s hard for you to teach someone else.”
Brooks, who also goes by “The Professor,” a nickname given to him by Howard because of Brooks’ desire to ask questions and his high basketball IQ, is schooling his doubters now.
Through 27 games, he has more points, minutes, rebounds and steals than during his first two seasons combined. Brooks has been the Wolverines’ leading scorer on six occasions and has started every game while averaging 11 points per contest.
He's also helped guide his team through a challenging season, that saw the Wolverines (now 18-9) go from the No. 4 team in NCAA Division I, to unranked after a four-game skid, and now back into the top 25 at No. 19.
His status for Michigan’s next game is still unclear after he suffered a nose injury against Purdue. Brooks said he will likely wear a clear facemask, like the one made popular by Detroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton in the early 2000s, until the black, carbon fiber model being made is ready for him.
Ups and downs: As he prepares for the final four games of Michigan’s regular season, Brooks said the team is peaking at the right time and their challenges during the year have brought them closer together.
Much like his career at Michigan, the struggles have only made the successes mean more for Brooks. As the pressure on winning each game rises with the NCAA Tournament approaching, one glimpse at the tattoo on his shoulder, the symbol of his faith that has helped guide him through all the challenges, reminds Brooks of how far he has come during his college career.
“Stay true to who you are,” Brooks said. “Just continue to do things you’ve done in the past that make you happy. There’s been ups and downs. A lot of good things happened and then bad things have happened, but that’s life. Not everything is going to be glitter, so you just need to be able to get through those hard times.”
Reach Rob Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.