Eli Brooks isn’t so much a high school basketball player as he is an attraction.
Whether it’s at home or on the road, anywhere the Spring Grove boys’ basketball team plays, it’s an event. Brooks is the reason behind all of it.
The gym at Spring Grove High School is regularly full when the Rockets play at home, with most of the spectators made up of high school students, parents of players, alumni or townies with deep-rooted ties to the school and area. It’s not uncommon, however, for people from outside of Spring Grove to venture into the gym on any given game night, solely to catch a glimpse of perhaps the best high school player to ever hail from York County.
When the Rockets hit the road, especially within the York-Adams League, crowds tend to be noticeably larger. As a collective unit, Spring Grove is hardly the Y-A League equivalent of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It isn’t even the best team in its division. Brooks, however, is arguably the LeBron James of the league and one of the two or three best players in District 3, maybe trailing only Reading’s All-American and University of Miami commit Lonnie Walker IV.
He’s a must-see draw every time he steps on the court, boasting averages of nearly 30 points per game and more than 15 rebounds per game. With the playoffs now in full swing, there are no guarantees for how much longer the Brooks and Co. Show will continue.
Soon, local fans will have to resort to watching him on television and supporting him from afar.
"It’s going to be pretty cool watching him on TV, so I wish him the best of luck,” longtime friend and teammate Jake Messersmith said.
With his high school career rapidly winding down, Brooks only has a handful of games left to solidify his standing as one of the best basketball players to ever emerge from York County. It's been a memorable book that's down to its final pages.
Brooks sat at a blue-clothed table on Nov. 9 with his mom, Kelly, to his right and dad and boys’ head coach, James, to his left.
He donned a University of Michigan hat, while his mom sported a Michigan long-sleeve shirt. Off to the left of him was another Michigan hat and directly in front of him was his National Letter of Intent to play NCAA Division I basketball for the Wolverines, beginning next year.
“I always knew I was a good player, but it was more just keep my head on straight and see where it took me,” Eli said. “My dad always told me to work hard and you’ll get what you deserve.”
The NLI signature was a product of a career that began back in kindergarten and only grew in prestige as he became older.
By the time he reached high school in the fall of 2013, the hype around Brooks was very real. Up to that point, there was little to get excited about with Spring Grove boys’ basketball. The program was in the midst of 18 consecutive losing seasons. Most of those years saw the Rockets finish in the cellar of York-Adams Division I, rarely cracking eight wins.
When Eli arrived, however, he alone brought the buzz back to Papertown. That happened to coincide with his dad taking over as the varsity head coach. Spring Grove only went 7-15 his freshman season, but by the time the 2014-15 campaign rolled around, it was evident that the days of losing — at least for the next few seasons — were in the past. The Rockets finished that year 15-10, their first winning season since 1994-95, and qualified for the league and District 3 Class 4-A playoffs.
Momentum continued to build the next season when Spring Grove won its first league tournament championship since 1971. The Rockets also made the district semifinals and qualified for the state tournament for the first time in program history. The Rockets seem poised to possibly replicate those achievements this year, knowing full well they’ll go as far as Eli can carry them.
“He realizes that we need a certain amount of points (from him) or we’re not going to be effective at the end of the game,” James Brooks said. “…He gets to a point where, if a game is close, then he basically gets that ‘I’m taking over’ mentality and we just have to back him up.”
Eli's proven that he can handle the heavy scoring load just fine. He's led the Y-A League in scoring the last two seasons, and this year, he not only became Spring Grove's all-time leading scorer, but also became the sixth boy and 13th player in league history to eclipse 2,000 career points. When it's all said and done, he'll likely finish as the third-highest scoring boy in league history.
It doesn’t take long to figure out just how good Eli is at basketball, either.
Take teammate Austin Panter, for example. Two summers ago, the senior moved up to Spring Grove from Texas before his junior year. Upon arrival, Panter told people that he intended to play for the varsity basketball team. The first thing Panter learned about was a kid named Eli Brooks. That was just as Eli’s name started getting tossed around the mid-major circuit as a college recruit, and at least a year before any power-five school would come calling.
“(Everyone) was like, ‘We have this really good player, Eli Brooks,’” Panter said. “And I didn’t know how good he was. Then, the first day of tryouts, he was doing all these crazy things like it was normal and then our first couple games, I realized this kid was the real deal.”
It took colleges a little longer to find out just how real Eli Brooks’ talents were.
By the time Christmas hit in 2015, James Brooks had a list of close to two dozen schools on his phone who each made some sort of contact with Eli. At that point, only nine had made official offers, with the biggest names residing in the Atlantic 10, one of the top mid-major conferences in the nation. Notre Dame visited one of his open gyms, but that was as far as the relationship between the two had gotten. Still, it was a small, but significant step up the college recruiting ladder.
By the time the AAU season picked up in the spring and summer of 2016, Brooks was making more noise on the recruiting scene for his AAU team, the Jersey Shore Warriors. The major college programs may have been a little slow to recognize Eli's potential, but when they did, they all came at once.
“My (AAU) coach (Tony Sagona) would always say that they were always going to come, the higher teams were always going to come,” Eli said. “I got calls a lot from low-to-mid-major schools, but I would say midway through the AAU season, I started getting calls from Ohio State and Michigan, and then Kansas State offered and that just set the whole world on fire.”
Much of the sudden love from the big programs was a product of Brooks playing better competition in elite AAU showcases, where he was always on display for close to 100 college coaches every time he stepped on the floor. Brooks was also put in a position to thrive. On the court for Spring Grove, he acts as a fourth coach, the guy who gets everyone else in the right position during play when James or one of his assistants can’t.
With the Jersey Shore Warriors, Brooks ran the point, but if he needed scoring, Sagona had no problem moving Brooks to the shooting guard position, a sign of his versatility. Playing alongside six other kids who earned Division I scholarships, Sagona could say, without a doubt, that Brooks was the leader of them all.
“He helped get each and every other kid on our team their Division I scholarship, and I can honestly say that because it’s true,” Sagona said. “He knows that when a kid gets hot and has hit two or three shots in a row, he looks to get them the ball.”
Maybe that’s what intrigued Michigan enough to ask him to visit the campus, without ever seeing him play.
When Brooks visited Ohio State, the folks at Michigan caught wind of it and asked him if he wanted to travel another couple hours north and pay a visit to the Ann Arbor campus. When he arrived, he was instantly blown away, not just by everything about the campus, but by how much the coaching staff took an interest in getting to know him as a person.
By the time he returned home from his impromptu trip, his decision was set — Brooks wanted to be a Wolverine. Wolverine head coach Jon Beilein went to see him play, and after sitting on his choice for a few weeks, Brooks' decision was made, even as he still held an offer from his dream school — reigning national champion Villanova.
“It was really tough saying no to the national champion,” Brooks said. “I still remember when I called coach (Jay) Wright. He understood where I was coming from and he liked the fact that I was straight-up with him and wasn’t playing games. He was upset I didn’t go there, but he was OK with the way I went about it.”
In a way, that also says a lot about Brooks as a person. He’s honest and grounded. He didn’t play any games with the teams that were awaiting his verbal commitment. There was no grand press conference with the hats of three or four different schools sitting on a table in front of him. He didn't string along a bunch of programs for months on end. There have been a lot of high school kids with lesser profiles than Brooks who made their commitments a big deal. He didn’t. That isn’t his style.
For a teenager, his presence on social media is basically non-existent. He rarely tweets and when he decided to verbally commit to Michigan back in July, the only sign of it on his Twitter page was a simple retweet of the Jersey Shore Warriors’ account. Even for something such as his own recruitment, he tries not to make a big deal of it.
Standing at only 6-feet, 1-inch and 180 pounds, Brooks is hardly the most physically imposing player on the court. When you walk into a gym, without knowing him and without seeing him play, you could easily guess, based solely on appearance, that three or four other players would be the Michigan-bound player. Yet, when the games start, it doesn’t take long to see his elite talent.
When he gets to Michigan, he’ll probably need to fill out a little more to withstand the daily rigors of playing against kids of similar talent who are bigger and stronger than he is. That's simply life in the Big Ten.
When it comes to competing in one of the nation’s top conferences, those close to Brooks have no doubt he’ll hold his own, even as a freshman.
“You get a lot of guys, after an AAU tournament, they go home and rest until the next AAU tournament,” Sagona said. “But this kid’s not resting. This kid’s in the gym. That’s the only thing that’s going to get you there. He will have a great career. A lot of schools at that level came after him, so they all believed in the same thing.”
Brooks is comfortable with whatever awaits him at Michigan. Whether it means redshirting his freshman year or playing right away, he sees the bigger picture. He knows he’ll receive a top-notch education. He's expected to enroll in one of the top business programs in the nation.
On the floor, he’ll play for one of the top coaches in the nation. Michigan isn’t your typical run-and-gun offense that a lot of colleges like to play nowadays. Instead, the Wolverines like to work in the half court, slowing the pace, working set plays and finding the best shot. If Michigan has to increase the tempo, however, Brooks can do that, too.
When James Brooks took over as head coach of Spring Grove before the 2013-14 season, he noticed a steady increase in fans coming out to watch the boys’ basketball team.
After games, most coaches will take their teams into the locker room, address their performance and then let them gather their belongings and walk out to meet family, friends and others who stuck around after the game.
James Brooks doesn’t. Instead, he simply brings his team into a huddle after the final horn and they quickly break down the game. Then the coach lets his players mingle with the fans. He believes it’s only fair. He doesn't want to keep the spectators waiting, especially after they cheered on the team all game long.
The team’s improved performance over the past four years have turned the players into mini-celebrities.
Not surprisingly, during the post-game mingling sessions, Eli draws the most attention. While most of the Rockets chat with fellow students, girlfriends or parents, Eli makes his rounds to anyone who wishes to congratulate him. Usually, it includes interviews with the media, pictures and autographs for anyone who asks — ranging from little kids to senior citizens — and small talk with just about everyone who approaches him, including opposing fans and players. He's signed everything, from shirts, shoes and cardboard cutout faces of himself, and he's grown to appreciate it because he knows, once he leaves for college, things will change.
It’s moments like those that Eli ultimately hopes will define his high school years — the superstar player about to embark on a major college career, who maintains a humble personality.
“The ball stops bouncing at some point,” he said. “So, it’s about being a good person overall, and not just about being a good basketball player.”
Eli's lasting impact on the Spring Grove program remains a mystery. Once he leaves for Michigan, it’s anticipated the Rockets' win total will take a dip, but will attendance, hype and expectations also slip? One of his lasting legacies will be how long the program remains relevant around York County after he’s no longer there.
Following a home game against Northeastern late in the season, when the Rockets won by 10 to tie the Bobcats for first place in Division I, fans, again, poured onto the floor at the Spring Grove gym to chat with the players and coaches. Slowly, the sellout crowd dispersed into the frigid January night, while many of the Spring Grove players made their way to the locker room.
Eli was among last ones left on the court. Twenty-eight minutes after he put the finishing touches on his 38-point, 16-rebound, seven-assist performance, and finally caught up with everyone who waited for him, he casually made his way toward the team dressing room.
He pushed open one half of a set of double doors into the brightly lit hallway and, as the door slammed shut behind him, disappeared from view.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com