Regrouping is never easy after losing your team’s best player, let alone your franchise’s three big stars. Even so, Aaron Brooks has the Houston Rockets gunning for the postseason once again this season. With his team currently in 8th place in the West, Brooks (18.7 ppg, 5.0 apg) is getting serious All-Star consideration. In the current issue of Dime, he talks about setting himself up for this breakout campaign.
It would have been all too easy to write off the Houston Rockets as Lottery bait heading into this season. After losing their top three players — two to injury, one to Hollywood — and having no first round draft picks, you could understand if the team and its fans packed it in to play for next year. But that’s not how third-year starting point man and rising NBA star Aaron Brooks sees it. After his eye-opening performance in the playoffs last season, Brooks is leading the rise from the Rockets’ rubble and is dead-set on taking his team back to the playoffs this year, shocking everyone who wrote them — and him — off in the process.
“I’ve been overlooked for awhile now,” says Brooks, 25, quietly amidst the ruckus of his teammates in the background. “I’ve had my struggles. I feel I’ve been through the fire.” He’s on his cell phone at the beginning of the season, about to board a plane headed for Utah, where he will spearhead a rare road victory in Salt Lake with 19 points and nine dimes. On this occasion, Deron Williams found out the hard way why Brooks is considered to be one of — if not the — quickest guys in the League with the ball in his hands.
For Aaron, it wasn’t always guaranteed that he’d be in this position — running his own NBA squad and cashing League checks. The Seattle native has come a long way in a short time; a path that has seen Brooks go from high school legend, to college disappointment and then back to his university’s brightest star, all before improbably shining in the League.
Secluded in the upper Pacific Northwest, it’s easy for high school recruits to get lost in the hoopla of other coastal hotbeds. But Seattle has unearthed a culture of basketball purists, no matter what Clay Bennett believes. Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, Nate Robinson and Brandon Roy have all emerged from the courts of the Emerald City. Growing up, Brooks was surrounded by the metro’s flourishing young basketball talent and forced to compete at a high level from an early age.
“I’ve known Aaron since he was eight years old,” says Robinson. “It’s good because you’ve got to imagine a normal open gym for us is guys like me, Aaron, [Rodney] Stuckey, Brandon, Jamal, Martell [Webster] and Terrence [Williams]. We got a lot of guys who just love the game of basketball.”
Brooks, who barely cracks six feet, began his rise to national prominence as a McDonald’s All-American at Seattle’s Franklin High School in 2003. He then opted against his hometown Huskies after graduation to instead travel south down I-5 to Eugene, Ore., and the Ducks.
Brooks’ four-year stay in Eugene was uneven at best. With mixed success his first two years, Brooks had what can politely be described as a forgettable junior year. His modest 10.8 points per game were overshadowed by no postseason and a suspension for elbowing Washington guard Ryan Appleby in the Pac-10 Tournament. Things did not look good for the player everyone had predicted would lead Oregon back to prominence and carry on to the NBA. Brooks was not playing to his potential and was not happy being in school. Then an unexpected surprise altered Brooks’ path forever.
He became a father.
“My daughter being born changed my life,” recalls Brooks. “I wasn’t thinking about myself. Basketball wasn’t going well and now it’s not the main priority. At the end of my junior year, I called my coach and told him I was going through a lot of stuff. I didn’t know if I wanted to do basketball. I stepped away from the game and re-evaluated everything.”
Basketball had always been his crutch and with a child on the way, Brooks was able to step back and approach his future with a different mindset. With a newfound perspective on life, he was able to have fun playing ball again and it showed on the court. Brooks led Oregon to a Pac-10 championship and an appearance in the Elite Eight.
“After the birth of his daughter, MiKah, he showed a more abundant commitment to our team and growth within himself,” says former Oregon teammate Bryce Taylor. “It was really fun to watch and be a part of. With each game and practice, his confidence grew and it was contagious. He was always a great person, but it seemed like something clicked for him which made him a better leader, teammate and friend.”
The NBA had also noticed the new Aaron Brooks. Drafted 26th by Houston in 2007, Brooks drifted in and out of rotation as he adjusted to the flow of the NBA. He was then catapulted into the starting role his second year, via a February trade of Rafer Alston to Orlando. There was no more rookie shield to hide behind or aging veteran to handle the responsibility; it was on Brooks.
Brooks lit up the 2009 playoffs, burning the nets for 16.8 points and dishing out 3.4 helpers a game. After leading the Rockets past the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, Brooks rocked the eventual champion Lakers through seven games — including a 34-point outburst in Game Four. Houston was eventually eliminated, but Brooks’ stellar play had made a lasting impression on the rest of the NBA.
“He is one of the fastest guys in the League,” says Portland coach Nate McMillan. “He has Allen Iverson-type speed. With his speed, he can get through all lanes that open up and that forces the defense to collapse on him.”
“He’s a feisty point guard,” says Robinson. “He’s quick, he’s smart. He can do everything. He’s not the strongest, but if you got brains and you got athletic ability, you don’t really need to be that strong.”
“He’s really good,” says Ron Artest. “I’d say he’s one of the top three point guards in the NBA.”
For Aaron, the playoffs are but a distant memory and his focus is solely on reaching team goals this season. Many are predicting the Rockets to fall short of the success they experienced from last year — Jalen Rose forecasted they’d finish 14th out West on ESPN.com — but not Brooks.
“My goal is to win games,” says Brooks. “Expectations don’t change. We have to take it day by day, right now. We’re a different team without the man in the middle (Yao Ming). We’re like a baseball team trying to manufacture runs where we can.”
Whether the Rockets return to the playoffs this season remains to be seen. One thing is clear, though: No one is doubting if Aaron Brooks can lead them. Watching him play, it’s evident that he approaches the game like a surgeon on speed pills. Meticulously weaving in and out of traffic, setting up his teammates and getting to the rack on a whim. Not bad for a 6-footer who almost quit basketball a couple years ago.
“It’s like a big brother seeing his little brother grow,” says Robinson.