Ryan Brooks '06 looks to drive in a recent Temple victory. Brooks is the leading scorer and top perimeter defender for the Owls, ranked #18 in the country.
When the 18th-ranked Temple Owls take on #1 Kansas this afternoon, the game will be viewed by many as a barometer of Temple's re-emergence on the college basketball scene. A strong performance would help the Owls (10-2) solidify their national ranking and secure an NCAA tournament bid in March. A win could help propel the program to even greater heights. No matter the outcome, however, the Owls have made people take notice that basketball is back on North Broad Street.
Ryan Brooks '06, the Owls' senior captain and leading scorer, knows a thing or two about playing with something to prove. The Aces alumnus has been doing it for most of his basketball life.
During the past eight years, Brooks has gone from high school bench warmer to the star of a Top 25 Division 1 program. His approach to improvement has for the most part been straightforward; marked by hard work, a positive attitude and a feisty competitive streak. An old-school gym rat, Brooks has followed the coach's blue-print, putting team before self in pursuit of greater glory. He has been content to operate below the radar, surfacing to collect the hardware that matters most -- championship trophies and rings. After the Owls won the 2009 A-10 tournament, (thanks in large part to Brooks' all-tournament performance) Temple coach Fran Dunphy called Brooks "the lowest maintenance guy I might ever have coached."
But even for a low maintenance guy like Brooks, it's hard not to notice that his accomplishments are more often a source of surprise than validation of what seems obvious -- that he is a darn good basketball player and, said Dunphy, "a winner in every sense of the word." In some cases, Brooks' efforts and those of his teammates have been completely overlooked.
Brooks failed to earn a single mention on any of this year's All-Atlantic 10 preseason rosters, despite being the top returning scorer and perimeter defender from an NCAA tournament team. The Blue Ribbon Yearbook, an annual preseason NCAA prospectus, predicted that while Temple "might still surprise some people [in 09-10], don't expect it to be with an NCAA Tournament berth.”
"People have doubted me and the teams I've been on," said Brooks. "As athletes, you try to block them out, but you read things in the paper or hear things and they're still in the back of your mind. That's motivated me and that's something that players and teams need to push them -- that motivation that there are people out there who don't think you can achieve certain things. I love the opportunity to prove people wrong."
At Lower Merion, Brooks helped lead two improbable state title runs; the first came in 2005 when the Aces began the playoffs seeded 12th in District I and the second in 2006 when the Aces scored consecutive comeback wins against top-ranked Chester and Schenley to earn a sixth state championship. When the Philadelphia Inquirer predicted an Aces defeat in the 2005 state quarterfinals against State College, Brooks knocked down a career-high six three-pointers en route to victory. When the Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called for a Schenley romp in the 2006 championship game, Brooks led all scorers with 21 points and held St. John's-bound DJ Kennedy to a season-low nine points. Brooks was at his best in the clutch, knocking down big shots and earning a reputation as the team's best perimeter defender. That reputation has continued during his college career.
"The state championship game my senior year was the biggest game of my life so far," says Brooks. "We had made it to the championship the year before and had fought so hard to get back there and have a chance to win it. I think it was just a reflection of all that we had built the past couple years and to be in that game and then to win it was a huge relief. To do it against a team that was heavily favored, I think meant a lot as far as confidence for the guys who moved on to play at the college level. I think it helped us bring a refuse to lose attitude to our teams. That was something the coaches at LM instilled in me and I've definitely brought that with me to Temple. That game allowed me to do that."
Despite Brooks' high school success, there were many college coaches who questioned whether a 6'4 wing guard could play at a competitive Division 1 program. Brooks had one standing scholarship offer, but the school didn't seem like the right fit. Even after a stellar state championship run and All-State recognition, Brooks was forced to showcase his skills on the AAU and elite camp circuit with the hope that other schools might still have interest. As senior year was coming to a close and opportunities were dwindling, it appeared Brooks would be headed to prep school.
The Lower Merion coaching staff remained convinced that Brooks deserved a chance.
"I watched him compete at the highest level against all this Division 1 talent," recalls Aces head coach Gregg Downer, "And I'm thinking there's no way these guys are better than Ryan."
"The thing that really opened my eyes was when Ryan and I went to the [University of] Virginia's elite camp that June," says Doug Young, an assistant with the Aces. "Ryan may not have been the tallest guy in the gym, but he played like a man and he played incredibly hungry. You could see he belonged."
Downer called Fran Dunphy, who had just been hired as Temple's new head coach and told Dunphy that Brooks was worthy of a scholarship. A few days later, Downer, Brooks and his mother, Darlene (a Temple professor), visited Dunphy at his office on the Temple campus. In early July, Brooks became Dunphy's first recruit at Temple.
“There was something special about him," said Dunphy in a recent interview. "The thing that turned me on to him was again the quality of the person, and all he did in high school was win. We couldn’t go wrong with having this kid on our program.”
"Winning gets you noticed," said Brooks' high school teammate and longtime best friend Garrett Williamson of the Saint Joseph's Hawks. Like Brooks, Williamson earned a college scholarship late in his senior year, following the Aces' state championship campaign. "A lot of people didn't really know about us. We surprised a lot of people by getting to the state championship junior year and I think they were checking to see if we were for real our senior season. We kind of had to prove ourselves."
In proving themselves to the world beyond Lower Merion, Brooks and Williamson revealed the results of hours spent together in the gym, competing and pushing each other to the limit. The duo would leave an indelible mark on the Aces program for what they accomplished together and would inevitably be the subject of countless comparisons. To this day, Williamson admits that both friends still feel a need to prove themselves to one another.
"A lot of our success comes from our competitive nature and the fact that we were constantly getting after each other in high school, constantly trying to get better," says Williamson. "There were nights we would stay in the gym for hours just trying to get our numbers up, trying to get a new record in some shooting game. To go out there every day and compete against someone with the same skill level, somebody who wants it just as bad as you want it, somebody to push you every single day really helped us both in our careers. And now that we're in college, that competition is still there, but we're always there for each other and we talk almost every day. Anything he needs, like a brother I'm there and I know it's the same for him. We're both kind of going through the same experiences as college basketball players."
Although Brooks made Lower Merion's varsity roster as a freshman, he toiled on the bench in his first two years, rarely seeing the floor. The Aces coaching staff knew Brooks had a world of talent, but they also saw a kid who was a little lazy and extra sensitive, a kid who hadn't yet developed his deep distaste for losing. During one practice, Brooks was struggling to get two consecutive defensive stops in a one-on-one drill and Downer erupted. He called every player but Brooks together for a huddle and told them to do everything they could to keep Brooks on defense. Ride him, dominate him, play physical -- anything to prove a point that toughness would be the only way out. The more Brooks sulked or cut corners, the more Downer went after him. At the end of the drill, Downer booted him from practice.
Brooks recalls that time as the most important in his development as a basketball player.
"When I chose basketball as my only sport after freshman year I had high expectations and it didn't turn out as I wanted to sophomore year. That motivated me. If this was my sport, I was going to have to put much harder work into it than I had in the past. That was a huge step. During the summer after my sophomore year, I learned to take basketball and my work ethic much more seriously and that kind of propelled me towards success."
Even after Brooks had established himself as a quality high school basketball player, he still had to continually prove himself to his high school coach.
Dr. Darlene Brooks recalls her son coming home after a practice during senior year and throwing up his hands. "Gregg had a meeting with the kids, he was fussing with them about not working hard enough and Ryan took it personally. He said, 'You know what? I'm done. I've busted my ass for this man. What else can I do?'"
What Downer wanted from Brooks was not just a personal commitment to success, but the leadership to take others along for the ride. Brooks and Williamson turned their attention towards their teammates and demanded that the only acceptable, collective response was to win. Brooks believed they could do it; now it was time for his teammates to believe the same.
"While he and Garrett kind of carried the team, they had everyone believing in themselves," says Dr. Brooks. "Playing with Garrett meant that there was no one star. At Lower Merion, Ryan learned team ball -- that it takes a team to be a winner."
In much the same way, Brooks and his Temple teammates are committed to proving themselves at the highest level this season.
"This is probably the closest unit I've been a part of since I've been at Temple," says Brooks. "We hang out constantly off the court. We know each other very well. I think after experiencing that in high school, where all of us were pretty much best friends, that's something I wanted to stress to the team. Just put the egos aside and let's go into the season together. This particular group gets it and we're excited about that."
Brooks has earned his opportunity to shine in the spotlight, but really he's been there all along. While the attention has been focused on other star players or more high-profile teams, Brooks has been plugging away, preparing for the one thing he seems to know best – winning. At every step in his journey, he and his teams have found success. What's happening at Temple is just an extension of who Brooks has grown to become as a person and a basketball player.
Says Brooks, "I knew coming in here, this was a program full of tradition. Our alumni and fans were dying to have a program like it was back in the day. I wanted to be part of that new beginning, and I took it as a personal challenge to make that winning tradition happen. As [Coach Dunphy's] first recruit, I wanted to make a mark and I knew I was coming in at a crucial point. It was the beginning of Temple returning to dominance and consistency in the postseason. This has been a tremendous experience so far and I'm very excited to see how much we can prove down the stretch."