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UNC basketball: Senior forward Garrison Brooks leaves legacy as a leader

C.L. Brown
·5 min read

Looking back a few years, North Carolina coach Roy Williams and senior forward Garrison Brooks chuckle at Williams’ early impression of his then-freshman-heavy frontcourt.

Speaking of Brooks, Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman, Williams said that if you pieced together the best parts of all his big men, he still wouldn’t have a big man.

As Brooks prepares to play his final game in the Dean E. Smith Center Saturday against Duke, he’ll do so as a complete player. No one questions whether Brooks is leaving behind any amount of his potential.

“He should get a great deal of credit because that was a lot of sweat,” Williams said. “A lot of sweat, a lot hours in the gym working on his game, a lot hours in the weight room working on his body. I think he’s been an incredible player for us.”

Incredible isn’t measured by stats alone.

How can you measure a player who would ask Williams to stay out of the starting lineup so freshman Caleb Love wouldn’t be the only one who was benched? That’s a sacrifice Brooks made when Williams tweaked the lineup against N.C. State to ensure that Love didn’t feel singled out.

“I didn’t know that for real,” junior forward Leaky Black said. “See, that’s how Garrison is.”

Brooks developed in what used to be a normal progression in college basketball. He arrived barely being trusted to stay on the court. He’ll depart as a player the Tar Heels look to for stability. His leadership spanned well beyond the confines of the Smith Center.

Brooks has spoken up on social justice issues in a manner that Carolina players have typically shied away from doing. He was one of four active players who signed an open letter calling for the removal of the Silent Sam statue as a sophomore.

“If you would have asked me my first day, would I be as physically good as I am now, I would have believed you,” Brooks said, “but I couldn’t see it at that moment. I definitely never saw myself being the leader that I am now.”

Preseason Player of the Year?

That’s why the accolades don’t matter much to Brooks. When the ACC announced Brooks as the league’s preseason Player of the Year last fall, it seemed like a stretch.

Brooks was the league’s returning leading scorer, averaging 18.8 points in ACC play as a junior. But the Tar Heels were so limited offensively last season, he scored out of necessity. His average was bound to fall because the Heels added more scoring options this season.

That Brooks was tabbed was more of an acknowledgment of how well he played as a junior and an indictment of the drop in marquee talent in the league. Of the seven other players who received preseason votes (Virginia’s Sam Hauser and Kihei Clark, Florida State’s M.J. Walker, Duke’s Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt, Clemson’s Aamir Simms and Miami’s Chris Lykes), only Hurt is likely to be a contender in the voting.

“It don’t really matter, I ain’t going to lie to you,” said Brooks, who is second on the Heels averaging 10.5 points per game and third with 7.0 rebounds. “It was nice to be named that, but I didn’t overthink.”

No regrets

Brooks doesn’t spend much time with regrets because he wasn’t even supposed to be here. The native of Auburn, Alabama, initially signed with Mississippi State in November of 2016. It’s where his father played and served as an assistant coach. But Brooks had second thoughts.

Brooks’ request to be released from his Letter of Intent in March of 2017 was denied by the school. His appeal to the NCAA? Rejected. He was contemplating attending prep school or attending MSU with the intent of transferring when coach Ben Howland granted him a full release.

It just so happened Carolina, coming off the 2017 national title, was losing its entire frontcourt rotation after Tony Bradley decided to forgo his remaining eligibility and enter the NBA draft after just one year.

Although Brooks came to UNC largely by happenstance, his development was by design.

“He was the defensive player of the year for us twice,” Williams said. “All-ACC last year second team, so he’s really had a big-time career. He’s also been a fantastic leader for us, and it’s just unfortunate that the ball hadn’t rolled over the rim and been going in as much this year as it did last year. I’m hopeful that that’ll change in the next five weeks.”

Saturday’s game against Duke doesn’t have to be the last home game for Brooks. He could use the NCAA waiver implemented because of COVID-19 and come back for another season. That discussion, as Williams informed reporters on Thursday, won’t take place for any of the Tar Heels’ seniors until after the season ends.

If it is his last game, Brooks knows how he wants Carolina fans to think of him.

“You want to be remembered as like a hard-working guy, a great teammate,” Brooks said. “The kind of guy that has grown since Day One. I think that’s something I always want to look back at as a guy that overall just had a lot of fun over four years.”