In a year when no individual has dominated college basketball, there is more than the usual debate on the subject of just who is the top player in the country. Certainly Mark Agguire of No. 1 De Paul lists a solid portfolio, as do Louisville's Darrell Griffith, Purdue's Joe Barry Carroll, Duke's Mike Gminski, and Maryland's Albert King.
But the most fluorescent talent in the college game today may belong to La Salle college forward Michael Brooks, a 6 ft. 7 in., 220-pound package of high voltage energy who has regaled fans at Philadelphia's famed Palestra for four seasons with his own special formula of hypersonic basketball.
After an outstanding schoolboy career at Philadelphia's West Catholic High, Brooks elected to stay home and attend La Salle, the small Roman Catholic college that is part of Philadelphia's Big Five. As a result, it took a while for him to receive the national publicity that unquestionably would have come right away at a bigger school.
He is out of the closet now, however, and is considered by many experts to be the best pure power forward in the collegiate ranks. Brooks runs baseline-to-baseline for 40 minutes as well as anyone, overwhelms defenders of every size with a devastating one-two punch of finesse and power, and spends a good deal of time conducting vertiginous performances above the rim. He is indefensible when he gets the ball low inside, and has stultified every imaginable defense he has faced during his fabulous career.
"It is hard to imagine that there are any better players in the nation," says La Salle Coach Lefty Ervin. "When he turns on the energy, and its usually turned on, there isn't much you can do to stop him."
The national spotlight first found Brooks in a really big way last summer when he helped lead the United States to a gold medal at the 1979 Pan Am games. His salient overall contribution was punctuated by a game high 28-point, 13 -rebound performance against Puerto Rico in the championship contest.
Brooks says Indiana's Bobby Knight, who coached the US team, had a profound influence on his approach to the game.
"During one of our practices he called me one of the most careless players he had ever seen," recalls Brooks. "I don't know if he really meant it. I think it was just his way of helping me improve my concentration. He embarrassed me in front of the other players, and it really hurt me, but is had a positive effect. I ended up with a better sense of what I should be trying to accomplish on the floor."
Brooks also credits Knight for instilling in him a heightened appreciation of the value of a strong defensive commitment. Through the other end of the eyeglass, Knight was so impressed with Brooks that after the Pan Am Games he claimed if he were starting a college team from scratch the first player he would pick would be Brooks.
Paul Westhead, the current head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, spent three years as Brook's coach at La Salle and once compared him to Elgin Baylor. On Feb. 21 against Duquense, Brooks passed Baylor on the all time NCAA scoring list. He has also recently eclipsed the totals garnered by former La Salle All American Tom Gola, Kareem Abul-Jabbar, jerry West and Rick Barry. With 2,563 career points Brooks is now 10th on the NCAA's all-time scoring list, and his 1, 333 career rebounds rank him as one of only 31 players in the past 30 years to total more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
But although his demonstrated talents and statistics are indeed impressive, it is Brooks' enthusiasm for the game and his resolve to excel that accent his posture as a "can't miss" first round draft pick.
"I think the key to my making it in the NBA," says Brooks, "is to show that I can overpower smaller forwards and be too quick for the big guys. One phase that has really improved this year has been my passing. "I've been double teamed and triple teamed a lot, but I've usually been pretty successful at finding and hitting the open man."
A good example of this occurred in Wednesday night's East Coast Conference playoff game against Temple. The closely guarded Brooks scored only one point in the first half, but while the Owls were concentrating on stopping him his teammates took up the slack to build a 12-point lead. Michael then found the range himself in the second half, finishing with 15 points as the Explorers won 70-62 to advance to this weekend's four-team showdown for an NCAA tournament berth.
Brooks first served notice of things to come early in his freshman season in a game against Tennessee when he erupted for 35 points and outplayed the Volunteers' All-America tandem of Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld. that year he set a new La Salle record for most points by a freshman (579), led the Big Five in rebounding and was a first team freshman All-America selection.
The following season Brooks was the highest scoring sophomore in the nation, and in one memorable performance stunned Notre Dame for a then career high of 39 points. Brooks topped the 30 point mark 10 times that year, including a brilliant 35-point, 14-rebound effort in an opening round NCAA tournament game against Villanova.
Despite being bothered by leg injuries last year, Brooks still avergaged 23 points and 13 rebounds per game. This year he once again ranks among the nation's top scorers and rebounders His 29 points helped fuel a two-point upset of Notre Dame in January, and in one incredible outpouring of talent against Brigham Young in the championship game of the Cougar Classic, Brooks exploded for 51 points to set a La Salle record.
At one point in that game he accounted for 28 straight La Salle points en route to tournament MVP honors and a five-minute standing ovation from 19,000 partison fans. BYU Coach Frank Arnold, who spent a total of eight years as an assistant coach at Oregan and UCLA, called it the single greatest performance he ever witnessed by a college player.
Brooks has had his heart set on playing for the US Olympic team since his early childhood and is still hoping that the US may yet compete in the 1980 games. But whatever happens, one thing appears certain: when he ends his career at LaSalle, another basketball life awaits him in the NBA.