Where are they now? Through passion and persistence, Brooks earns a new start in Sacramento

Aaron Brooks celebrates after his game winning shot, The Kiss, defeating #1 UCLA in 2007.

Rěnnài. This is a Chinese word for patience.
It is a word that former Duck point guard Aaron Brooks has had to learn. With the NBA players on strike for much of the 2011-2012 season, he chose to continue playing by going international, joining the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. In fact, when the NBA lockout ended, Brooks was one of only a few NBA players that stayed behind and honored his (full) CBA contract agreement.

Who can forget that cool, crisp January 6th evening at legendary Mac Court in Eugene way back in 2007? Brooks was the senior leader of the No. 17 ranked Oregon Ducks that year, a team that was making waves in the Pac-10 with its fast-paced play and sniper-style deep range shooting prowess. That January evening was a special night not only for Ducks athletics, but it cemented the Aaron Brooks legacy in Eugene, giving a glimpse of how successful he’d be at the next level.

The Ducks took on the No. 1 ranked UCLA Bruins in the Pit (not the first time the Ducks had downed the mighty Bruins at Mac Court when they were ranked #1). The Bruins were stacked with stars, like Lake Oswego’s own Kevin Love, and a pretty good current NBA starting point guard named Darren Collison. For Aaron Brooks, the final seconds of the game were a defining moment. His performance, a statement to show he was ready for what came next.

Simple as that.

There was only 19 seconds left on the clock when Brooks took over with the Ducks leading 66-63. His message to his team was simple, keep the ball in my hands, and that’s exactly what they did.

Brooks sprinted with the ball up the floor and immediately took it to the right wing, which drew a deadly triple team from Collison, Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (also a current NBA player). Being a point guard requires the ability to be able to improvise, and with a triple team Brooks could have easily passed to a wide-open teammate. Instead he freestyled on the fly, using the one tool at his disposal–the glass.

Due to the three defenders draping over him, it was impossible for Brooks to drive, which is what the defense was expecting he’d do. Instead Brooks took the right baseline jumper and gently kissed it off the glass, sending the ball into the basket, making the Mac Court nylon net explode and Fox’s own legend Barry Tompkins yelling, “Brooks, gotta pull the trigger, got it off the window!” It gave the Ducks the 68-63 lead and the 68-66 win over the top team in the country.

It’s a game remembered for Brooks’ miraculous shot, the Ducks taking down number one, but also for the post-game reaction. It was a side of head coach Ernie Kent never seen before. In 1974, Ernie Kent played for an Oregon team that upset No. 1 UCLA. Thirty-three years later, Kent sobbed in the post-game press conference when his Ducks again knocked off the top-ranked Bruins.

For Brooks, the statement he set out to make was heard not just around the Pac-10 Conference, but around the country. Aaron Brooks had scored 25 points by the time the clock reached zero. More importantly, Brooks’ shot, “The Kiss,” was the Ducks’ only field goal over the final seven minutes of the game, a contest where the Ducks had dominated early spurred on by the rabid Oregon crowd but feeling the concern of a last-minute comeback by the Bruins when the Ducks’ shot went cold in the 2nd half.

While the team win was big, Aaron Brooks’ individual victory of getting NBA scouts’ heads to turn in his direction was bigger. brooks had been a highly-touted prospect from Seattle, WA, when he joined the Ducks, a player many teams coveted. He was thought to be the answer, carrying Oregon to 3-4 years of prosperity, the heir apparent to the “Two Lukes” glory days. That didn’t happen. Brooks first few years in Eugene were mired in inconsistent play, friction, and questions of his maturity.

By his senior year though Brooks was a changed man and player, a proud new father and better basketball player, a true team leader capable of taking over a game and willing his team to victory when duty called–essentially, the player everyone thought he was coming out of high school. The Ducks stormed through the Pac-10 conference, winning the Pac-10 Tournament in a stunning display in the championship game vs. USC that featured a perfect shooting night from Bryce Taylor (7/7) and diminutive shooting guard Tajuan Porter torching the Trojans from deep range. It was one of the most impressive performances of team basketball seen in recent years, and conducting it all was Brooks, like a pitcher throwing a perfect game.

The Ducks would make it as far as the Elite-Eight in the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual NCAA National Champion Florida Gators, giving the Gators the toughest test they faced throughout the tournament largely outplaying UF but suffering from a case of whistle-happy referees leading to almost the entire Oregon starting lineup fouling out of the game.

Five months after the unforgettable victory over #1 UCLA, at the 2007 NBA Draft Brooks was selected as the 26th overall pick by the Houston Rockets. Before dressing in Rockets gear, he was sent down to the Rockets D- League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, for two games where he formed a close bond with the community and team president Bert Garcia. Brooks helped conduct Rockets youth camps, including one run by the Vipers. Upon joining the Rockets, the team gave Brooks the best present a player could ask for, the keys to the starting point guard position. Rafer Alston, the Rockets starting point guard, was traded to Orlando.

Two years later he led the Rockets to the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, where Brooks made his first big professional impact in Game 4 of the series. He torched the Lakers for 34 points and helped the Yao Ming-less Rockets even the series at 2-2. The Lakers would however go on to win the series.

Brooks continued his rise to success–on March 17, 2010, Brooks shot 7-7 from behind the three point arc against the Memphis Grizzlies, setting a new franchise record. On April 11, 2010, Brooks became only the sixth player in NBA history to make over 200 3-pointers and over 400 assists in a single season.

To culminate a great start to a long, promising career, he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player on April 23, 2010, averaging 19.6 points, 5.3 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game.

But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.

On November 6, 2010, Brooks suffered a sprained ankle. This allowed Houston’s young, promising point guard Kyle Lowry some starting time, and he took full advantage raising more than a few eyebrows of the Houston coaches and management.

Brooks returned on December 19, 2010 in a 102-93 win over the Sacramento Kings, in which he came off the bench for 15 minutes and recorded nine points (all 3-pointers). In his first start since returning from his injury, on January 10, 2011, he tied his season-high 24 points, in a win over the Boston Celtics.

However, in the month that Brooks was inactive, Houston found a younger, healthier Aaron Brooks in Kyle Lowry and Brooks was relegated to a bench role.

On February 24, 2011, Brooks was traded to the Phoenix Suns for Goran Dragić and a first round pick. He went to Phoenix with the promise that the legendary Suns starting point guard Steve Nash was likely retiring very soon, so Brooks would be groomed to take over the starting job and that Nash was willing to play the two guard so Brooks could play the point, putting the two players on the court at the same time.

Neither of those promises from GM Lance Blanks came true. Nash stayed put and played with veteran two guard Vince Carter instead. Brooks was once again banished to the bench, losing playing time and institutional memory of NBA competition. The one thing he didn’t lose was hope. Hope that he would get to play and have a chance to make a statement similar to the one he made on January 6, 2007 against the Bruins.

Phoenix finished the 2010-2011 season tenth in the Western Conference at 40-42. Aaron Brooks played hard all while hardly playing,  his team failing to make the playoffs. He kept his head high and was ready for the 2011-2012 season with thoughts that it can only get better.

There was only one problem, the NBA lockout. For the third time in two years Aaron Brooks was left sitting, waiting for NBA minutes.

With the lockout in full swing, NBA players like Stephon Marbury, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler decided they weren’t going to sit, age and not play basketball. So instead they committed to playing for the Chinese Basketball Association, and other players joined European Leagues, expecting the lockout to last a very long time with both the players union and owners at an impasse.

Aaron Brooks debuts for the Guandong Tigers of the CBA.

Aaron Brooks finally got good news, receiving a call from the Guangdong Southern Tigers. They wanted him to be their sixth man point guard. He graciously accepted and signed a short-term contract. Like he did early in his NBA career, Brooks had instant chemistry and success with his team.

On January 6, 2012, exactly five years after his miraculous shot that lifted the Ducks over the No. 1 Bruins, Brooks scored 40 points while playing 38 minutes off the bench as Guangdong defeated the Tianjin Ronggang 110-97. Brooks was 5 points shy of tying the Guangdong single-game scoring record set by Du Feng.

On February 16, 2012, Brooks was selected as the replacement starting point guard for the 2012 CBA All-Star game replacing J.R. Smith. In the All-Star game, Brooks led all competitors with 9 assists, but his Northern All-Stars team lost to the Southern All-Stars, 122-112.

As a restricted free agent, Brooks was eligible to receive an offer sheet from other teams through March 1 when the NBA lockout suddenly ended sending players scrambling to quickly return to their teams, but he decided to remain under contract in China while Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and others immediately sprinted back to the NBA.

On March 8, the NBA on TNT did a segment on Brooks’ time in China with Guangdong. Brooks led the team in assists for each game leading up to the 2012 CBA Finals, where they lost to the Stephon Marbury-led Beijing Ducks.

The Suns initially extended a qualifying offer to Brooks for the 2012-13 season but would later withdraw the offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. So once again, Aaron Brooks was homeless, in a basketball sense.

The day after the Suns withdrew the offer, Brooks got a call from his old friend Bert Garcia asking him to come help with Viper youth camps. While he was in the area, Brooks met informally with Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Rockets coach Kevin McHale about potentially returning to Houston as the starting point guard, since a disgruntled and unhappy Kyle Lowry had been traded to Toronto.

By mid-July Brooks had the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings requesting his point guard services for next year. On July 16 he announced that he would sign with the Kings, a two year deal worth $3.3 million. He also received a player option that allows him to opt out of the contract if his performance next season is deemed worthy beyond the $3.3 million guaranteed. He will serve as the primary backup to current Sacramento starter and former Washington Husky star Isaiah Thomas.

Aaron Brooks did not spend his collegiate basketball career at a basketball powerhouse. As a result, he thought the hard part of trying to become an NBA player was getting drafted. Little did he know, for him, that was actually the easy part. The roughest ordeal of the 27 year-old’s journey thus far has been a lack of opportunity to show teams and scouts that he’s still got what it takes to play every day, and that his jaw-dropping crossovers and deep three-pointers those same teams and scouts saw while he was a Duck are still there.

Tim Hardaway, one of the best point guards ever to play in the NBA once said, “I didn’t like how my NBA career ended because I wanted to go out on my own terms. But nobody tried to believe in me, that I could go back and play. I can still play at 39.”

Aaron Brooks has spent the last five years trying to prove to NBA teams that he is someone to believe in. He did after all help head the Rockets into the 2009 playoffs. The former Duck spent the last year playing in China trying to prove to NBA teams that he can come back to the NBA and play even at 27. Aaron Brooks is finally back in professional basketball in the United States, but it took a hefty helping of passion and persistence to keep that flame going.

Nevertheless, with some Rěnnài and an ankle-breaking crossover move, The headband-wearing Agent 0 of old looks to make another drive at the NBA.

Brooks in his new Sacramento digs. He will actually wear #3. His trademark #0 is occupied by incoming rookie star from Kansas Thomas Robinson.

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  • Jim

    great article – thanks for your efforts Jim M

  • Oregon Club of Seattle

    Great article. Just saw Aaron last weekend at his annual fundraiser Charitibowl event.
    http://aaronbrooksfoundation.org/ We need to get more Seattleites out for the event next year.