Perpetual underdog Brooks hero to one fan

October 21, 1990|By Phil Jasner | Phil Jasner,Knight-Ridder News Service

MINNEAPOLIS -- This was two seasons ago, when relatively unknown free-agent rookie Scott Brooks startled Philadelphia's basketball public by making the 76ers.

Brooks was driving through the Veterans Stadium parking lot, bound for the team's offices, past the gaggle of kids waiting for the Eagles to trudge back from their workout.

One kid approached Brooks, laughingly asking whether he might have an extra ticket for the Sixers' next game.

Brooks shocked the youngster by asking him to wait and said he'd check and see. A little while later, he came back with exactly what young James Benson had wanted.

"He had such an innocent look, such a soft voice," Brooks said before playing 22 minutes (five points, four assists) for Minnesota in Tuesday night's 102-96 loss to his former team. "He touched my heart. It's a hard feeling to describe, more an inner thing.

"I wasn't looking for someone to help. This just happened."

The 5-11 guard from Northern California and the shy kid from South Philadelphia. Somehow, Brooks was saying, he knew it would work.

Brooks never mentioned the situation publicly in his two seasons with the Sixers, but he became Benson's unofficial big brother. He invited him to practice, got him tickets for games at the Spectrum. They went out for pizza, rented movies, visited malls, talked about life.

"Every kid needs someone to look up to, someone to be a role model," Brooks said. "James just sort of came into the picture. To me, he seemed as if he needed some guidance."

Brooks knew about that, growing up in a houseful of kids, the youngest of seven, with only his mother to support them.

"I'll never forget how my mom was with me, my high school coach, too," Brooks said. "My stats in school were against me, my size was against me, but I knew I was going to be a success. People helped me feel that way. Now I'm trying to help James.

"I remember the day I met James, he said he liked the way I played, gave me a new nickname. Called me 'Scrappy,' because, he said, I scrapped all over the court."

Brooks knew his teammates did things in the community, but he chose to tread lightly.

"I tried to keep a low profile," he said. "I wasn't doing it for the recognition. I didn't want to be second-guessed."

*

Benson, 16, is a sophomore at University City High in Philadelphia.

"He [Brooks] is an all-around nice guy. He amazed me," Benson said. "He didn't have to take the time with me that he did.

"I was impressed by how true he is. If he says he's going to do something, he does it. And he was always there when I needed him. Nobody was as nice to me as he was."

Benson lives with his mother, Janice Earp, but said he sees his father frequently. There are times, though, when a kid needs somebody outside the family unit.

"There were times," Benson said, "when there were things I wanted to talk about that I didn't want to mention to my mom. I found I could express myself to Scott, the way you'd talk to a big brother."

"I have a lot of respect for Scott," Earp said. "He tried to help James, to encourage him. I was proud that he was willing, with a kid from the ghetto."

*

Scott Brooks knows what it means to come up the hard way. He played at East Union High in Manteca, Calif., then spent one season at Texas Christian, one season at San Joaquin Delta Junior College, two seasons at California-Irvine. He averaged 23.8 points as a senior, played in the Southern California Summer League and earned an invitation to the Sixers' camp for rookies and free agents in the summer of '87.

He was intense and aggressive. But he also bruised a thigh, which cost him a chance to go to veterans camp. Instead, he found his way to the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. He averaged 8.6 points for what became a championship team, then made the Sixers' roster the next season.

He ended up with the Minnesota Timberwolves as the pawn that helped the Sixers draft Georgia Tech's Brian Oliver. The Sixers owned just the No. 47 pick in the two-round draft but obtained No. 32, the fifth pick in the second round, from the Wolves for Brooks, which put them in position to select Oliver, whom they perceive as being better-equipped to help at both backcourt spots.

"It took me a couple of days to get over the trade," Brooks said. "But then I flew to Minneapolis for a press conference, and from that day, I knew this would be a good situation.

"I loved Philly, loved the fans, the coaches, my teammates, the owner. Everybody was great to me. Nothing was wrong.

"I got to Minnesota, I saw the same things, the same kind of situation. I had played for [Wolves coach] Bill Musselman with Albany. So had some of the other players. Musselman was tough on us, but and this may sound sugary he could really motivate us. Sometimes I think he could motivate a cat to bark like a dog.

"Back then, there were days I wanted to strangle him and days he probably wanted to strangle me. He put me in adverse situations, but I overcame them, became a better player, a better person.

"Sure, going to an expansion team was tough to swallow, but you can't have everything."

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