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'Thrown into the fire': Garrison Brooks is the reluctant leader of UNC basketball

Junior guard Garrison Brooks (15) daps up his teammates during the exhibition game against Winston Salem State in the Smith Center on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. UNC beat WSSU 96-61.

“I knew I wasn’t very prepared,” Garrison Brooks said, sprawled in a folding chair in the North Carolina men’s basketball players’ lounge. “It showed.”

He's talking about a game played nearly two years ago, on Nov. 26, 2017, against Michigan State in the final of the PK80 tournament. The Spartans dominated UNC in a 63-45 laugher, limiting the Tar Heels, then with Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye in tow, to 24.6 percent from the floor. 

A first-year Brooks played 20 minutes and missed five of six field goal attempts. He says it was the lowest point of his college career.

Fast forward to today: the junior big man is on the verge of leading North Carolina this season as the team’s only returning starter. Brooks, the Tar Heels’ defensive anchor from a year ago, is also UNC’s leading returning scorer with 7.9 points per game.

He’ll look to incorporate six new faces, including grad transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce, as well as five-star first-years Armando Bacot and Cole Anthony, into the fray – and, in the words of teammate Shea Rush, “be a dominant force all 40 minutes.”

“When he’s locked in,” Rush told The Daily Tar Heel, “he’s one of the best in the country.”

How did he – and we – get here? How did a guy from the basketball hotbed of LaFayette, Alabama, the No. 131 player in his class, end up playing for Roy Williams, going from a town of 3,003 people to Chapel Hill?

And after a trying rookie season, how did Brooks become one of the Tar Heels’ most crucial players in 2018-19, and their unquestioned leader in 2019-20?

“I was kinda thrown into the fire,” Brooks said, shifting in his chair. He pauses.

“But it worked out for the best.”

Brooks attended Auburn High School and eventually moved to Auburn to avoid a 30-minute commute, but his heart remains in LaFayette.

“We only have one restaurant –  kind of a restaurant – that shuts down at like 6 o’clock,” Brooks said. “It’s only a couple gas stations. It’s very small. Everyone knows each other. I think it’s one of the greatest cities in America.”

Brooks’ uncle, Morris Finley, also hails from LaFayette. The former UAB guard, remembered for draining a game-winner against No. 1 seeded Kentucky in the second round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament, has been training and mentoring Brooks for his entire life.

He saw firsthand the type of transition his nephew had to undergo.

“You go from being the man in high school to being on a team full of guys who were the man in high school,” Finley said. “Once you get to college, there’s a learning curve for everyone.”

Brooks was originally committed to play for Ben Howland at Mississippi State. But after Tony Bradley bolted for the NBA draft in 2017, Brooks was granted a release from the Bulldogs and joined UNC.

Though he didn’t regret his decision, Brooks said the toughest thing about the adjustment was having to accept a different role. No longer his team’s go-to option, Brooks took the seventh-most shots for UNC in his first season.

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And then there was the Michigan State game.

“We were physically dominated everywhere across the court,” he said. “It was a lot at the time, and I knew I wasn’t ready for it.”

After starting the first 16 games, Brooks was moved to the bench to make way for a small-ball starting five. In a season-ending walloping at the hands of Texas A&M, the first-year had three points and shot 1-6 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The early exit gave Brooks and company plenty to think about in the offseason. A No. 2 seed, Berry and Pinson’s last ride, a chance to go back-to-back: all spoiled. 

When Brooks did return, though, a changed mindset – with the help of both teammates and his favorite book – would lead to the most successful season of his basketball career.

“He didn’t say it like, ‘This is the Bible,’” Brooks said, “but he was like, ‘This book will help you through a lot of stuff.’”

That’s how Brooks’ cousin introduced him to “The 48 Laws of Power,” Robert Greene’s best-selling self-help book, before his second season at North Carolina. Published in 1998, it includes anecdotes of influential people throughout history from Stalin to Shakespeare, tied to tenets such as “win through your actions, never through argument” and “master the art of timing.”

Brooks read and immediately resonated with the book, so much so that his Instagram bio references Law 25: “Re-Create Yourself.”

"Do not accept the roles that society foists on you," Greene writes. "Re-create yourself by forging a new identity, one that commands attention and never bores the audience. Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define it for you."

What about that passage resonated with Brooks?

“The biggest thing for me was just being myself,” he said. “Not being who anyone else wanted to be, and just flourishing into my own person.”

And as a sophomore, by the time conference season rolled around, Brooks felt he had finally bloomed.

He won North Carolina’s defensive player of the game award a team-high 12 times in 2018-19, helping the team to a 29-7 record and a share of the ACC regular season title. Though UNC again fell early in the postseason in a Sweet Sixteen loss to Auburn – Brooks said he had to “go home and hear that nonsense” this summer – he staked his claim as one of the Tar Heels’ most important cogs.

But the teammates Brooks credited for making him feel comfortable last season – Kenny Williams, Coby White and Maye in particular – aren’t around anymore. Now, it’s Brooks and senior guard Brandon Robinson spearheading a team that lost its five top scorers from last season.

And though Brooks was hesitant to accept his role at first, Robinson, for his part, has already seen growth.

I’ve seen him become more of a leader,” he said. “A guy who leads by example, that’s not afraid to speak up when he needs to.”

Brooks said that the next phase of his career – from contributor to leader – began almost immediately after the departing Tar Heels left campus.

Just like the last transition, it didn’t come without its fair share of bumps.

“I wasn’t the most excited about it,” Brooks said. “Because I didn’t want to have to yell at anyone, get everyone ready, be the main focal point.”

Instead of telling them, Brooks would rather show his teammates what to do. Before the start of practice, you can find him shooting around and cracking jokes; once his work day begins, though, you get the sense that whatever drill he’s partaking in – leg stretches, jump hooks, free throws – gets his full attention.

“He’s definitely always in the right place doing the right things,” Keeling said.

Robinson said that Brooks will “make a point” to be the best defensive player on the team. But for a team that lost more than 80 percent of its points from last season, he’ll need to be even more than that.

“He’ll have to kinda shoulder the load offensively, but I think he’s more than capable,” Finley, his uncle, said. “It’s a matter of confidence, for sure.”

That’s not to say North Carolina won’t have other options. Pierce and Keeling both averaged more than 14 points per game at mid-majors last season, while Anthony and Bacot are two of the most college-ready UNC recruits in a while.

Thus comes the biggest challenge of all: making the new guys feel like part of the team. Brooks says it’s something he had to learn.

“I’m still struggling a little bit, figuring out how to talk to everyone,” Brooks said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things, figuring out how to get a message across to everyone in a way they understand.”

Brooks says he models his leadership style after Maye, another no-frills Tar Heel. But while Finley doesn’t expect Brooks to be “barking” at everyone – “that’s not who he is” – he does expect him to be more vocal this season. 

 “I think he’ll have to,” he said. “Especially on the court explaining to guys that weren’t there last year or didn’t play as much last year.”

Expectations are as high as ever for North Carolina, new faces be damned. The No. 9 Tar Heels were picked to finish second in the ACC, while Brooks himself was a preseason second team All-ACC selection.

The training wheels are off. He’ll be expected to contribute heavily on both ends, and more than anyone else will be responsible for upholding the lofty expectations that are ever-present for North Carolina basketball.

The reason others say Garrison Brooks is ready for this moment? Everything that came before it.

“The more experience you have, the more equipped you are to handle it when it becomes your turn to be the leader,” Finley said. 

“That experience – there’s no substitute for that.”


@DTHSports |