Jerardi: Brooks among the best-ever at La Salle

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La Salle forward Michael Brooks is congratulated by coach Lefty Ervin after Brooks broke the school's scoring record in February 1980. Brooks surpassed the mark of 2,462 points set by Tom Gola in 1955.

LA SALLE'S Mount Rushmore is Tom Gola, Kenny Durrett, Michael Brooks and Lionel Simmons. Whenever La Salle plays a game at Gola Arena, the players can look up from their bench to see the retired jerseys, the players having combined for 15 points shy of 10,000.

Gola's team won the 1954 national championship and lost in the championship game the next year. Durrett may very well have been the most talented player ever in the Big 5. Simmons left school as the third-leading scorer in Division I history. Nobody has passed his 3,217 points in the intervening 26 years.

I knew Gola a little bit. I spoke with Durrett several times and met him when he was honored as a member of the Big 5's 40th anniversary team. I covered Simmons' entire career and know him very well.

I spoke with Brooks just once, the day before Simmons' last La Salle home came on Feb. 27. 1990. When I heard about Brooks' death, I called up the story I wrote the day after La Salle's 106-73 win over Army at the Civic Center, the team getting to 26-1 on the way to 30-2.

"I've been following the team all year," Brooks told me from Limoges, France. "I think it's fantastic for Lionel. I know how he feels, to a certain point. I didn't score 3,000 points, but when I broke Tom Gola's (scoring) record (of 2,461 points), I felt wonderful."

Brooks finished with 2,628 points and 1,372 rebounds. He averaged 20.0 points, 24.9 points, 23.3 points and 24.1 points, incredibly consistent and just about impossible to guard from West Catholic to La Salle to his early NBA days right through a long professional career in France.

Just like Gola and Simmons, Brooks led La Salle in scoring all four years. Durrett only led for 3 years because he only got to play three years. Freshmen were ineligible then.

I never saw Michael Brooks play live, but have vague memories of having seen him on television. His last college game was five years before I started at the Daily News. Brooks was the captain of the 1980 USA Olympic basketball team which never got to play in Moscow because of the boycott. It is one of those what if sports moments.

 

I had to look up those long ago words from Michael Brooks, but I remember the tone. He seemed thrilled for the L-Train and clearly loved his time at La Salle.

"I think if Lionel stays healthy and continues to keep a level head, which I can sense that he has, by reading different articles about him, I think he is going to have a very special professional career," Brooks said.

Simmons, in fact, got off to a great start with the Sacramento Kings, averaging 18.0, 17.1, 17.9 and 15.1 points in his first four seasons - before constant knee injuries ended his career after only seven seasons.

Brooks' NBA career was eerily similar. He averaged 14.7 points, 15.6 points, 12.2 points and 11.3 points in his first four seasons for the San Diego Clippers, missed the next two seasons with knee injuries and then barely played in his final two NBA seasons.

Brooks definitely knew his school.

"The first attraction (to La Salle)," Brooks told me, "is the fact that you are going to start. (When you're) playing at a school like La Salle, no one's going to really take the team seriously. You have nothing to lose. There's no pressure on you to finish in the top 10 every year. You play pressure-free. In a situation like that, great players have a tendency to jell."

I don't have the stats for every school in America in front of me, but I wonder how many schools have four players that combined for 9,985 points. Can't be many. Can't be any of La Salle's size.

It is really quite a legacy nationally and in the city. No Big 5 school and few anywhere can match La Salle's array of top-level stars. Put them all in their prime, give Doug Overton the ball and that five could play with anybody's five.

We lost Durrett far too soon in 2001. He was just 52. Gola was 81 when he died in 2014. Brooks just turned 58 on Aug. 17.

Brooks' last college game was March 6, 1980 in West Lafayette, Ind. Those were the days when teams still played NCAA Tournament games on their home court. La Salle lost to Purdue, 90-82.

That doesn't seem fair. Neither did his not getting a chance to play in the Olympics. Nor must it have seemed fair to all those players who tried to stop Michael Brooks. He played 114 games at La Salle and best I can tell from looking at the numbers, nobody ever did.


jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi