Mystery man speaks: Michael Brooks on his career, health, and hometown

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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 surpasses the mark of 2,462 points set by Tom Gola in 1955.

At exactly 8:35 p.m. local time Monday in Etoy, Switzerland, Michael Brooks picked up the phone and - who can say the last time he did this? - dialed a Philadelphia number.

He had decided to explain where he has been, why he has been there, and why he has been so quiet for so long. It was his first opportunity, he said, to respond to the phone messages I had left and the emails I had sent him last week. When he called me Monday, he had not yet read a column that had been published on Philly.com on Friday and in the Sunday Inquirer - a column that I had wanted to be about his reflections on the 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott but that, as I reported the piece, became something else entirely.

It became about him and his mysterious decision to cut himself off from hundreds of people here who knew him or knew of him. He had been a superstar at West Catholic High and La Salle University (La Salle College then), the NCAA's Kodak player of the year in 1980, the captain of a U.S. Olympic basketball team that never competed in the Olympics, a six-year NBA veteran, and he had been gone for more than 25 years, a ghost, and people wondered why.

"I just found a new life," he said. "It was something that I wasn't really looking for, but it just happened."

Brooks, who turns 58 next month, had moved to Europe in 1988, when he began playing professional basketball in France, and has remained there since, coaching in Switzerland for the last several years. But he does not plan on coaching again until at least December: In 2011, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare syndrome that attacks the bone marrow, weakening the immune system and preventing the body from producing enough blood cells.

He takes medication, and he goes to the hospital three times a week for transfusions. Those treatments were enough to keep him coaching and working out three times a week at a gym until last July, when he stopped taking the medication. Now, he is on a waiting list for a bone-marrow transplant.

"I just felt so damn good," he said. "It was so stupid. I decided to play doctor. From July until the end of September, I was feeling really good. But the last two weeks of September, I got the same symptoms that I got before: spots on my legs, patches in my mouth. But I feel much better. I've just got to look forward and be positive, and may the ball bounce where it may."

Didn't he think people here would have wanted to know how he was doing? Yes, he has a fiancee in Etoy (pronounced eh-TWAH), and he has four children who live in France, and he sees them when he can. (The youngest, Sasha, is 9 1/2, and he is the basketball prodigy, his father said.) But what about all those West Catholic and La Salle alumni, his former teammates and coaches, his admirers, those hoops aficionados who remembered him as that lithe and swift above-the-rim forward who got from one end of the floor to the other faster than any player they'd seen? Didn't he have any desire to reconnect with them? He had friends and family and fans in Philadelphia. He had people who cared about him. Why stay away?

"I think that page has turned," he said. "I'm trying to make a life for me here in Switzerland now. I'm never going to forget the memories that I had at La Salle, playing at West Catholic High School. There are always going to be memories, but I think everyone needs to find their way."

He does not stay in regular contact with anyone from his life in the United States.

"And I really feel bad about that," Brooks said, "but I made a decision, and unfortunately, this decision may be costing me some friendships. But sometimes, you have to do what's right for you. I don't have any ill will against anyone in Philadelphia, no one at La Salle. They treated me very wonderfully, and they made me the man I am today."

It's understandable that you would do something you felt you had to do, I told Brooks. But he wasn't giving me a sense of why he felt he had to do it.

"It's just my choice," he said. "I'm happy. It's just my choice.  . . .

"Sometimes, you have a quest. Sometimes, it's Europeans going to America - New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. Sometimes, it's Americans going to Europe. You find something that suits you. If anything, people should have hard feelings for me that I just cut out all contact. But I don't have any hard feelings for anyone in Philadelphia. Believe me, that's where I grew up. That's where I was born. I stayed in Philadelphia to go to school. I don't want people to think I was mad or something like that."

His friend Kevin Davis had theorized that Brooks' reasons for remaining abroad were rooted in his family background. Brooks' father was African American. His mother was Italian.

"That didn't really bother me," Brooks said. "I come from a mixed family. So what? Back then, people were more cruel, but as long as you had your love coming from your family, who really cares what people say outside? At the end of the day, they're just words.

"When you're young and you're one of the only mixed families in the neighborhood, you're going to go through a lot of [stuff]. But through sports, they don't look at you like that anymore. I was just Michael Brooks the basketball player, not Michael Brooks the half-breed."

He had been Michael Brooks the NBA player for three years with the San Diego Clippers before tearing his right ACL in 1984 - an injury that, in that era, was far more debilitating than it is today. He had created a cocoon around himself for 19 months thereafter, the first time he had closed himself off.

"Of course," he said. "As a young player in the NBA, you think you're invincible. Everything is basically there for you. When you get hurt, if you don't have a good support group, you can really fall into a hole quickly because you feel, 'Where are all these people who were here when everything was going right?' As soon as you get hurt, nobody wants to be around you. So it was a mental adjustment. But I worked my ass off to come back, and luckily I ended up in Limoges [France]. I was the best American two years in a row, and I won the French championship twice. I don't regret it."

He does not regret much. St. Joseph's Mike Bantom and Villanova's Kyle Lowry are the other Big Five players to have been selected to the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, and Brooks bore no bitterness over his missed opportunity in the 1980 Summer Olympics, over President Carter's decision not to send the American athletes to Moscow.

"Boycott or not boycott, you never forget being a member of the United States Olympic team," he said. "Unfortunately, it wasn't because of the sport that we couldn't go. It was because of politics, and I don't think sports and politics should mix because it destroys the game. But it's also good to know that you're part of the history of the United States Olympic basketball team. You're the best forever."

After a half-hour conversation, I thanked him for getting back to me, and I told him that a lot of people here would be interested in hearing about him, and from him.

"OK," he said. "Thanks a lot."

That was all. There was no request to pass on his contact information to anyone, no question about what any of his old teammates were up to, nothing but the abrupt silence of a just-ended phone call. He seemed to have meant what he said - that he is happy, that there never was any mystery in his mind and heart about why he left Philadelphia in his past - and I hope he did mean it. I also hope Michael Brooks knows that there are people in his hometown who wish he weren't a ghost, who wish the best for him, and I hope for his sake that he is truly content in keeping them at so great a distance.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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