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Dillon Brooks: Villain Turned Leader

Dillon Brooks is a made man for Team Canada. How does he channel his emotions?

After earning Bronze at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Canada has put the basketball world on notice. But it’s only the beginning for a country that has aspirations of becoming a global powerhouse in the sport. In preparation for the 2024 Olympics in France, I take a look at some of the individual journeys of the eccentric personalities that comprise Canada’s Men’s Basketball team. You can find the rest of the series here.

Dillon Brooks is many things to many people. To NBA fans, he’s seen as an aggressor, an ultra-physical, hard-nosed defender who lets his passion get the best of him at times. To Warriors fans and LeBron fans, he’s a villain – the antagonist in the story that impedes the path of the hero trying to obtain their goals. But off the court, he’s a loving father and a son. To people in Memphis, despite the weary shot selection, he’s a fan favourite. To Rockets fans this season, he’s the fearless leader of a young team. And to Canadian basketball fans, he was the rock-solid foundation for one of the most successful teams in the country’s history. 

How you view Brooks, in his entirety, completely depends on your perspective. 

“Toronto, Portland, and Memphis,” Brooks said with a smile on his face when he was asked about the cities where he gets a positive reception from the crowd. “Those are the only places. But it’s great. They recognize Canadians here. Especially with what we did this summer in the World Cup, it’s an amazing feeling.” 

When Brooks plays, he wears his emotions on his sleeve. You can catch him on any given night, interacting with fans, trash-talking opponents, getting in their faces, getting physical, talking to officials, and motivating his teammates on the sideline. 

When Brooks and his Houston Rockets arrived in Toronto earlier this month to face off against the Raptors, it was an emotional night. Former Raptor Fred VanVleet returned for the first time since leaving the team in free agency and received a warm welcome and a standing ovation. 

But so did Brooks, who was showered with cheers late in the fourth quarter of a close game. He followed it up by knocking down three straight 3s to make things interesting, screaming emphatically as the Raptors called a timeout to stop the bleeding –  somewhat fitting that even positive emotions from a crowd helped spurn him to take action. 

But post-game? Brooks was in the tunnel, holding his daughter, talking and laughing with friends and family in typical Brooks fashion – with a jacket on and no shirt underneath it. 

“It’s between those four lines,” Brooks said when I asked him how he’s able to balance the emotions he shows on the court. “When I see the hoops, when I see the jerseys, everything just turns on. You can’t be like that all the time, there’ll be a vicious cycle.”

“I learned as a kid that I always had that passion, tenacity, and intensity for the game,” Brooks said. “It’s a love-hate relationship I have with myself. Knowing when to turn it on, knowing what time it’s needed.”

Part of the process for Brooks has been exactly that – finding a way to balance his raw emotions with his impact on the game. That was evident in the 2023 playoffs where his Grizzlies were dismantled by LeBron James and the Lakers, as Brooks’ emotions continued to get the best of him with each passing game. 

But just a few months later with Team Canada, we saw a still-ferocious, still-impactful Brooks become the even-keeled leader of a group. 

Brooks was, without a doubt, Canada’s second-best player next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He poured in 22 points, including a 3-pointer late to tie up the game versus Spain before SGA hit the eventual dagger to eliminate the Spaniards. Against the United States, he dropped 39 points and seven threes to lead his country to win their first World Cup medal. His defense and tenacity helped propel Canada to one of the best defenses in the tournament. It’s as if he bottled up all of his energy in a refined way – it was the idealized version of his game. 

A reason for that? Feeling wanted. This is what Canada Basketball General Manager Rowan Barrett had to say about Brooks when I asked him about his impact on the program back in December. 

“Your country loves you, Dillon. You know we love you. We know who you are, and what you’re made of. He was a model teammate this summer and more by his actions than by his words, right? He was one of the first ones on the court every single day, same routine every day, every time. Consistent, dependable, tough, you know? And then in the competition, you need guys that when the chips are down, and everything’s not going the right way, they’re gonna get into somebody’s face. It’ll change the whole mood. In the moments where there could be some guys looking left or right, Dillon is there looking straight ahead.” 

This summer helped Brooks grow in that regard. And it only made it better that he felt appreciated and wanted by the program. Something that applies to the Rockets too, who inked Brooks to a four-year, $86M deal when many thought he wouldn’t get that type of contract this summer after the way his Grizzlies tenure ended. 

“From a work ethic standpoint, mentality, physicality, everything he does rubs off onto your team,” said Rockets Head Coach Ime Udoka when I asked about Brooks’ impact on a young team in Houston. “But what you’ve seen is some good carryover from the summer with him. We’re asking him to do the same things here which is not just only be a defender but be a leader.” 

Perhaps the area where this has had the most impact in Houston is on the defensive end. Brooks’s effort and relentlessness on that end have always given him an advantage, but now he’s hoping his teammates follow suit. 

“At first, it’s effort,” said Brooks when I asked him about his approach on defense. “Just solely off of having the pride to not let someone score on you or make a nice play or whatever. And then it’s technique and reading the scout and knowing your opponent.” 

“In general, not just on defense but in basketball, it’s your effort,” said Udoka. “And defensively you just have to have that mindset more than anything. You can talk about technique and all that but you have to have the physicality and the toughness to yourself to embrace that role. And so that’s kind of who he is naturally.” 

The same reason he’s been so pivotal to the Rockets turning the corner this season is why he’s become one of the foundational players for Team Canada. 

You may question his shot selection at times. He may be over the top emotionally too, but if there’s one thing you can never question – it’s his effort. And that’s bled into his relationship with his teammates, Canadian or not, who look to him as an example. 

“Lead by example,” Brooks said. “And then slowly you learn everybody. How they learn, how they perceive the words that you speak to them. That’s what makes great leaders. When they take the time out of their day to care and learn about their teammates, they can get their message across. And, you know, lead the way you want to be led.” 

There won’t be a bigger moment for Brooks to show off his new-found leadership than this summer – when he and his Canadian teammates will try to do something that the men’s side has never done – win an Olympic medal. 

There’s a saying that applies to players like Brooks…

 ‘Love to play with him, hate to play against him.’ I guess it all just depends on your perspective. 

Canada will need every bit of Brooks’s tough, hard-nosed, often annoyingly competitive nature that has made him out to be the villain in many people’s storybooks. But from a Canadian perspective, that tenacity is welcomed and should only help provide more fuel to the fire that is Brooks’ game. 

Dillon Brooks: a villain to some, a leader to others.