Intensity brings out the best, worst in Oregon’s Dillon Brooks

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks gets fired up during an NCAA tournament game against Rhode Island on March 19.
(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

Oregon forward Jordan Bell scanned the Ducks’ locker room Wednesday afternoon trying to find a player, anyone really, who hadn’t gotten into some form of fight with Dillon Brooks, the team’s incendiary forward.

He could not find anyone.

At the next stall sat Casey Benson, a please-and-thank-you type from Tempe, Ariz., who was smiling pleasantly.

“Even Casey had a little run-in with him this year,” Bell said. “Casey’s super nice.”


Over three seasons, Bell has learned how to deal with Brooks, how to “uh-huh” him, defuse and move on.

“Some of the new people, they think this is bad,” Bell said. “I’m like, ‘You should’ve seen him freshman year.’ ”

More than with any player in the NCAA tournament, Brooks commands attention. Coaches and players say he plays like a jackhammer, which is great, except sometimes he might burst the water main.

If his energy is channeled correctly, Brooks could boost a Pac-12 Conference team to its first Final Four since 2009. Oregon will play Michigan in a Midwest Regional semifinal in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday.

Usually, the intensity serves Brooks well. He averages 16.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Despite average athleticism and a wingspan so limited that teammates call him “T-Rex,” he was chosen as the Pac-12’s player of the year.

It was not his only distinction this season. He attempted, arguably, the worst flop in the history of basketball, a delayed, stumbling performance that became a national lowlight.

Brooks was also the only Pac-12 player this season ejected for kicking an opponent in the groin. (He said it was unintentional; the Pac-12 did not discipline him further.)

The Pac-12’s lack of exposure has provided a sanctuary for Brooks, allowing him to mature on his timeline. Michigan players glowed about his two game-winning shots this season, over UCLA and California. But they otherwise couldn’t find his games.

“We don’t get those channels, either,” Michigan’s Zak Irvin said. “But whenever they’re on ESPN we always like to catch them.”

Brooks is used to the obscurity. He grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, and played club ball for the CIA Bounce, a team that only got its funding when its co-founder won $144,000 on “Deal or No Deal” and donated half his winnings.

Before joining Oregon’s staff, assistant coach Mike Mennenga discovered Brooks through a CIA Bounce camp. Mennenga was running a drill that simulated heavy physical contact. Brooks, then a slightly pudgy junior-high player, didn’t take well to being hit.

“It turned into an almost mini-wrestling match,” Mennenga recalled.

Brooks comes from pugnacious ilk. His father’s family farmed the cold Canadian plains, he said, and sometimes they would wrestle among themselves. Brooks said his father became a construction worker and was once a boxer.

In grade school, Brooks struggled with a reading and writing disability, and he felt isolated and frustrated. His mother, who works for a bank, directed his resentment toward athletics.

His coaches say Brooks is evolving. Brooks has become more controlled. Last week, Oregon’s Dana Altman called Brooks “one of the best young men I’ve had an opportunity to coach.”

Three days after that, Brooks’ earned a technical foul for taunting against Rhode Island. It nearly cost Oregon its trip to the regional.

“He knew how disappointed I and the whole team was in him,” Altman said.

Brooks said he is working on “containing all of the emotions and learning from being ejected from a game. Having trouble with the flopping and all of that.”

He continued: “But I feel like the best things for those moments is to be aggressive and to be confident in who you are.”

Brooks said he figures that anything he doesn’t feel desperately passionate about probably isn’t worth doing.

Brooks thrives in big moments. Last year, he scored 22 points and had five rebounds and six assists in a win over Duke in a regional semifinal in Anaheim.

In the final seconds of that game, with a big lead, Brooks lobbed a 30-footer, which swirled in. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski stopped Brooks in the handshake line and admonished him.

Altman defended Brooks, saying he had instructed Brooks to shoot before the shot clock expired.

The optics of a powerful and accomplished coach lecturing a 20-year-old who had only followed his coach’s orders were not good. Krzyzewski tried to deny the scolding, but a video emerged of the exchange and Krzyzewski recanted and issued an apology.

Brooks earned plaudits for his maturity.

Fighting, Brooks has learned, has its place. But sometimes it’s about finding the right opponent.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand