As part of NBA Australia’s new feature series, ‘NBA Passport’, former Denver Nuggets forward Kevin Brooks spoke one-on-one with NBA Australia about dunking on Michael Jordan, winning NBL titles with the Adelaide 36ers and his adulation for LeBron James.
After finishing at University of Southwestern Louisiana, how special was it to hear your name called out at #18 in the 1991 draft, which also included your soon-to-be Denver team-mate Dikembe Mutombo and Australia’s Luc Longley?
It was an awesome feeling. To be drafted from anywhere is a great accomplishment, but to do it from White Castle, Louisiana, a town of 2000 people, you’re seen as a small-town hero to get out of the hood. My agent, Bill Strickland, went to New York (for the draft) but I decided not to attend. I didn’t want to be sitting there in a nice suit that I might not be able to pay for!
You played 126 NBA games in three seasons with the early-90s Nuggets under Paul Westhead, then Dan Issel. Your reflections?
My experience was awesome. I only got three seasons when I initially wanted a minimum 10, but I have nothing but fond memories. Paul’s system was fun because he wanted to run and gun a lot. Dan slowed things down and worked around Mutombo, who was the league’s best shot-blocker.
What was Mutombo like?
A great guy and such a character. He’s very intelligent and had a helluva career. We’d tease him constantly that of the seven different languages he speaks, English was the worst one (laughs)! Mutombo would talk trash all the time with that deep, thick accent, but he also taught you how to get your shot off against a big shot-blocker because you had to go up against him every day at training. If he swatted you, he’d let you know about it all the way down the court.
Can you confirm that you once dunked on the legendary Michael Jordan in a match at Chicago Stadium?
I did, but I didn’t realise at the time. It was my rookie year and we were getting hammered pretty good. The Bulls missed a free throw and I turned, hit the left lane. Our point guard Winnie Garland kicked it out to me on the run. I grabbed it, left-hand speed-dribbled and took off for a two-handed dunk. After the game, (team-mate) Joe Wolf, who played with Mike at North Carolina, said ‘nice dunk rook, Jordan almost took your head off when he swung, trying to block you’. That’s my dunk on Michael Jordan, even though I didn’t know he was there. He’s the greatest player ever, so you gotta mention you dunked on him. That’s your moment!
Another highlight was when your eighth-seeded Nuggets came from 2-0 down to stun the top-seeded Seattle Supersonics 3-2 in the first round of the 1994 Western Conference playoffs. What are your memories from that shock win?
No-one gave us a chance. Our goal was to simply make the playoffs. We squeaked in and Seattle thrashed us those first two games. They led the league in wins under coach George Karl with stars like Reign Man (Shawn Kemp), Glove (Gary Payton), Detlef Schrempf and Kendall Gill. But we didn’t fear them simply because we were young and didn’t know any better.
When they came to McNichols (Denver), it was a different ballgame and we won Games 3 and 4. Then it’s like ‘why not?’. We didn’t have anything to lose and when you think like that, you can be pretty dog-gone dangerous. All the pressure was on Seattle and we played an unbelievable Game 5. Mutombo turned that series around. He got in Kemp’s head man – had him in his pocket!
Unfortunately, two members of that Nuggets squad would later suffer severe misfortune, Brian Williams, aka Bison Dele (presumed murdered), and Rodney Rogers (paralysed after a dirt bike accident).
(Pauses)I get instantly emotional when those names come up. I considered Brian, or B-Dub, a very good friend. The last time I saw him was in Perth where he was riding dune buggies with Luc Longley. Six months later he was gone. I have a lot of love for Brian, and Rodney likewise. I haven’t spoken to Rodney since the accident but I definitely intend to.
Basketball took you to France, Brazil, Argentina, Sweden, Poland and New Zealand, but it was in Australia with the Adelaide 36ers where you really made your mark, forming with Denver team-mate Darnell Mee one of the NBL’s best-ever import combinations and winning championships in your first two seasons (1998, 1999).
Darnell and I were thick as thieves; really good friends on and off the court, and still are to this day, even though we’re opposites. He’s introverted and I’m a bit of a show-off!
Darnell, who earlier played with Canberra, told me Australia is a nice country with a good basketball league and nice hotels. We both wanted to get back into the NBA, but we were just one of the guys. We celebrated those titles like they were NBA championships! Winning the grand final MVP (1998) made it extra special and I still feel honoured about it, although at the time I had no idea there was such an award here.
The 36ers coach then was Australian legend Phil Smyth, who was renowned for being a players’ coach. I assume his relaxed, free-flowing method suited your playing style.
Everyone enjoyed it, without question. Phil was a coach who players wanted to play for. He and SJ (long-time assistant Steve Breheny) were opposites but they complemented each other. They didn’t over-coach us or give us too much information. I don’t think they get enough credit for those back-to-back championships. Our style was very fun to play, entertaining to watch and one we could repeat over and over again.
You averaged 18 points and 40 minutes as an inside-outside scoring force in your 158 NBL games, which included a season with the Sydney Kings under current Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown. What was he like?
Brett was fun to play for. He had so much enthusiasm and energy. His preparation is what I took most from him. Brett put in the effort and got to work with Pop (Gregg Popovich) at a great franchise in San Antonio, and he’s gone on from there.
You’ve moved to coaching where you’re in charge of Central District’s women at State League level and working as a 36ers assistant under Joey Wright. You and Joey go way back, don’t you?
Our colleges played against each other and Joey tried out for Denver my second year there. When he got the Adelaide job, he asked if I’d like to help. Joey is similar to Phil in that the guys like playing for him, but Joey is more defensive-minded. And the language is definitely different – Phil didn’t curse, but Joey does a lot (laughs)!
Do you consider Adelaide home?
Yes. My wife and I had our first child here, a son, on September 24th. I’ve got family back in the States, but Adelaide is my home and has been for a while.
Do you still follow the NBA?
I do. I bought League Pass last season and boy, it’s awesome! I don’t know what I’d been waiting for. I just turn it on, punch a few buttons and I can watch all these NBA games, replays, strategies and learn from the best coaching minds in the world. I feel compelled to support LeBron James at Cleveland because I thought he got a raw deal from people hating on him. I was pulling for Miami the past four years and now that he’s back at Cleveland, I’m a Cavs fan. I want to see LeBron win one for this team and when he retires he’ll be the governor or the mayor of Ohio, whatever he wants. I think it’s a great story.