CHICAGO — Eli Brooks remembers it well.
It was just a 3-pointer in a meaningless December game against Binghamton. For over two months, it was his last.
For over two months, Brooks was a far cry from the player he was in high school. The bomber that averaged close to 30 points per game as a senior. Spring Grove High School’s all-time leading scorer with 2,426 points.
That Eli Brooks was still there, but barely visible. That Eli Brooks was on display in practice, but in games, got buried under statlines that prominently featured the number zero and occasionally one and two. On the rare occasion Brooks didn’t pump-fake out of an open look, the shot clanged off the rim.
So the Michigan men’s basketball team faced a question: How could it get Eli Brooks back?
Why not make him someone else?
Being sent to the scout team might seem like a relegation. This was where Brooks found himself down the stretch, pretending to be Cassius Winston and Anthony Cowan instead of preparing to actually play against them.
“In the midst of doing that, he was getting buckets every day,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We’re saying, why aren’t you doing this in a game?”
Beilein calls it a “magical formula.” Tell a player that they’re someone else, and they become that someone else. But in Brooks’ case, that someone looked awfully familiar.
Simulating Winston and Cowan brought the old Brooks back, right up until gametime. The formula needed one final ingredient.
Assistant coach DeAndre Haynes tried to help Brooks find it. The two visualized, meditated, watched Brooks’ high-school highlights, talked on the phone every other night. Haynes, and the rest of the team, made sure Brooks knew he had the green light. The old Brooks was somewhere, just in need of confidence to re-emerge.
As Michigan prepared for its Big Ten Tournament opener against Iowa this week, Brooks’ scout team assignment was junior guard Jordan Bohannon. Owner of a 39-percent clip from 3-point range. Commander of the conference’s third-best offense.
Brooks played the role to perfection. He drained threes from everywhere, drove the lane, threw down dunks, spun in reverse layups “like a little baby Chris Paul,” Haynes said. Things Brooks hadn’t done since he got to Michigan.
The final ingredient to Beilein’s magical formula had revealed itself. Brooks needed to understand that this “role” wasn’t a role after all.
“Hey, this is Eli Brooks,” Haynes said. “You’re not Bohannon, you’re Eli Brooks. You can do this.”
Against the Hawkeyes in a 74-53 Michigan win, Brooks was 2-for-6 with six points, three assists and two steals. In his 19 minutes on the court, the Wolverines outscored Iowa by 15. It was Brooks’ best statistical game in nearly three months, but the statistics don’t quite tell the tale.
The “little things,” the ones that kept Brooks in the rotation despite his lackluster shooting numbers? They were as present as ever. He positioned himself immaculately on defense, tipped a loose ball off Isaiah Moss to force a turnover, went right at Luka Garza in the post to grab the ball, cause a tie-up and win back possession.
The offensive aggression? That was different. Brooks’ first shot came right after he checked in for the first time. His second was a jumper at the left elbow, taken off-the-dribble. It missed, but his third shot — an open three, confidently taken — did not.
The entire Michigan bench burst out of their seats, roaring with enthusiasm.
His fifth shot did the same as his third. As Brooks caught the pass from Jon Teske, his eyes locked onto the rim. Two months ago, the ball might have gone up for a second before being brought back down. This time, it kept its upward trajectory, hitting its apex before rippling through the net to put the Wolverines up by 17.
“After he came out of the game one time, I told him, I said, ‘Bro, you look like you having more fun now,’ ” said freshman guard David DeJulius. “That’s just really a testament to having fun, staying confident in yourself. Like, you’re here for a reason.”
Added freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis: “He was just being aggressive. That’s the Eli we see every day in practice, and he showed what he can do out there on the court.”
As for the actual Jordan Bohannon?
In 27 minutes, he took just two shots and failed to score.
There’s no tangible explanation for why Eli Brooks needed to become someone else to find who he once was. Brooks credited Michigan’s ball movement against the Iowa zone, as well as a coaching staff and locker room with an unyielding faith in his ability.
“It feels a lot better coming off my hand,” Brooks said. “Even if it’s not going in, it still feels like it is.”
But whether it did or it didn’t go in was of secondary importance on Friday night. What mattered instead was a regaining of confidence.
“He never put his head down,” Haynes said. “He continued to grow every practice. It’s good seeing him smile right now, seeing the ball go in, seeing him play great defense and that’s important.”
And as Brooks checked out of the game for the final time, for the first time in a long time, he had nothing but smiles.
Oh, and three words for Haynes:
“Coach, I’m back.”