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NBA villain Dillon Brooks a necessary evil for Canadian men’s Olympic basketball team


The last time Mississauga, Ont.’s Dillon Brooks sounded off about LeBron James, that verbal cheque came back marked insufficient funds.

Back then, Brooks was a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, which had begun the 2022-23 season as contenders to upend the Western Conference’s balance of power, thanks to their combination of youth, confidence and grit. During their opening-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Brooks, a small forward, made clear his opinion on the Lakers’ veteran superstar.

“I don’t care. He’s old,” Brooks said of James last April. “I don’t respect no one until they come and give me 40.”

Factually, Brooks wasn’t wrong. A 38-year-old in real life is still on their way to middle age. In pro sports, at 38, you’re a relic from a bygone era, like a phone booth or a print newspaper.

As for the declaration that Brooks only respects players who torch him for 40 points?

It’s a personal preference. We all have our lines. Brooks draws his at 40. You could argue with him about it, but why?

None of us could offer a better rebuttal than James did — he put up 20 points and 22 rebounds when the teams finally tipped off. Brooks asked for 40. James gave him 42, and a lesson about provoking a future Hall of Famer.

Same old Brooks?

Brooks is now a Houston Rocket, and in the leadup to Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, here he came again, talking about how thoroughly he planned to handle James.

“Ready to lock him up,” he told the Houston Chronicle, when asked about facing James.

“Any time he’s posting up on the block, I’m bumping him,” Brooks, 28, told reporters this week. “If he’s guarding me, I just want to attack him.”

Seven months later, are we dealing with the same old Brooks?

I hope so.

In a pro-sports world where media-weary, personal brand-conscious athletes often serve up bland statements pre- and post-game, Brooks gives us unvarnished honesty. When an athlete says they’re “just trying to give it 110 per cent,” they’re probably giving it 85. But when Brooks announces that he plans to lock up LeBron James, he really believes it. As a journalist, I’m biased towards athletes who tell the truth about how they feel, especially when they, like Brooks, do it via spicy quotes that can drive the day’s news cycle, and advance the soap opera plot lines that make the NBA so compelling.

Convenient scapegoat

Still, Brooks took plenty of blame after the Lakers dismissed the Grizzlies from last season’s playoffs. Brooks became a convenient scapegoat for an underachieving team, and a punchline when the Grizzlies made plain they had no plans to re-sign him. Social media jokesters urged Brooks to heed the advice laid out in the 2003 single by one-and-done rapper Jin, and Learn Chinese — because that’s where they thought he’d be playing this year.

But, in some important ways, it’s not the Same Old Dillon Brooks talking trash before a rematch with James. 

He’s still in the NBA, obviously — now on a four-year, $80 million US contract with the Rockets. But he’s also back after a summer spent starring for Canada’s national team at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Yes, he got ejected against Slovenia, but he also goaded Luka Doncic into getting the boot too. Addition by subtraction.

He also lit up the U.S. for 39 points in the bronze-medal game, showing an offensive flair we had rarely seen from him in the NBA, and establishing himself as a key part of a Canadian men’s squad set to make its long-awaited return to the Olympics.

Which is to say, Brooks brings a new dimension to the Rockets, and to team Canada this year. Wednesday’s showdown with the Lakers offers a chance to measure his progress.

For his part, James was diplomatic when addressing Brooks, his comments, and his skill set.

“He was worthy of the contract he got,” James told reporters on Wednesday. “He’s put in the work since he came out of Oregon, and that’s what Houston found value in.”

WATCH l Canada beats U.S. for bronze, 1st FIBA World Cup medal:

Canada wins 1st FIBA World Cup medal by beating U.S. for bronze

Featured VideoThe Canadians needed overtime to get by the Americans to secure their best showing at the World Cup.

Vital player for Canada

Beyond the NBA, Brooks’s development matters because team Canada will need him at his suffocating, agitating, two-way best if it hopes to make noise at the Paris Olympics.

The bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup established Canada as a medal contender next summer, but opposing teams’ lineups will change. A fourth-place World Cup finish for team USA has top-tier NBA players like James and Steph Curry threatening to descend on Paris, if only to prove to Noah Lyles that they’re the world champions of something.

To reach the podium Canada will need as many healthy, motivated NBA players as possible. The U.S. has, in theory, a surplus of NBA stars to fill out its roster, but Canada still has some moving parts.

Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets could vault team Canada from bronze-medal contender to gold-medal threat, but he has a heavy workload on a team with championship ambitions. Last summer, he opted out of the World Cup — smartly. His team won an NBA title in his first season back after reconstructive knee surgery. He deserved a break, and I’m sure his rebuilt ligaments thanked him.

But the situation is different for other high-achieving Canadian NBA players.

RJ Barrett plays for the Knicks, and Brooks for the Rockets. I’m not saying neither of those teams will sniff the second round of the playoffs, but if I were a gambling man — and I’m not — I’d bet on both those players being rested and ready for the Olympics this summer.

If we’re looking for a top scoring option, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is still likely that guy. 

Last summer Brooks emerged as a dangerous offensive compliment to the Oklahoma City Thunder star, and, early this NBA season, appears to have added three-point shooting to his skill set for good. Entering Wednesday, Brooks had connected on 56.5 per cent of his three-pointers, good for sixth in a league that’s infatuated with long-range shooting.

Match that skill set with his attitude — hard-nosed, rule-bending, unapologetic — and Brooks becomes an important part of Canada’s medal-podium ambition. He’s the type of player you hate facing but appreciate on your team, as long as he’s toeing the line without crossing it.

And since Brooks is into honesty, here’s another truth:

Canada won’t win a medal playing nice. If they want some hardware, they’ll have to poke some bears.

Lucky for them, Brooks knows how to do that, too.


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