Brook Battles Back

TheBootleg.com's Daniel Novinson presents a retrospective look at life and basketball from Stanford sophomore Brook Lopez, including what advice he got as he sat out the fall quarter, his experiences on the Fresno high school basketball courts, and what the road ahead holds for the seven-footer.

Opening Convocation is one of the few traditions left on this campus. Incoming freshmen pile into the Quad every autumn like clockwork, as President Hennessey and other University royalty drone on about the Stanford experience. What were eager faces eight hours earlier now look dead-tired after a long day of unpacking and awkward introductions. So forgive the class of 2000-whatever if it didn't listen intently to every word, their minds wondering if that cute young thing three doors down is single, their nerves tensing over the possibility that their parents embarrass them badly, their arms vainly waving their paper fans, as if cardboard mounted on a popsicle stick could somehow combat 90-degree heat.

Like many of his classmates, Brook Lopez may well have found a better use for his time one sunny September afternoon a year ago. But I picture him sitting in the stifling heat, lost in his daydreams, as Hennessey likely told the Class of 2010 many of the same words he recited to my class two years prior.

Stanford, Hennessey would say, will challenge you like you've never been challenged before. Ultimately, the measure of your years here is not what kind of a person you are entering the school, or how popular you become, or what job offer you accept after graduation. It's how you responded when every aspect of your life seemed aligned against you. Did you let life beat you down, or did you emerge a stronger person?

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It's his own fault, the hours spent on Facebook instead of reading textbooks, the parties attended and the study sessions skipped. But though it was his fault, it became everyone's problem, the sub-1.8 gradepoint in an athlete-friendly courseload. It forced him to sit on the sidelines this past fall quarter, wondering "What if?" as a disillusioned fan base, school, team and family echoed the same question.

Most disappointing, though, is what happened behind the scenes. The press release said the right things, but he wouldn't own up to his mistakes in person. He dressed up for the games, but he dressed down for the parties afterwards, too. You could see it in his face as he stewed on the bench as he seemed more confused than contrite, more angry than accepting.

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Rome wasn't built in a day. The human psyche is far more malleable. And for Brook, the move from the court to bench and back, a journey of one footstep and two worlds, was all it took.

Four reporters saw it as he joined them earlier this week, taking a seat in the Maples Pavilion press room. He'd never been unfriendly, per se, but the relationship had always been uneasy. He'd always wall up out of fear we were prying. We'd feel he was walling up and had no choice to pry.

Trained on a year of recalcitrance, the press started off slowly. Yes, he's focusing more on attacking the basket instead of fading away, yes, he's carrying more of the offensive load, yes, Mitch Johnson really spoke up at halftime last game. Yes, he feels more in control and mature this year, which sounds revelatory, but he'd never once elucidated.

But you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and besides, I sat through that same Hennessey speech. So I posed the inevitable question. "Brook," I asked, "do you think it's just age, or do you think the quarter off, realizing how much you missed the game, had anything to do with your maturation?"

Brook paused. The scribes prepared for the worst. But then his face softened and he spoke, eagerly almost.

"A little bit of both," he said. "No question, just from watching on the bench, it's obvious what I miss: just being away from the game. Maybe it's helped my attitude a bit. It was even worse in high school."

It's not that he owed us any face time – if anything, our 24-7 media cycle contributed to his sense of entitlement – but rather that the responsibility, the determination, the independence necessary for college life, perhaps it finally clicked for Brook. Like a 12-year old who kisses a girl and can't wait to tell his friends, maybe Brook finally unraveled a small sliver of life, or at least this phase of it. And there was no way anyone was going to stop him from sharing the news.

And so the floodgates opened. Did he feel guilty for letting school slide?

"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I kind of felt like what happened at Siena, I kind of felt that was on me in a way, because I wasn't there for my team. So I try to step it up, do whatever's necessary for the team."

Fans pointed a collective finger back at the Fresno hoops scene when Brook showed up to Stanford surprisingly lacking in fundamental basketball skills given his potential. But maybe Fresno failed to teach more than how to pass out of double teams. Maybe the summers of celebrity status on sneaker tours, maybe the seasons wanting for strong coaching, maybe the games where effort and fundamentals counted for nothing, as Brook won on size alone, maybe it all had a subtler effect too. Maybe Brook never really matured.

"Quincy, Robin and I, the three of us would kind of gang up on the refs, so instead of three-on-one player, it was kind of three-on-three that way," Brook says. "I got some Ts. It was kind of three big fish in a pond like Fresno -- they gave us a chance sometimes."

Brook needed a summer of intense drilling at the Pete Newell Camp to learn the proper footwork for post-up moves. Maybe he needed a fall of real life, no drill, to hammer home the tougher message.

"The quarter off helped a lot," Brook said.

Back at home, Brook's single mom, Deborah Ledford, fought through her disappointment to support her son. Brook also reached out to his brothers, regularly instant messaging Chris Lopez and calling Alex.

"‘Keep your head up,'' he said they told him. "There was a lot of counting down. ‘Ten weeks' or ‘Last time we talked it was eight weeks, this time it's seven.'"

Family could only do so much though. Last year, a teammate described Brook to me as incredibly dependent, so perhaps physically separating him from his family and taking away his biggest lifeline, his team, was just what the doctor ordered. With free three-hour blocks staring him in the face virtually every afternoon, never was it more obvious that Brook's problems rested on his shoulders alone.

"It was up to myself to get back on track."

Ten little words and one mighty realization – that was all it took.

For while intelligence separates many at this school from a 3.9, it's kept no one from a 1.9. So as soon as Brook no longer considered his sentence empty, but backed it with his actions, the remaining months of suspension were a formality.

Life had taught Brook its lesson.

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Did you let life beat you down, or did you emerge a stronger person?

He's already been here two years, and he probably won't be in two more, but in one quarter, Brook's learned more than he will in any class.

It's how you responded when every aspect of your life seemed aligned against you. Did you let life beat you down, or did you emerge a stronger person?

Brook Lopez, welcome to Stanford.


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