Friends of Dennis Brooks remember him as being a quiet and dignified leader during his eight seasons as the boys basketball coach at East St. Louis High School.
Brooks, 64, died June 16 after battling throat cancer. He coached the Flyers from 2001 to 2009, compiling a 156-86 record with four regional championships and three sectional titles.
DeMarco Martin, a 1978 graduate of East St. Louis, was an assistant under Brooks for seven seasons at East Side and remembers him as being “my mentor.”
“He was a just nice guy,” Martin said. “There was not a lot you could do to make Dennis upset. One thing about him is he loved his players. He would do anything for his players to make sure they were successful, not only on that court, but in life. Anything he could do to support them and help them become responsible, young adults, he was there for them.
“He was just a sweet, loving guy. He spoiled his players. Anything they needed, anything their parents needed ... He not only did things for players, but for their parents. And teachers, administrators, secretaries, they all loved Dennis. Whatever he needed done, all he had to do was just smile because he was a real charismatic guy.”
Brooks coached at State Community College, currently East St. Louis Community College, and defunct Rock Junior High School before taking over for Bennie Lewis at East Side.
The Flyers won three regionals and two sectionals in Brooks’ first three seasons (2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04). In 2006, East St. Louis won another sectional despite finishing 17-16.
East Side’s best records under Brooks were 21-7 in 2002-03, 28-4 in 2003-04 and 24-4 in 2006-07. The Flyers shared the Southwestern Conference title with Alton in 2006-07.
“I always respected the way he ran his program,” said Belleville West coach Joe Muniz, who competed against Brooks for five seasons. “He always did things the right way. The other thing I respected was how hard his teams played. They competed to the very end, no matter what the situation was.”
There was no better example of that than the 2005-06 season. The Flyers were 13-15 entering the playoffs, but reeled off four consecutive wins to reach the super-sectional.
“I vividly remember him having a rough regular season, but his team never quit on him,” Muniz said. “When the postseason hit, they kept playing and made it all the way to the super-sectional, and that was after being under .500 going into the postseason. That was an example of the type of leadership he bestowed upon those young men down there. Never give up.
“He was a quiet leader; he led by example. He ran the program down there with extreme class. He expected his players to act that way because he always acted that way. He was very quiet both on and off the floor, from what I can remember.”
Martin, who also coached under Brooks at State Community College and Rock Junior High, chuckled when he recalled the 2005-06 season.
“He made his players believe in themselves when they doubted themselves,” Martin said. “He made them feel like, ‘Hey, we can run through a brick wall and be successful.’ He had a way of making them believe, and he put times and hours in on that court. He put his work in.”
Another former assistant coach under Brooks was Dana Morgan, a 1992 graduate of East St. Louis. Morgan said Brooks lived by the Golden Rule.
“He treated people and kids like they wanted to be treated,” said Morgan, an assistant coach at the University of Illinois Springfield. “He was an honest, fair guy. He did things the right way. He’s the reason why I coach the way I do today. He taught me a lot of things about basketball, treating people, handling adversity, handling situations. He was just a caring, caring man.”
Meeting Brooks once was all it took to find a new friend, and Martin said that once Brooks became a friend, there was nothing that would drive a wedge into the relationship.
“If you had a problem with Coach Brooks, or Mr. Brooks or Dennis Brooks, I think it was something going on with you,” Martin said. “Socially and emotionally, it was something going on with you. You needed to go check yourself, because if you had a problem with this guy, I don’t see how you survived in life. This guy was a fantastic dude. If you heard anything negative about Coach Brooks, it was that he was too nice. He was authentic. His niceness didn’t waver.”
Although Brooks was a gentle spirit, Morgan said Brooks was very competitive.
“He didn’t like to lose,” Morgan said. “And he did it the right way. He was very successful. He didn’t cheat, he wasn’t recruiting other people’s athletes, he wasn’t playing kids who were ineligible. He won, and he won in his way. He was able to get it across to his kids to play hard for him. I have nothing negative to say about that man. He was a special guy.”
Former Collinsville coach Chris Kusnerick went up against Brooks for four seasons.
“Dennis was very quiet and reserved, but he had a commanding as well as a calming presence as on the sidelines,” Kusnerick said. “Even in the coaches’ meetings, he was very quiet and reserved. He wasn’t a yeller or a screamer. There were a few times he got upset. He had certain expectations he wanted his kids to fulfill. I had a lot of respect for him. He was a real good guy.
“He had a good run (at East St. Louis). My first year (2005-06), they beat us in the sectional, but were actually under .500 going into the postseason. They had a great run and made it all the way to the super. That team really jelled.”
Another former Collinsville coach, Bob Bone, said Brooks was “a gentleman.”
“His teams were prepared and they played hard; he did a good job,” Bone said. “Even when you dealt with him during the game, he was a soft-spoken individual.”
Martin said Brooks was very proud of his young grandson and granddaughter, the children of his son, Dennis Brooks Jr., and was always eager to spend as much time with them as possible.
“He might as well have adopted them,” Martin said. “They could do no wrong in his eyes. He was an excellent grandfather. He took his grandson to all the basketball games.”
Kusnerick, now the athletics director at McCluer North High School in St. Louis, remembers Brooks bringing his grandchildren to an all-conference meeting.
“He was babysitting that night and they just kind of sat on his lap,” Kusnerick said. “We were picking the all-conference team and they each had a sucker in their mouth and stayed quiet and we got the meeting done. It was kind of cute.”