The first thing you notice about Darren Brooks is that you don't notice him much.
He's Southern Illinois' quiet man. No posturing, shouting or making faces, the stuff of highlight shows. While seniors Kent Williams and Jermaine Dearman grab headlines, Brooks, a sophomore, just goes about his business.
When he's done, you suddenly notice how much he has done: first this season in minutes (33.4 average) and assists (85); second in scoring (14.1), blocks (16), rebounds (5.9), shooting percentage (.474) and 3-pointers (30).
Not bad for someone who, the media guide said, would "push for a starting berth" in SIU's deep backcourt. He went from captain of the 2001-02 Missouri Valley Conference All-Bench team and seventh in the nation in points scored (340) in games he didn't start to All-MVC honorable mention and All-Defense team.
"Last year, even though he came off the bench, he was the key to our success," coach Bruce Weber said. "This year his stats were amazing. And he does it quietly."
A typical example: Brooks' line Saturday in SIU's 75-63 win over Illinois State in the MVC tournament. "He was off on his shooting (3-of-11, including 1 of 6 3-pointers) but he had 10 points, five assists and three steals," Weber said.
In today's semifinal, the top-seeded Salukis face Southwest Missouri State, which beat Evansville 65-51. No. 2 seed Creighton survived a stolen inbounds pass by Indiana State's Marcus Howard and two missed free throws by Mike Grimes in the final seconds to beat the 10th-seeded Sycamores 57-56 and move into the semifinals.
The Salukis beat the Redbirds the way they did twice this season: wearing them down late. ISU led 50-47 with 10:01 remaining, then went scoreless for 3:48. "We felt if we kept pressuring them, sooner or later we were going to break 'em," Weber said. ISU committed three turnovers and missed five shots while Dearman took control.
The 6-8 forward, en route to 26 points, made two free throws and, after two by Josh Warren, sank three field goals and a free throw as the Salukis jumped ahead 60-50 with 6:34 to play.
Asking Brooks to talk about his game takes work; you have to pull it out of him. He says he didn't have that great a season until the final 10 games or so, starting with 25 points and six steals at Wichita State. "I realized the season was almost over," he said. "I thought I was playing pretty good but could've played better. I decided to try to exceed my expectations."
That's how he started taking basketball seriously, growing up in St. Louis. "I didn't have a lot of things other kids had. My one way of trying to get those things was through basketball. I just sat down one day and it was like, "I want to be rich.' "
He was about 10 then. Older kids always were playing nearby. "They would never let me in the game," Brooks said. "One day they let me play but they gave me a hard time, like, "Don't shoot. Just play defense. We need an extra man out here so you don't do nothing but just stay out here.' "
The anger made him work harder. By 11 Brooks was their equal; by 12 he had left them behind. His parents "were all for it. "Education first, but you've got this talent.' "
Family, Brooks said, is everything. His role model: his mother. His inspiration: his parents and two older brothers. His greatest influence: his family. He wears his emotions under his sleeves, and elsewhere.
On his left bicep, a tattoo reading FLORA, his grandmother. Next to it, JACKIE, his mother. And on his right shoulder blade, a portrait of Jackie with the inscription, Love is Immortal.
He was 17 when he got that one. "She didn't know. I just showed it to her and she started crying. I told her, "I owe it all to you. I'm going to try and do whatever I can to make you happy.' "