[media id="104681" align="left"/]There was a lot of buzz around campus last year regarding what was going to happen to the basketball program.
After graduating seven fourth-years, the Maroons were in desperate need of recruits who would shape the program for years to come. To find those players, head coach Mike McGrath did not have to look far.
Hailing from Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School, first-years Nate Brooks and Jordan Smith have already made a notable impact for the Chicago squad.
Averaging 4.1 and 7.9 points per game in just under 20 minutes per contest, Brooks and Smith have been a force off the bench. In fact, in the first three games of the season, Smith was the Maroons’ leading scorer.
But their road to the University of Chicago was different from most, and the entire process has united the two to become the best of friends.
Brooks and Smith met in seventh grade when they played on the same AAU team. When it came time to enter high school, the pair based their choice on both basketball and academics. Having already succeeded academically throughout primary school, the two were accepted to Whitney Young, a prestigious public magnet school in Chicago.
When the dynamic duo enrolled, the school had begun garnering national attention for its basketball team. Marcus Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan, was a senior for the Dolphins’ squad when Brooks and Smith were freshmen.
“The hype surrounding Whitney Young basketball I don’t think had ever been higher at that point [because] everyone really wanted to come out and see if he was as good as his dad,” Brooks said. “I think that’s when they really started going on a national schedule and playing around.”
Jordan led the Dolphins to a state championship the year before Brooks and Smith moved up to the varsity squad.
“Just coming in as freshmen and seeing the guys win state kind of set a precedent,” Smith said. “You come in and you don’t really know much about the basketball scene. It’s all this ‘hoopla’ and what-not, and then they actually win state. The next year, actually playing on that same team that won state, you have standards now; it just makes you work a lot harder.”
The hard work paid off, and the two saw meaningful minutes by their senior seasons.
What is more impressive is the cool, calm, and collected attitude Brooks and Smith exhibited as part of one of the most recognizable basketball teams in the country and playing against future NBA stars. When asked which stars they have played against, the two could not help but laugh.
“Man, the list is—” Brooks said, not being able to put words to the overwhelming amount of stars the two played against.
“Let’s see, NBA players right now: We played against Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jabari Parker—he’s up and coming,” Smith said. “There are just so many people.”
It was imperative that Brooks and Smith keep their composure during pressure situations, given the stage they were playing on.
“We played on ESPN two or three times while we were there, and then every big game we had was just on TV locally or on ESPN3,” Smith said.
“It felt like almost every weekend we were playing just another huge game so there was a little bit [of excitement], but we were playing top 25 teams around the country every week, so you can’t really hype up every game too much,” Brooks added.
Smith and Brooks had a star on their own team—current high-school junior Jahlil Okafor. Okafor is ranked #2 in ESPN 100’s high school class of 2014. Despite being two years younger than the Maroon first-years, Okafor has many traits that Brooks and Smith laud.
“He’s still humble. It’s admirable….Somebody getting all this national acclaim and what-not still being able to keep his head is pretty cool,” Smith said.
Brooks looks up to Okafor’s competitive drive.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone take a loss harder than him. When he’s really focused, he’s in the zone,” Brooks said. “You can’t really get him out of it.”
And because of this, Brooks was not dismayed that Okafor would start over him.
“I mean it definitely hurts coming off the bench a little bit, but just looking at the team and the talent around it, I got over it pretty quickly and realized we’re all just really good, and it doesn’t matter if you’re starting or just pretty much finishing the game,” Brooks said.
The caliber of the Dolphins combined with the performances of Brooks and Smith put them on the radars of DI schools, including UIC.
But after McGrath talked to Brooks, Chicago was on top of Brooks’ radar.
“I did some research on the school and realized how good this school actually is,” Brooks said.
From there, Brooks began conversing with Smith about the Maroons, and soon enough, Smith’s interest in the academic powerhouse peaked.
“I never really knew much about the school, like it never even came to my thought process that I was going to come to the University of Chicago; Nate was talking about it,” Smith said. “After that, I found out it was one of the best schools in the world and I was like, ‘Well, it can’t hurt to go there.’ Academics did really come first in a sense. The fact that we didn’t have any crazy offers made it a lot easier to do.”
Both Brooks and Smith realized that the academics and athletics at the University of Chicago were unmatched.
“I started to weigh out my options from there, where I could go—somewhere like a mediocre DI and enjoy my four years there, or I could come to a school like this and have a chance to actually play for a DIII championship and still have an amazing school too,” Brooks said. “That’s what really sold me on that.”
Finally, Brooks and Smith were accepted and enrolled as part of the University of Chicago class of 2016, which surprised many classmates.
“It was kind of weird at school though, cause a lot of kids were applying to the University of Chicago, and the basketball team at our school isn’t known for being notoriously smart, so some of them didn’t get in, and then they see me and Nate going to the University of Chicago and they’re like, “How did these guys get in?” Smith said. “It was just weird. The basketball people were like, “How come you guys aren’t going DI; why are you going DIII?’”
Brooks faced a misconception that most University of Chicago students from the Chicagoland area face.
“A lot of the basketball people I talked to didn’t know the University of Chicago existed,” Brooks said. “They’re just like, ‘Oh, you got into UIC? Good for you.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s not really UIC; it’s the University of Chicago.’”
The entire process made Brooks and Smith better friends. In fact, both of them interned at Loop Capital this past summer.
“We were real cool before that, even before we thought about going to the University of Chicago, but I guess when we both found out we were going to the University of Chicago…we started hanging out more,” Smith said.
Even though Smith and Brooks are the best of friends, they could not single out one Maroon as a best friend. They agreed that the Maroons are one cohesive unit.
“Really, everyone on the team is best friends with each other, and that was one of the things I noticed on my recruiting trip— is how close the guys were and I loved that,” Brooks said. “When I got here, it’s been no different.”
At Chicago, the two made an impact early on in the season.
In spite of back problems that have been hindering Brooks for much of the season, he has still managed to be a presence down low. Opponents fear his attack on the offensive end and his aggressiveness on defense.
Smith has been a crowd-pleaser, something the Maroons have been missing the past several years. Whether it’s a fast-break block or slam, Smith manages to rejuvenate his team and the crowd when they need it most.
The Whitney Young products have not forgotten about the Dolphins.
On Friday, February 15, after Brandeis defeated Chicago 75–56 at the Judges’ home court, Whitney Young won its first Chicago Public League title since 1998.
“We were on the bus coming back right after the Brandeis game,” Brooks said. “It was actually kind of rough ’cause we had just came off of a pretty crummy loss, and then just get on Twitter and see that they won. I was proud of the young guys.”
Although the season ends tomorrow at Wash U with no chance for Chicago to win the UAA title or receive an at-large bid to the NCAA DIII Tournament, Smith and Brooks elaborated on their team goals for the next three years.
“I want, at the very least, a UAA Championship in the next three years, and I feel that after seeing some of the competition and the rest of the league, I feel we can make at least two or three tournament appearances in the next three years easily,” Brooks said.
“We’ve got to get some championships,” Smith added. “I think the sky’s the limit. Championship or bust, pretty much, in the last two years.”
And if the Maroons do win a championship, there will be even more buzz surrounding Brooks and Smith when they graduate than when they were recruited.