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The Duck’s Cool Hand Look

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The Ducks may not win all the time, but they do win a great deal of the time, and one thing is for certain: Win or lose, each player is a winner. After some rather disappointing seasons, the 2006-07 team looks to be one for the books. Towards the beginning of the season Duck head coach Ernie Kent remarked, “You’re not looking at a team that’s lacking talent, this team is right here to win games. Hopefully the adversity they’ve been through will help them turn that corner.”

Even though the Duck’s have had a hard time the last three seasons, suffering some crushingly close losses and skirting the media’s harsh criticisms, they have not lost their will and ability to be the best basketball team they can possibly be.

This season, after an undefeated non-conference season, a promising season, and a good chance of positioning themselves well in the NCAA Tournament, the Ducks are ready to realize their potential and win consistently. The adversity the Ducks have gone through has allowed them to mature, become physically and mentally stronger, and start winning, and the player who epitomizes this idea of success through adversity is none other than the Duck’s star point guard Aaron Brooks.

On the fourteenth of January, in the final seconds of the Ducks game against Arizona and the score tied at seventy-seven, the ball bounced up and down in the capable hands of the U of O Ducks team leader and famed clutch player, Aaron Brooks. Brooks had been in this position before, as he was especially disappointed in four instances his junior year in which he missed a last second shot to win or tie the game.

This time however, Brooks was calm and controlled. His teammates were relying on him to make this important basket, and Brooks would not let them down. It happened quickly, an Arizona defender came to double up on Brooks; Brooks saw this, read the situation, drove down the side, beat his man, and made the lay-up. Coach Kent said later of the shot, “There was no doubt in my mind who was getting the last shot.”

More often than not, Brooks has been able to make those clutch plays. He had done the same during the previous weekend in a game against then number one ranked team UCLA with a baseline jump shot in the final seconds. Brooks has been leading the Ducks on a high-flying season this winter. It is hard to believe that this is the same Brooks who struggled through the previous three years. It is hard to believe that this is the same Brooks who, after the 2005-2006 season, contemplated leaving the University of Oregon basketball team for good.

Aaron Brooks came out of Franklin High School in Seattle with a formidable list of accomplishments. In leading his team to the Washington 4A state championships, he had won countless honors, including Washington’s Gatorade, Associated Press, Seattle Times and Tacoma News Tribune State Player of the Year. Indeed, everyone expected great things from Brooks.

His next three years at the University of Oregon however, and those three years for the Ducks as a whole, were fraught with difficulty and fell short of everyone’s expectations. In Brooks’ sophomore and junior years, due to several close losses, the Ducks did not even make it to the post-season.

The misfortune began early on in the season of his freshman year, when he broke his wrist punching the basketball hoop support at the UCLA game in a short bout of frustration. Brooks subsequently had to sit out ten games because of the injury. He performed very well in the games in which he did play however, and earned Pac-10 All-Freshman honors. The incident at UCLA was trying for Brooks, but he was determined to learn from his mistake.

His sophomore and junior years saw a stronger and more dominant Brooks. However, despite Brooks’ many incredible achievements, such as tying Duck great Ron Lee for scoring the most points ever in one game for a University of Oregon sophomore (34 points at USC), earning all-Pac-10 honorable mention status his sophomore year, and leading the Pac-10 in assists-to-turnover ratio (1.81 to 1)

His junior year, Brooks was disappointed. Yet again the Ducks had failed to make the postseason. Brooks felt he was not playing at his full potential, and he felt unfulfilled.

In the summer of 2006, Brooks’ daughter MiKah was born. It was an event that changed Brooks’ perspective on life and basketball and brought him face to face with a very scary and real dilemma: Whether to continue playing basketball at the University of Oregon, or move to Seattle to be closer with his girlfriend and newborn daughter.

“I was pretty close,” responded Brooks when asked how close he was to leaving the Ducks, “It was about 50-50.” Brooks didn’t want to come back and play basketball unless his heart was fully in it. “That’s why I took some time away just to do what I needed to do,” Brooks said, “And I figured if I’m going to do it, then we’re going to do it right the last year.”

Every Duck fan would agree that Brooks made the right decision. At the time of the writing of this article, he had led the Ducks to a Pac-10 record of eight wins and five losses. The team also won all twelve of their non-conference games. Brooks also leads the Pac-10 in most points scored this season, with (at the time of the writing of this article) an outstanding 404, scoring an average of 17.6 points per game this season.

In addition to this season’s success for Brooks, in early December he reached 1000 career points, thus joining a prestigious group of 25 Oregon Basketball players who have achieved the same, including current teammate, junior Malik Hairston.

In these past three years, Brooks has worked on improving the weak points in his game, and this year we are seeing it all come together. According to Brooks, the secret to his success this year is pretty simple: He’s just having more fun playing basketball now. “I don’t think I was happy last year or the year before,” Brooks reflected. “Right now I’m happy and I’m just playing.” Brooks has also never stopped improving his basketball game. “I actually worked on scoring [in the off-season],” said Brooks.

“I wanted to be a more complete player. I worked on passing a little bit too. I worked on my scoring sophomore year, I worked on my passing junior year, and this year I put it all together.”

Starting Duck forward Malik Hairston agrees that this is Brooks’ year to shine. “Past couple years, you haven’t seen Brooks,” Hairston remarked, “This is Aaron Brooks. Aaron Brooks is a dominant player; he has a passion for winning, just like the rest of these guys.”

Junior Maarty Leunen is another player who has played a key role in the team’s success this season. This season Leunen has solidified his reputation as a triple threat (shooting, passing, and rebounding) who can also deliver the points when it counts most.

Perhaps his most celebrated clutch moment this year was at Washington State on January 27. Leunen, in the final seconds of the game, was faced with the nerve racking task of making two free throws in order to tie the game to send it into over time, all the while being verbally harassed by 11,092 hostile fans. He successfully made both shots, and the Ducks ended up beating the Cougars in overtime.

Leunen was just as psyched as his fans were when he made those two shots. “First one I thought was short,” Leunen recalled, “The second one I thought it was a swish. When it bounced off the rim, I held my breath. When it rimmed in… That was crazy.” In order to block out the screaming of the hostile fans, Leunen approached the free throws objectively. “I just tried to stay calm,” reflected Leunen, “and be confident in my ability to shoot free throws.”

All in all, Leunen is having a great season, dramatically leading the Ducks in offensive and defensive rebounds, and scoring in double figures almost every game.

Leunen acknowledges the fact that he is a triple threat. “I don’t necessarily have any one strength,” Luenen modestly admitted, “But I do have the ability to work hard and do all the little things. I like to think I can do a little bit of everything.”

Coach Kent attributes Leunen’s success this season to his character development. “The biggest thing,” Kent explained, “is that I think the conditioning program we put him through during the summer made him stronger. He’s always been a great player, and now he has his confidence level at an all time high, the confidence that he can push through every single possession.”

Leunen, like all of the players, is a winner off the court as well, being the first one in his family to attend college. “Being the first one in my family to go to college is important for me because I have three younger brothers,” Leunen explained, “I want to be a good role model. I want to show them that it can be done, to come from a small town and go to a division one school and play basketball.”

Hard work is important on the court, but to Leunen, it is just as important off the court as well. “I tell [my younger brothers] to work hard,” said Leunen, “Hard work will get you to a lot of places, and if you continue to work on things and strive for the best, a lot of things will take care of themselves.”

Another player who exemplifies hard work on and off the court is forward and exemplary scholar-athlete Mitch Platt. Mitch Platt had an excellent start as a freshman, playing in 27 games and starting in 22 of them. He scored 5.6 points per game, was Oregon’s fourth leading rebounder at 3.6 per game, and earned Pac-10 All-Freshman honorable mention honors.

However, hardship struck when towards the end of his freshman season, Platt sprained his ankle. During his sophomore year he played through the pain, playing in 27 games and starting in 24. “It was tough,” said Platt of his sophomore year.

“Because of my ankle, I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do, how I knew I could really play.” The extreme discomfort in his ankle soon became serious however, and in the off-season after his sophomore year he underwent two surgeries to alleviate the pain in his left foot. “I tried to come back in after the surgery,” Platt recalled, “but I had to take a year off to get it healthy.”

He red-shirted his junior year in order to let his ankle finish healing, and this season he has come back and is seeing some action once again.

Not only does Platt strive for excellence in basketball, but in the academic realm as well. “Academics are very important to me,” stressed Platt, “I am hoping I can play basketball after college, but I know that one day basketball will be over for me. School is the most important thing for me right now. I need to put that first and make sure I that I take care of business in the classroom.”

Platt’s words are echoed in an article written by none other than University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer in the University newspaper, “The Daily Emerald.” “The relationship between sports and academics,” explicated Frohnmayer, “is kept in proper perspective by basing every decision related to athletics on the fundamental principle that athletes are students first.”

And so it seems that the Ducks strength lies in their ability to maintain a balance: The balance between their athletics and their academics, the balance of confidence and modesty, the balance between offense and defense, and the balance between ability and passion. They’re doing all the little things right and they are doing all the big things right. The Ducks, despite all the adversity of the previous years, have managed to hone their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

In short, these Ducks are winners because they never gave up on themselves. It is not surprising that the most direct, passionate, and succinct explanation of the fundamental essence of the Duck spirit comes from head coach Ernie Kent: “They’ve bonded together in all those close games and adversity in the last couple of years… and I think that sometimes when you go through so much adversity in your life, you can either come up or you’re going to come down, and I think to their credit, they never wavered, they’ve stuck together, and they’ve united even stronger.

Now they’ve started winning, and once you get that taste for winning, it becomes contagious, and all of a sudden all that adversity you went through, it goes the other direction, it just pushes you ahead, and in terms of being successful right now they are on a tremendous run.”

Editor’s Note: The Ducks did not make the playoffs in 2008. The noticeable difference was the absence of Aaron Brooks, their star point guard, who now plays for the Houston Rockets.

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