Dillon Brooks embraced his villain persona to knock off Team USA

MANILA, Philippines — “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

These words, delivered with gravitas by Harvey Dent — portrayed by Aaron Eckhart in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” — have become a timeless aphorism. They echo not only in the world of caped crusaders, but resonate with the essence of every great story ever told.

Stories, at their core, are a reflection of the human experience. They navigate the tumultuous waters of morality, courage and transformation. In this delicate dance between light and dark, heroes emerge from adversity, standing as paragons of virtue.

As the adage suggests, there comes a moment when the hero’s journey takes an unexpected turn; when the beacon of hope may evolve into something far more complex: a villain. These enigmatic figures, the embodiment of antagonism, are the linchpins upon which great narratives pivot, reminding us that without a villain, a hero cannot truly exist.

Dillon Brooks, for all his brashness, cockiness, ability and peskiness, is a villain. But he can also be a hero. He can be the Harvey Dent to LeBron James’ Batman in the NBA Playoffs, but he can also be Basketball Superman for a country seeking its first taste of global success.

In what was the most electrifying duel of the 2023 FIBA World Cup in Manila, Canada beat the United States in overtime. No, it wasn’t for golden grandeur. It was to determine third place, the second-best of the runners-up. But each time there was a big play, rebound, stop, or shot, thousands of people at the Mall of Asia Arena had their hearts skip a beat in unison. Some of them clasped their hands to their mouths, while others screamed, both in triumph and agony.

And isn’t that the true beauty of this game? That defining moments aren’t solely found in numerical rankings or measured glory, but also in the unique consequences of unpredictable actions? Like suddenly being showered with chants of “MVP” while going from pariah to lionhearted in less than an hour?

“We really wanted to play the USA,” a motivated Brooks said after successfully leading his team to its first-ever World Cup medal.

“It’s just the beginning,” said Jordi Torres, his head coach, “of something that’s going to last for a long time.”

Brooks scored 39 points, the most ever in a medal-determining match in the World Cup’s 73-year history. He hit seven of eight 3-pointers, went 80% from the foul line, and sank a dagger in overtime over Manila fan-favorite Austin Reaves. Brooks looked at his NBA peers, putting his hand down towards the floor on his way back to the other end of the court while giving them his patented snarl to signal a message loud and clear; that Reaves was too small for him, in size, width and personality. The shot he took — a tough fadeaway in the corner — was the type of attempt he was mocked for as he missed jumper after jumper in the playoffs, so for that to be the final dagger he handed to the Americans felt like poetic justice.

The 27-year-old Ontario native showcased the full package: Post-ups, penetration, kick-outs, three-balls, defensive stops and clutch plays. He’s primarily known as a thorn in the side of the opposition’s best player, but Brooks displayed high-level performance in multiple facets of the game, making his deal with Houston in the offseason suddenly look a lot more enticing.

Initially, even coffee shop visitors in the Philippines candidly expressed their dislike for Dillon Brooks due to his relentless attempts to unsettle LeBron James, a sentiment most evident in their boos during games. But as his outstanding performance continued, those same boos gradually transformed into resounding cheers as he ultimately earned their respect.

Brooks fine-tuned his shooting precision with the assistance of a specialized shot-tracking device known as Noah in Toronto. This innovative program provided him with a numerical reference point for his jumpers, ensuring that his shot’s arc remained consistently optimal during his shooting opportunities in games.

“I never wanted to force shots or hunt it – that was one of my roles on this team, [determining] shot selection. I feel like I did a pretty good job this World Cup,” Brooks said.

A heartbeat later, Torres looked at Brooks and proudly quipped: “You did a great job.”

For the tournament, Brooks averaged 15 points while shooting 59% from the field, 59% from three and 79% from the free-throw line to go with 3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.3 steals per contest. He was awarded the title of the best defensive player of the World Cup. He embraced the boos from the Manila crowd, brandishing kisses and smiles for entertainment and provocation. Luka Doncic called him physical and unlikeable but used the word “respect” while defining what he does well. Brooks’ teammates, former teammates, and coaches rallied around him, with Jaren Jackson Jr. calling him one of the best defenders in the world and a great locker room presence, and Torres waxing poetic about how essential his presence is on the court.

“Having that edge every single game, remembering how I prepared for the game, how I was trying to be a leader out there for my teammates, I’ve got to bring this back to Houston,” Brooks said.

In his characteristically unapologetic demeanor, Brooks made it clear he cares little about whether he’s liked or not, and how that’s what makes him great at what he does.

He’s the type of player who’s willing to hit a little extra hard or talk a little extra trash to get the best player of an opposing team out of his game. Just ask Doncic. He will put on boxing gloves in arena hallways after an ejection to veer into the realm of self-parody. He doesn’t mind wearing the mantle of the villain in a story; in fact, he wears it on his chest, his actions on the court a testament to his resolve.

No matter how you feel about him as a player, you can’t help but respect his hard work and determination. His tenacity, his refusal to back down and his fearless approach to the game make him someone to be reckoned with on the court, and his performance at the World Cup solidified his status as a player who demands respect from fans and foes alike.

Love him or hate him, Dillon Brooks is a spectacle upon himself, both ready and eager for showtime.

“It’s just a persona. People love it. I’ve grown to love it myself,” Brooks said about being labeled the bad guy. “It’s just like Kobe Bryant – RIP to Kobe Bryant – how he had to figure out how to create a ‘Black Mamba,’ a different persona when he comes on the court.

“I guess that’s my persona: the villain. Just on the court, but I’m a loving, caring guy who loves my kids, loves my family, loves my teammates, just loves the world as well.”

In the grand narrative of sports, Dillon Brooks reminds us that if the hero can live long enough to become the villain, then, conversely, the villain can also live long enough to become the hero, even in brief instances. With each resounding shot that sunk USA further into despondency, Brooks, in some parts of the world, transformed from antagonist to protagonist. His story serves as a captivating testament to the dynamic nature of heroes and villains, the ever-shifting line between them, and how, in the end, we often find ourselves resonating with the complex shades of the anti-hero more than anyone else.

In those moments of uncertainty and transformation, we discover that every player, like every character in a great story, has the potential to evolve and surprise, leaving us spellbound by the unpredictable beauty of the game and human beings.

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