Eli Brooks

Spring Grove's Eli Brooks and Manheim Central's Taylor Funk, a pair of Division I bound basketball players, pose for a photograph together on Thursday night at Spring Grove Area High School after they met in the District 3 Class 5A playoffs. Spring Grove topped Manheim Central in the contest.

Eli Brooks stood in the middle of a crowd of fans Thursday night, mobbed like a rock star or a movie star or a Pope.

This was at midcourt of the gym at Spring Grove Area High School in the small York County town of Spring Grove, of which Eli Brooks could be mayor without bothering to campaign.

The Rockets had just edged Manheim Central in an electric game before a packed house in the District 5A quarterfinals.

Brooks was accommodating every request for an autograph or photo or hug, and there were dozens upon dozens of them. A 6-foot-1 guard with traces of Allen Iverson and Chris Paul in his game, Brooks has pushed Spring Grove to a basketball eminence it hasn't had since the 1960s. He will play for the University of Michigan next year, and many of the faithful wore UM hats and shirts.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the gym, Taylor Funk emerged from the visitors' locker room, his face flushed with frustration and disappointment.

Funk, Central's 6-9 star, had played brilliantly, scoring 32 points, but missed a tough, contested three-pointer at the buzzer. Spring Grove finished the game on a 12-3 run to win by two.

Funk, who will play college ball at St. Joseph's, is Brooks' best friend, or one of them, entirely because of AAU, short for Amateur Athletic Union, the umbrella for a multi-levered local, regional and national circuit of travel-team hoops.

Kevin Garnett said AAU is "killing'' the NBA in an interview last week, although anyone who watches the current NBA with anything like objectivity doesn't see impending doom.

People remember creatively.

Garnett entered the NBA in 1996, when the pro game was overcoached iso-ball on offense and clutch and grab and sumo-wrestle on D, and only Michael Jordan was saving the league from actual life support.

Garnett played AAU, of course. Some contend it was critical in getting him from a dangerous, racially-charged environment in Mauldlin, South Carolina, to Farragut Academy in Chicago, where Garnett became a prep all-American and from which he went straight to The League.

AAU has its negatives, of course, and its ugly excesses. Inevitably so, where there are elite-level sports played by adolescents and run by adults who can profit, and/or who really, really, really want to win.

But it addresses a need. Basketball used to be a city game. Elite players could find each other on the playground.

How is an elite player who's been homeschooled in Manheim, like Funk, going to find one in Spring Grove?

Quade Green, the terrific point guard at Philadelphia Neumann Goretti, would be a D1 player without AAU. But he wouldn't be a junior-national team point guard bound for Kentucky.

At the local/regional level, players and even teams use AAU to simply get better in the summer.

"For Taylor it was absolutely needed,'' said Chris Sherwood, Funk's coach at Manheim Central. "He's a 6-9, Division One recruit. For some kid, (though), their parents are paying $1,000 when they could work out with us for free.

"You wish you could tell them, 'Your son is not going to be a college player.’ It's needed, but some parents are getting ripped off.''

Brooks and Funk have been AAU teammates in six spring/summers, starting in elementary school, formerly with the York Ballers and lately with the Jersey Shore Warriors, a Philadelphia-based program that includes among its alumni Troy Murphy and Matt Carroll, who played at Notre Dame and in the NBA, and Steve Vasturia, probably Notre Dame's best current player.

Jersey Shore's head man, Tony Sagona, is known as a serious coach whose teams tends to be stocked with serious students who get recruited by Ivy and Patriot League schools and service academies.

"A lot depends on who's coaching these teams,'' Sherwood said. "Sagona does in the right way, and knows how to get kids exposure.''

At the middle of it are just kids.

"On every AAU team I was on, he was my best friend,'' Brooks said of Funk. "He's a great guy.''

In their middle-school years, Funk and Brooks had sleepovers at each other's home. They've been to church together. Their moms hugged and visited like long-lost sisters before Thursday's game.

Too often, in hotels on the road, Funk has seen Brooks sing and dance.

"He dances all right,'' he said. "He can't sing at all, though.''

Their games, combined, can make music.

"He's every shooter's dream point guard,'' Funk said.

"Every time he shoots,'' Brooks said, "you think it's in.''

Back at Spring Grove Thursday, the crowd has thinned around Brooks. Funk sidles over to bro-hug. His face isn't flushed any more. He can smile now, and they pose for pictures together.

Mike Gross is a sports columnist for LNP. Reach him at mgross@lnpnews.com.

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