Alton Brooks an Icon in the City
Alton F. Brooks has witnessed plenty during the 90 years he’s graced the planet.
Conspicuous emotion isn’t common in a man from his generation, but tears welled up in his eyes and his voice began to crack when he recalled the night the board of directors opted that New Britain’s venerable youth basketball league would carry his name.
“I just couldn’t say anything,” he said, “because I never thought they thought that much of me.”
New Britain’s African-American sports community looks up to Mr. Brooks as an icon. Many have benefitted from the lessons he’s taught through basketball and his beloved Spottswood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the city’s north end on the shore of Batterson Pond.
His teams won five championships from 1962 through 1967 and plenty of other honors. Trophies presented to the AME Zion team fill a display case in the church’s community room, spilling over to a mantel in the library.
Brooks’ crusade to improve the lot of New Britain’s youth began in the early 1960s. He came to New Britain from his native Arkansas during World War II after training in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration, a New Deal initiative, to work in a defense plant. He dedicated himself to the church. Basketball came later.
“A lot of times the AME Zion team was forfeiting games because the coach didn’t show up,” he said. “The pastor of the church Arthur Hodge asked me if I’d coach the team but I had no inkling about coaching. I loved sports and played but never thought about it.”
“But he insisted. He said the kids were suffering. Well, I love kids. If it wasn’t for my passion to help kids, I never would have [coached]. In my childhood, somebody took the time to keep me busy and I know that the kids here needed the same thing. I had the opportunity to keep them off the street and give them something to do.”
Brooks agreed to sit on the bench but his intent was to let the players coach themselves. He told Pastor Hodge that he would finish out the season but hoped somebody else would come forward. He found out quickly that self-government was not going to work.
“They were getting beat, making a lot of bad plays, bad decisions,” Brooks said. “My love for the game made me look at the caliber of the play. That got to me. I couldn’t just sit there watching the kids. They would fuss about who was going in.”
He became more vocal during practice sessions and formulated a game plan based on team defense.
“My defense was called the zone press,” he said. “They bought it.”
CELTS, GLOBIES IMPACT: Brooks harkened back to his boyhood days for a strategic philosophy, and given the era, his response was stunning.
“My sister coached the girls and boys teams in junior high school,” he said.
He combined her expertise with what he picked up on broadcasts of Celtics games and a lifelong affinity for the Harlem Globetrotters.
He marveled at the pressing defense that legendary Celts coach Red Auerbach employed with Sam and K.C. Jones. The exploits of the great Globetrotters of the era – master of the dribble Marques Haynes, Reece “Goose” Tatum, Hubert “Geese” Ausbie and Meadowlark Lemon – endeared him to team concepts.
“The Globetrotters would take the ball off the backboard and it would never touch the floor,” he said. “Move that ball, look for a teammate. If your teammates are moving there’s always somewhere for that ball to go and the other team has a hard time catching up with it. The Globetrotters have a philosophy of good team play that you can’t beat.
“Red Auerbach had the same philosophy. That ball went downcourt and it was there before the other team could set up.”
Brooks said Nate Vinson, New Britain High Class of 1970, was the most talented player he ever coached.
“He was pro [caliber],” he said. “He had the talent but I was always leery of Nate because Nate always wanted to play it his way. I tried to break him of that but he was not very coachable and that was his downfall. He was one of the best. He could shoot. When he got in a zone you couldn’t stop him.”
Vinson, an NBHS All-Stater in 1969-70, had a trial with the New Jersey Nets that didn’t work out. He remains the top scorer in NBHS boys basketball history but was supplanted three years ago by Symone Roberts, now at Providence College, as the all-time leader.
NEWBRACC DEMISE: Some of the others Brooks mentioned were Tommy Anderson, the Burton brothers, Gilbert Rice, C.C. Clark and Melvin Kline. He coached Tebucky Jones but the league went dormant for three years shortly thereafter.
Brooks said the New Britain Area Council of Churches (NEWBRACC) and the New Britain YMCA could no longer subsidize the program. Brooks said that NEWBRACC was putting up $25,000 at one time while the YMCA furnished the facility and staffing.
“I was human rights director at City Hall and I would call Doug Bray of the YMCA that he needed to start that league again,” Brooks said. “I would call him at least once a week.”
Brooks’ persistence paid off and the league was reborn in the mid-1990s, the churches’ roles diminished for both financial reasons and because fewer people were going to church (see sidebar). The new version of the league relies to a greater extent on private donations.
“The league really stopped because the churches failed,” he said. “The young elements of the Caucasian churches didn’t go to church anymore. [The African-American churches] were more involved with the youth but the other churches just didn’t have the kids or the volunteers.”
Brooks last coached when the league was inoperative. He was prepared to keep going but made note that the generation of young men who followed his example were ready to take over.
POLITICS: In addition to rallying the city’s youth, Brooks has played a major role in prodding African-Americans to get involved in the political process. He remains active in New Britain Democratic party.
“My father was pretty involved in the late 20s and 30s, but as far as African-Americans, there were no openings for us to be in politics but you had to be interested in it,” he said. “When I came to New Britain, I had that same interest.”
He helped develop the Black Democratic Club and is chairman of the political action committee of his church. For awhile, his efforts went unrewarded as far as getting African-American candidates elected but that has changed and he’s proud of the part he’s played. He was the campaign manager for New Britain’s first Black alderman, Connie Collins.
“The last election in November, we have five elected African-Americans, three on the Council, one on the Board of Education and a constable,” Brooks said.
Brooks, relentless in a humble, traditional manner, will go down in city history as a pioneer in the city’s African-American society. The foothold he established for local African-Americans in basketball is set in stone and he won’t rest until he achieved the same in politics.
“If we don’t get politically active, then we’re going to fall behind,” he said. “That’s where the fight is today.”