• Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about voices of Sooner football and basketball.
There’s too much to say about John Brooks, the soundtrack to the 1980’s Barry Switzer Sooners and that amazing brand of hoops called “BillyBall.”
Brooks himself probably can’t do it, though he might love to try.
Just north of 80 years old, he’s sharp as a tack, full of stories and still working, too.
He continues to operate Sportscast Productions. Over the last few years, Brooks originated the Bison Radio Network, now growing from four to seven stations for the purpose of bringing Oklahoma Baptist football to the masses and, guess what, he helps call the games, as well.
There was a rumor he retired from broadcasting following the 2004-05 Central Hockey League season, a season that marked his 27th as the voice of hockey in Oklahoma City.
There were stories written about him and Brooks even said he was done, too. Had he been, it would have been the case of legend dropping the mic.
Brooks, after all, had called Sooner basketball in 1974-75 and then from 1976-77 to 1990-91, giving him all of Billy Tubbs’ best seasons; as well as one year of Sooner football, 1974, as color guy, before taking over play-by-play duties from 1978 to 1990, giving him Billy Sims’ Heisman season out of the gate and nine more calling the Switzer Sooners, including the 1985 national championship, three other 11-1 campaigns and six conference crowns.
The whole time, or as long as Oklahoma City had a hockey team, he was calling that, too, a job that originated all the way back in 1965, the original incarnation of the Blazers, the top farm team of the Boston Bruins, which meant he called the names of dozens and dozens of future NHL stars, some Hall of Famers, as well.
It is, if you ask him, his best sport, though he’s been fabulous at everything.
That retirement thing fooled everybody, including Brooks.
Since the day he thought he’d hung up his microphone, he’s called four Northeastern State football seasons, five Tulsa Union football seasons and four Putnam City football seasons.
Now, via a network he put together himself, OBU, an NCAA Division II program, gets to claim a legend on the call.
“Worst decision I ever made in my career,” said Brooks of his short-lived retirement.
Of course, that’s the great thing about bad decisions. You’re not required to stick with them and Brooks didn’t.
As the man on the Sooner mic, what set him apart from most who came before him and who’ve come after, is the way he views the job, the only way he’s ever viewed the job and, sadly, the way fewer and fewer home team broadcasters are even allowed to view their job.
“I always felt that it was an injustice,” Brooks said. “If you were a great fan of the team I was calling and that team was stinking up the place that night, it was an injustice to try to tell you that team is playing well.”
Brooks learned, as sportswriters occasionally learn putting words on the page, there’s a way to call the game that doesn’t call the team out as horrendous generally, but not up to par in the moment.
He understood athletes and teams operate in the context of their own talents, abilities, histories and expectations and describing the action accurately, even when it can’t be done positively, is ultimately a sign of respect to the audience.
It also meant when fans heard him praise their team, they knew their team had earned it.
Telling Brooks’ story requires some jumping around, there’s just so much of it.
He’s enjoyed an entirely separate career writing children’s books. There are five in all, the last one penned in 2011, each a story about Bobby Bright, the world’s first talking Christmas tree light bulb.
Only the COVID-19 pandemic has kept him from his annual tours reading those books to school-children audiences throughout Oklahoma.
Presuming there’s an eventual post-coronavirus return to semi-normal that allows him another tour, Brooks estimates he’ll have described the exploits of Bobby Bright to more than 120,000 young students.
If you’re going to speak to Brooks, and you’ve lived a life connecting to the voices of sport every bit as much as the games themselves, you must get his take on the others who do what he does.
In 1972-73, Oklahoma City was briefly without hockey and Brooks spent a season calling the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League.
There, he listened to Chick Hearn, voice of the Los Angeles Lakers for what became a 42-season run.
“He was just phenomenal,” Brooks said.
He’s a big fan of Brad Sham, who’s called the Dallas Cowboys for all but three seasons since 1984 and a big fan and close friend of John Rooney, who’s called Chicago White Sox baseball, still calls St. Louis Cardinal baseball, and is responsible for Brooks being the home-team voice for the Michael Jordan-era Bulls for two games during the 1990-91 NBA season.
Rooney was on the hook for a number of Bulls games, but couldn’t make five of them, as a result of spring training commitments to the White Sox. Brooks couldn’t do all five — he had Sooner commitments — but he could do two, and did.
Counting the Bulls, and why shouldn’t he, Brooks has tallied it up and he’s been the voice of 19 different professional teams or collegiate programs.
Of course, he reveres another fantastic Los Angeles voice, one from the Dodgers.
“Vin Scully,” Brooks said, “was, without question, the greatest.”
Brooks got his start when he was 8 years old, sort of.
“I started doing play by play in the living room of a tiny home,” Brooks said. “I’m 8 years old and I’m in this tiny little house in Wichita, Kansas, and I had a domino in my hand and would fake the dribble in the living room, throw the domino off the wall at an imaginary basket and I would call it as I was doing it.”
By 14, he knew he wanted to make a life of it. He recalls a family road trip to California he tried honing his skills in the backseat. Alas, it lasted only a little while before he was shut down.
“I was driving my parents and my sister bananas,” Brooks said.
He was a student assistant to Harold Keith, the original sports publicity and information man at OU, along with Ross Porter and Jim Jones and, talk about a triumvirate, Porter called 28 seasons alongside Scully in Los Angeles and Jones became a U.S. Congressman and ambassador.
After a stint in the Army, Brooks found himself on high school football color commentary based out of Alexandria, Louisiana, and when the play-by-play guy quit, he took over.
That’s where it all began.
Also, there’s this.
Dave Bliss, who coached Sooner basketball from 1975-76 to 1979-80, who would eventually leave the stage under as much disgrace, perhaps, as any college basketball skipper following the 2002-03 season, his fourth at Baylor, is also the man most responsible for Brooks getting his Sooner run.
Following his lone year as color man to OU football and hoops play-by-play guy, he turned up calling Oklahoma City Chiefs basketball. Bliss heard him and wanted him back in Norman. Two years later, he was calling football, too.
Life is interesting and strange and Brooks should know, he’s lived several. He’s still going, too, telling it like it is at every turn.
“People, often times,” he said, about calling it straight, “notice it, but they don’t know that they notice it.”
He’s right about that.
Some, however, know they notice and are forever grateful. Because there’s a right way to do it and John Brooks has been doing it forever.
Follow me @clayhorning