During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black a
During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Vanessa Brooks was in a residency program at Duke when she received a LinkedIn message from Donnie Strack, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s vice president of human and player performance.
Strack had seen Brooks’ impressive resume, which included athletic training experience from her undergrad days at Georgia, a doctorate degree from Emory University in Atlanta, sports medicine work at Duke and what would soon be a physical therapy sports fellowship at Wake Forest.
But despite her credentials, Brooks, then in her mid-20s, didn’t know how to respond.
“I first thought, ‘Oh no, LinkedIn has spam, too,’” Brooks said.
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But then Brooks decided to look Strack up.
“Oklahoma City Thunder? Wait, what? No way,” Brooks thought.
“I finally contacted Donnie back,” she said. “We were on the phone and I told him my desire was to work in professional sports. I was like everyone thinks I’m crazy when I say this, I’ve been told this is a very lofty goal, but honestly you asked me what my goals were, and my goal is to work in professional sports.”
Brooks, 29, reached her goal. After one season with the G League Oklahoma City Blue, Brooks is in her first season as the Thunder’s physical therapist/athletic trainer.
Watch any Thunder game and you’ll see her on the front row of the Thunder’s bench, a couple seats down from coach Mark Daigneault.
Brooks was recently honored by the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association in celebration of Black History Month. She became the first Black woman to be dual certified as an athletic trainer and physical therapist in the NBA when she joined the organization in 2019.
Brooks’ mom, Jackie, is from Jamaica and her dad, Tony, is from England. They met in Miami and Brooks grew up in Miramar, Florida.
“I always liked basketball,” Brooks said. “Unfortunately basketball did not like me.”
Brooks tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus while playing AAU ball before her senior year of high school.
“That’s when I found out a lot more about physical therapy,” Brooks said.
She planned to walk-on at Georgia, but two days before tryouts she tore her ACL again while playing in a pick-up game at the campus rec center.
“Something’s not adding up,” she thought. “I passed all these functional tests and something’s not right. That’s when I was like I have to dive in deeper because I know I’m not the only one that’s retearing ligaments or getting reinjured for the same injury.”
Those injuries made her want to specialize in sports, but her general interest in physical therapy came from what her mom went through. When Vanessa’s younger brother was born, her mom had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body.
“The mental toughness for her to then recover was something that also pushed me to physical therapy,” Brooks said.
As a student trainer at Georgia she worked with the football, women’s basketball, volleyball and equestrian teams.
While studying physical therapy at Emory, she also worked as the head athletic trainer at Maynard Jackson High School in Atlanta.
From Emory she worked in an orthopedic trauma unit at an Atlanta hospital before moving to North Carolina for more opportunities at Duke and Wake Forest.
In April 2018 Brooks visited Oklahoma City to learn more about the Thunder. It was a game day, and Brooks met with everyone from physical trainers to chefs at the Thunder’s practice facility.
“Everybody was very down to earth and chill,” Brooks said. “I was like wow, I’m not trying to say this is nirvana, but it feels close to it.”
Brooks was hired two days before the 2019 NBA Draft.
“She’s just another example of that whole pillar in our organization,” Daigneault said. “That’s who the players see first when they come in in the morning. They see our security guys, they see our chefs and then they see our medical and performance staff.
“The first people they see are there to serve them and there to try to help them get better. And Vanessa’s just another example of that. She’s a high, high character person, she’s excellent at her job, she’s consistent, positive and a real asset to the team and to the organization.”
When Strack first reached out, Brooks said she thought of the boxes she hadn’t yet checked rather than the ones she had.
“Even though unfortunately it came across as spam when I first saw it, you could say it’s a risk, but he saw the opportunity and he saw that I could grow … That’s why I’m very grateful,” Brooks said. “Yeah, you can make history that way, but I didn’t make this history alone.”