AMHERST - A lot has changed since the last time Shannon Crooks pulled on a basketball uniform, laced up his high tops and brought a crowd to its feet just over a year ago.
Jerrey Roberts, Daily Hampshire Gazette, photo
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The high school version of Shannon Crooks was different. When the 6-foot-2 lead guard had the ball, fans at Everett High School would be afraid to take their eyes off him, in fear of not seeing what might happen next. They didn't want to be the one that missed an opposing defender fooled so bad by a Crooks fake that he stumbled to the floor, while the star guard raced in for a dunk.
"He was a very exciting player in high school," said Everett coach John DiBiaso. "He was very strong and not many kids can jump like he can."
Crooks was a highlight waiting to happen. His flashy style had some optimistic friends comparing him to Allen Iverson and recruiting publications predicting at least college stardom.
Adding to his resume, Crooks spent his summers playing for the vaunted Boston Amateur Basketball Club and its coach Leo Papile. On that club Crooks, Monty Mack and Jonathan DePina formed one of the best backcourt threesomes on the AAU circuit.
"Shannon could dribble penetrate and get into the lane at will," Papile said. "He was physically gifted far beyond his years."
Most people including Crooks himself believed that he would follow Mack, a close friend, to the University of Massachusetts, but he changed his mind. The promises of coach Fran Fraschilla and the allure of the Big Apple caught his eye and proved to be too much to resist as Crooks signed with St. John's.
But things didn't develop as Crooks imagined. When the Red Storm got off to a slow start, Fraschilla began tinkering with the lineup rotations, eventually settling on one that limited Crooks' involvement.
In most circumstances, Crooks would have been devastated. Sitting on the bench was a completely foreign concept to him at that point, but basketball woes were low on Crooks' priority list.
The news that his father Sam was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was deteriorating quickly, floored him.
"It was real difficult on my mind, knowing that my mother was there by herself taking care of my father doing different things alone. She's a strong woman," said Crooks, whose parents encouraged him to stay at school. "It took a toll on me on the court. I wasn't focused at all. I thought I was playing all right, but I just wasn't focused."
St. John's can be a lonely place for non-New Yorkers anyway. Most of the students, including the basketball players, hail from the five boroughs and head home at the end of the day.
"I was basically alone. I would do a lot of things by myself sometimes, shy away from people. It was a real rough time," Crooks said. "A lot of people probably didn't notice it. Coaches noticed it and people on the team noticed it, but a lot of people didn't know what I was going through. It was real tough. It was something I never expected to happen."
Teammates Tarik Turner and Chudney Gray tried to help.
"My roommate Tarik Turner was always there for me. We were real close as roommates. Anytime stuff would go on, he would take me with him," Crooks said. "He wanted me with him to know that I'm all right. Even if he was going to get a slice of pizza or something, he would always ask me if I wanted to roll. He was always there for me.
"Another guy on the team, Chudney Gray, his mother died a couple of years prior to that, (she) died from injuries sustained in a car accident," Crooks continued. "It was pretty much the same situation. She was slowly drifting. He was there for me telling me that he'd been through the same things. You just have to keep occupied."
Longing for a fresh start on the basketball court and the chance to be closer to his parents, Crooks picked up the phone and called a pair of old friends.
He asked Mack and DePina to find out whether or not UMass coach Bruiser Flint might still be interested.
"They kind of persuaded Bruiser to take me back in here. I'm still grateful to them for that, Crooks said. "There was other schools that wanted me, but I wrote Bruiser a letter about all the things I went through and how I felt about the situation and told him if this would be the best place for me, I wouldn't even consider another school."
Flint didn't hesitate and Crooks transferred to UMass.
"He just welcomed me back with open arms, and I'm grateful for that. I'll always be grateful for that," Crooks said. "He's a good coach. He gets on you, but he tries to make you better."
Sam Crooks' condition worsened and he passed away in the spring, but before he did he had a message for his son.
"When he was sick in the hospital, he was still talking and joking around. He said that I'm the man and different things that I have to do. He laid the law down for me and I'm just taking over from there," Crooks said. "That was the first person I was close to ever get sick. Then to watch him slowly get sicker and sicker. It was real tough seeing him lying there in bed. That was the first time I had seen somebody actually dying in front of me. I dealt with it and I'm still dealing with it, but I'm going to get through it. From age 18 to 19, I think I grew up a whole lot.
"It changed the way I look at things a lot. I know that you aren't guaranteed anything. Something can happen one day and be gone the next," Crooks continued. "It's put everything in perspective ... my basketball career is like secondary. You're not guaranteed anything. I could get sick one day and my career could be over. It just made me think... Nothing is more special than life."
To say that Crooks has found religion as a way of coping wouldn't be entirely accurate, but he has made his own deal with God.
"I'm more of a spiritual guy. I don't go to church every day, but I pray a lot. I pray every night," Crooks said. "I try to read the Bible. I'm not becoming a Muslim, but I read different books like the Koran to try to up my knowledge of things."
Somewhere in the New York winter, Shannon Crooks left his childhood behind. He arrived in Amherst this fall as a man.
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NCAA transfer regulations required Crooks to sit out this season, serving only as a practice player this year for UMass.
While Crooks and the UMass coaching staff agreed that the year off was beneficial as it gave him a chance to learn the UMass system, everybody is anxious to get him back into action.
"It's been tough to watch, but I know this is the best thing for me," Crooks said. "This is going to help me a lot. I want to be out there bad, but I know that once my time comes, I'll be ready."
Flint expects Crooks to help boost his sometimes anemic offense.
"The kid can flat out get a shot. He's different. What people don't realize is he may be the best athlete we got which makes it a little bit different," Flint said. "He'll change the way we play a little bit because he can really do things that we haven't had a guy that can do since Mike Williams. But he's a better ball handler and a much better athlete than Mike. He's much stronger. He can do the kind of things with the shot clock winding down and get a basket. Defensively he'll make us a lot different too, because of his quickness and his strength."
According to Papile, Crooks will bring with him another element that UMass could use - fire.
"He's a fighter," Papile said. "He doesn't take losing easily."
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After the unsettled nature of last year, Crooks finally feels at ease.
"I feel it's more like a family atmosphere. I feel more comfortable. This feels more like a home. I think I'm going to have a good career here," Crooks said. "I'm just going to come in and try to contribute as much as I can, whatever Bruiser needs me to do. I just came here for an opportunity. I'm not going to approach the games looking to razzle and dazzle the crowd, cause I used to do that in high school, but I'm trying tighten my game and make me a better player.
"Once you get older, your game matures and that's what I'm trying to do over this year, to have more of a man's game instead of a street-baller," Crooks added. "I'm not going to lose my edge, just try to control it more."
His always strong relationship with his mother Elsa has been enhanced as well.
"It has strengthened it a lot. We were always close, but we're like even closer than before, just by the way we talk," he said. "She's doing real good. You can tell it's still hard on her, but she is a real strong woman. It's real good to be only two hours away. She feels more comfortable that if she needs me she can just call and I'll be on the next bus home."
Mack, who has known Crooks for most of his life, has noticed a change in his friend.
"It was tough. Sam was a great man. He was very close to all our friends, so I felt the pain that he felt. God rest his soul," Mack said. "Just growing up around Shannon. I see he's matured a lot. It's just the little things that he does now. He appreciates the little things that he gets. He knows he had a tough time down there at St. John's and everything he gets now he appreciates."
As Crooks touches the ring, the wedding band that used to rest on the fourth finger of Sam Crooks, he thinks of his dad and the standard he wants to live up to.
"He was a genuine person, just the way he carried himself. When the time presented itself, he didn't take no mess from anybody. I try to do the same thing, but still be respectful," Crooks said. "My father thought I was better than everyone, like any father should. I think he'd be proud that I've matured. He knew that I was pretty mature. He's waiting to see me excel like everyone thought I would at the college level."
The chance to do that isn't far away.