UMass pins hope on guard
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News Staff Writer, 7/29/1999

For someone who has yet to play one minute as a Minuteman, Shannon Crooks sounds like he's heard it all.

"I hear a lot of different things," said Crooks, the University of Massachusetts sophomore who is lighting up the Greater Springfield Pro-Am Basketball League, averaging more than 20 points per game. "Negative things, like people saying I won't help."

No, Shannon, not those things. How about the growing expectation that you, and perhaps you alone, will lift UMass out of its sleepwalk and back to glory?

"Sometimes I get that impression, too," he said. "But we have a lot of good guys on this team. We're like a family."

It was a pretty dysfunctional household last year, when Crooks sat out after transferring from St. John's. Preseason dreams of run-and-gun were replaced by the reality of walk-and-glum. Crooks enters this season as the starting point guard and to perhaps to many fans, designated savior.

"When I've played point in the past, I've had to score a lot, but I'm an unselfish player," the 6-foot-2 guard said. "Still, when it's time to score, I'll bring it to the table."

That statement will no doubt provoke cheers from UMass fans who can't fathom the offense being turned over to Jonathan DePina. But wait Crooks, DePina and Monty Mack are close friends from Eastern Massachusetts, and DePina's game is enjoying a modest rebirth in the Pro-Am League.

"Monty, Shannon and I are like brothers," DePina said. "Whatever Shannon likes, I like too."

What many UMass fans think they'd like, though, is new blood. Crooks is being seen as a life preserver to a drowning program, and the expectations about him may be getting a bit out of hand.

But hey, the guy is good. He plays for the Waterfront Lounge in the Pro-Am League, where he's been buzzing by defenders for layups, pulling up to hit jumpers and defending tenaciously, and showing leadership skills to boot.

"Even last year," he said, "I'd give my opinion when things got messy. Especially with Jonathan."

Things got messy for UMass quite often last season, and one man alone won't turn it all around. Crooks is hoping only to play well enough to silence the wolves.

"Bruiser (Flint) is a good coach, and maybe all the stuff last year helps keep things in perspective," he said. "But the people who really care about you will stay with you when you're down."

Crooks first chose St. John's because he was worried UMass might get probation over the Marcus Camby mess. He averaged 1.9 points per game as a freshman in 1997-98, and the honeymoon at St. John's was over in a hurry.

"When I wanted to transfer to UMass, Bruiser and the team welcomed me back with open arms," said Crooks, and it's clear his appreciation is genuine.

Dreams of up-tempo UMass basketball fizzled last year, partly with the realization that Charlton Clarke was not a natural point guard. But then, neither is Crooks.

"Point guard, shooting guard I just consider myself a basketball player," he said.

He's also been out a year, which UMass fans should keep this in mind on those nights when Crooks plays like a 20-year-old kid and not Michael Jordan.

The problem is that right now, asking UMass fans for patience is like asking Bud Selig to go disco dancing with umpires union chief Richie Phillips. Minuteman fans have seen most of this team, and with slim pickings on the recruiting front, they're pinning their hopes on the X-factor of Crooks.

The kid from Everett, though, is giving them reason. He's a human pep pill to a program that conked out last year, a sign of hope if only because his fingerprints weren't on last season's corpse.

"I'm ready for any challenge," he says. He'd better be. The fate of the UMass basketball kingdom, and perhaps King Flint, may be hanging in the balance.

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