Players earning respect
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 3/10/2000

PHILADELPHIA Bruiser Flint says his mother used to tell him that good things happen to good people, a fact the hanging jury of Western Massachusetts basketball fans has either forgotten about or doesn't care about.

But for now, let's put aside the impact of yesterday's 86-68 Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal win over George Washington on Flint's job or the NIT. Let's talk about the forgotten people. The players.

The last four years of UMass players have been to the fans what Andrew Johnson was to Lincoln, most sequels are to the original and what in many eyes, Flint has been to John Calipari not good enough. We have ruled that they do not reach the level to which we've become accustomed.

These players are well aware that the region which canonized Marcus Camby, Lou Roe and others have looked at them as imposters to the throne. It has been very unfair, if only because it has been very unfeeling.

They almost never complain, but they know.

"I'm proud of these guys," forward Winston Smith said yesterday. "For three straight years, we were knocked out in the second round. But we played 100 percent, and thank God we're going to the next round."

There isn't a rotten egg on this team, you know. Flint's mom was talking about people like these.

It's not as if they're driving fancy cars and getting accused of ticket scams at the malls, like you-know-who. And they always try.

The thing is, that's not always enough to win. So the fans grow impatient, which is natural. But these players deserved the smiles they wore yesterday.

Look, Mike Babul knows he's no great shooter. Shannon Crooks knows he's not John Stockton. Even Monty Mack, who resembles those mid-1990s stars most closely, has missed 58 percent of his shots.

Even so, Babul has learned stellar defense, Mack played yesterday with a sore neck because his team needed him, and Crooks plays with heart and soul whether the jumper is falling or not. These players deserve at least a little more than unflattering comparisons to the way it once was around here.

Chris Kirkland may not be Donta Bright, but he's developed into a third-team all-leaguer. Kitwana Rhymer, who is not Camby, has gone from a mystery to a man. It's not all bad news, you know.

Yesterday, the Minutemen played a flashy team that can drop 100 on you, partly because it rests on defense. UMass never rests. But because its best doesn't always win, the reward has been a steady message that we need not only a new coach, but new players.

No wonder they have less fun playing at home.

Yesterday's game was hard to win. It took discipline, patience and guts. They have these qualities, even if the jumper doesn't always go in.

"We knew we were a good team that could put it all together," said Jonathan DePina, perhaps the most maligned Minuteman of all.

One person does appreciate them. Flint.

"This is sports in the 90s you can't win enough," he said. "People complain the Yankees are losing preseason games.

"But the guys are playing hard for me, and that's all I can ask. This group is very special to me."

So this is not 1996. And the conference semifinals are not the Final Four.

But on a day the Minutemen needed their very best, they delivered. They'll never receive the idolatry of their predecessors, but maybe they deserve some some slack, an acceptance that they don't have to be perfect to be respected.

It hasn't happened yet. Perhaps a splendid victory over a high-scoring opponent is a good time to suggest it should.


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