MHERST - They called themselves Hard-Earned and they weren't the type of people you expected to learn life lessons from. More of a clique than a gang, the group of guys that regularly watched the Boston-based Titans' Amateur Athletic Union basketball team play had a penchant for getting in trouble.
Shannon Crooks & Jonathan DePina formed a friendship at an early age.
"You're always going to have friends that are not doing the right things," said Shannon Crooks, then a member of the Titans, now a junior point guard at the University of Massachusetts. "But they were real positive role models and were unbelievable trying to tell us the right things." Crooks added that some of those people now are in jail.
One of those life lessons came from their moniker.
"Whatever you work hard for is what you're going to get," Crooks explained. "That's what they lived by, even though they did some wrong things. They grew up in the wrong situation and they did what they had to do to survive in their circumstances. We try to do things on a positive note."
The "we" Crooks was referring to is himself and teammates Monty Mack and Jonathan DePina. Almost 10 years since the trio wore Titans uniforms, they still hold onto that lesson.
"Hard-Earned" has become their motto. Each player has a different biceps tattoo with the phrase included.
The trio's bond stretches further than a motto or a phrase. A year ago, much attention was given to the friendship of Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, all from Flint, Michigan, who led their team to the national championship.
DePina & Crooks.
It starts with a song
It started In Roxbury, where Crooks and DePina met at St. Patrick's Elementary School. Crooks, who to this day aspires to work in the music industry, began chasing that goal early. He wrote a rap song in his third-grade class. The teacher was impressed with Crooks' creativity and hung the song on the wall outside the classroom, where Crooks' classmate, DePina, took notice. He liked it so much, he memorized it.
"It was a stupid song. I can't really remember it," Crooks said. "I'm sure Jonathan doesn't remember it, either. I hope not."
No such luck.
"My name is Shizzy D. I'm the freshest that can be," DePina said, holding back giggles while delivering Crooks' opening line. "I saw it on the wall. I didn't really know who wrote it."
Mack's first conversation with his future backcourt partner was about DePina's footwear.
"When I met Jonathan, we were playing in a basketball tournament at a park," Mack said. "I started talking to him because he had some low-top running sneakers on. I was like, 'What are you doing with your sneakers? You're going to bust your ankle.'"
Crooks and Mack met on opposite sides of a Boy's Club basketball game, with Mack and DePina playing for Dorchester and Crooks suiting up for Roxbury.
The following year, however, the threesome joined the Titans. When coach Bob Morrison picked up Crooks for practice with DePina already in the car, a friendship began.
"After that he was always singing the song to me and cracking on me," Crooks said. "From there on we became real close."
All three guards progressed through the summer AAU ranks together, eventually landing on the Boston Amateur Basketball Club with local coaching legend Leo Papile.
"We actually used to tell Leo Papile that he should become a college coach, and we'd all play for him," Crooks said. "In AAU we used to beat everybody."
In the winter, Crooks shined for Everett, while Mack and DePina led South Boston to the 1995 and 1996 Division 1 State Championships.
Papile never became a college coach and while the trio talked about going to college together, it seemed unlikely.
"Different schools were recruiting different guys and you had to look out for yourself," Crooks explained. "We always wanted to stay on the same team, but we kind of knew it wouldn't happen."
Crooks was almost right. While Mack signed with the Minutemen out of South Boston prior to the 1996-97 season, the other two guards were still juniors in high school and being recruited elsewhere.
While Mack sat out his freshman year as a partial-qualifier, DePina signed with Boston College and Crooks with St. John's.
But before DePina could enroll at the Heights, he was rejected by the school's admissions department in a highly publicized incident that led to Eagles coach Jim O'Brien leaving for Ohio State.
Crooks & DePina.
Crooks kept in touch with the duo while he began his career at St. John's. But it was a rocky freshman season. While he watched his playing time dwindle to nothing as the season progressed, Crooks also had to deal with the fact that his father, Sam, was dying of cancer. When the year was over, he asked Mack and DePina to talk to University of Massachusetts coach Bruiser Flint on his behalf.
Flint, who had recruited Crooks out of high school, decided he still wanted him.
Mack and DePina's excitement at the prospect of the trio's reuniting sparked some spontaneous affection.
"Me and Jonathan were here and Shannon called us to tell us he wanted to come," Mack said. "We looked at each other and gave each other a hug."
Back together, the group is inseparable off the court.
"We spend all our time together," Crooks said. "Right after practice we go back to the room and right away Mont's calling my room saying, 'What you doing?' We go to each other's rooms, we go eat. When we go home, we're still together. I'm usually over his house or he's over my house or we're planning to go somewhere. We're never alone."
The friendship has helped most during tough times. Mack and DePina helped Crooks deal with the death of his father and the stress of sitting out the 1998-99 season as a transfer.
Crooks and Mack supported DePina amid his sophomore-and junior-season struggles, when he at times got booed at home games.
When Mack labored through the ramifications of his arrest for shoplifting in November, Crooks and DePina stood by him.
The depth of the friendship isn't taken for granted.
"We're very lucky," DePina said. "They know I'll be there for both of them and I know they'll always be there for me. It was like that before we got here and this made us even tighter."
* * *
Crooks will be alone at UMass next year when Mack and DePina have graduated. Knowing that their time together is running out, each player is trying to savor the time they have left.
"I'm tighter with them than anyone I've ever been friends with. It's different. We've been through a lot together," Crooks said. "Those guys are like brothers to me. They're quick to tell me if I'm doing wrong or right off the court. Some friends sugarcoat some things. They'll tell me straight out. They'll keep it real and that's one thing I love about them. I'm going to miss them."
The two seniors expressed the same feelings.
"It's meant a lot to me. It's meant a lot to all of us," Mack said. "These years in college has brought us a lot closer together. We've been through a lot of good times and a lot of bad times. It brought us even closer than we were."
"I consider them my family. Even when we move on after college," DePina said. "They're still going to be like brothers to me. It's been a lot of fun. All of our life we'll always know what we have now, the best friends we've ever had."
For now, though, DePina said the Hard-Earned group is focusing on finishing their careers in satisfying fashion.
"It would be real special to go out and win the A-10s and make the run a little longer," DePina said. "That would be the best thing that could ever happened to me. We're going to try to do that."