Mack puts mistake behind him
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 11/23/2000

In some ways, it's like watching a movie he's already seen. He knows something bad is going to happen to the hero, but he still hopes maybe this time it won't.

When Monty Mack recalls the events of Oct. 5, he wants to change the story. This time in his memory, he'll walk out of the Hadley K-Mart empty-handed, or he won't go into the store at all.

He'll resist the foolish temptation to stuff the DVDs into his sweat pants, and by doing that erase everything he's endured since - the disappointed look on his mother's face; the angry reaction of his coach, Bruiser Flint; the newspaper and TV reports that followed when he was arrested and charged with shoplifting.

Not to mention the whispers. All the whispers of people calling him stupid, immature, and worse.

"When I think how much I wish I could go back and not do it, it's infinity," Mack said prior to Saturday's season opener. "I wish I could go back and do it over differently. That's something that I would never do again."

But he can't change what happened He's stuck with what he did, and with the consequences. Saturday, as his teammates played Iona, a team he dropped 21 points on a year ago, he sat on the bench in street clothes, and every fan in the Mullins Center knew why.

This wasn't the way the script for Mack's final University of Massachusetts basketball season was supposed to begin.

Back for a fifth year, Mack represents UMass' best weapon as the Minutemen try to return to the NCAA Tournament.

Four years ago, some people called him unfit for college. Some even called him dumb. When his standardized test scores fell short of the NCAA's minimum eligibility standards, forcing him to sit out his first year, some people saw just another basketball player with no academic future taking advantage of America's obsession with sports to get a scholarship.

According to the UMass news office, only 38 percent of the school's students graduate in four years. Mack, however, completed his sociology degree in four years despite the considerable time commitment demanded by basketball. Because of that, due to NCAA rules, Mack now is eligible to play one more season of college basketball, earning back the year he missed.

A mother's pride

Sitting in her South Boston living room, Ann Mack doesn't need to say anything to express her pride in her son's accomplishments.

The far end of the room doubles as a display area for Monty's honors. A young-looking Monty smiles back from his Boston Globe All-Scholastic plaque, surrounded by 16 other plaques displaying everything from AAU honors to his George Trigger Burke UMass MVP award.

On top of the nearby television are seven trophies, also souvenirs of Mack's basketball prowess.

"These aren't even all of them," Ann Mack says, smiling. "He's given some to his sister and his brothers."

A diploma soon will hang there, too, a trophy from another arena, and one that was much harder to achieve. Mack completed his final class - a computer science course - in the first section of the summer semester.

"I am so proud of him," Ann said, her smile widening to a full-fledged beam. "He worked so hard. He's the first in my family to graduate."

Mack, like many students who were scheduled to finish their course work over the summer, took part in the May commencement ceremonies as his mother and several family members looked on.

"I felt so good. I cried a little," Ann said. "To see him there in his gown and to know that he did it. I was so proud."

To remain eligible, Mack is taking courses toward a second bachelor's degree, in African-American Studies, to go along with his sociology degree, all in hopes of landing a job helping inner-city youngsters in Boston when his basketball career is behind him.

"I want to do something with young kids in the neighborhood I grew up in and give back to the community, because a lot of people gave to me," Mack said.

A tough beginning

The 22-year-old's desire to help inner-city children stems largely from the fact that he's been in their shoes.

"I was a young black kid in the inner city being a knucklehead," admitted Mack.

With no contact with his father, Mack settled on his older brother as a role model. While Ron Mack taught Monty to play basketball, his influence was dangerous in other ways.

"I saw him going around selling drugs and doing all the gang stuff and I wanted to be like him," Monty Mack said. "I saw him doing things he wasn't supposed to be doing, but I didn't know better back then. I just saw the clothes, the cars and things like that. I just wanted to follow that path."

One basketball game may have saved his life.

During a particularly good game in Boston's Dudley Street Park League, Mack, then 12, caught the attention of Maurecio Vasquez, an accountant with Gillette, and coach of the opposing team. The two spoke after the game.

When Vasquez was growing up in Dorchester, a neighbor offered some advice.

"He said to me, 'You seem like a good kid. I don't want to ever see you doing drugs,' " Vasquez remembered. "He said if I did, every time he saw me he was going to beat me up."

Following that advice helped earn Vasquez a degree from Bentley. Through his love of basketball, he's tried to pass it along to several Boston youths, including Mack.

"I was playing in this league he was coaching. I was just a little kid on the other team and I did well against him," Mack recalled. "He decided to put a little team together of youngsters from our neighborhood."

According to Vasquez, it wasn't Mack's on-court ability that caught his attention.

"He wasn't a punk," Vasquez said. "In those leagues a lot of players are real cocky. But Monty was a good kid, a quiet kid that did what he was told."

Playing on Vasquez's team forged the bond between Mack and fellow guard Jonathan DePina, who has been a teammate of Mack's all the way through high school and college.

Mack credits Vasquez and basketball with helping to steer him away from the path his brother had chosen.

"Once I met Maurecio, I really started playing basketball and he started bringing us to different leagues," Mack said. "I started liking it and really started taking it seriously."

Seeing his brother's promise, Ron Mack began trying to shield Monty from trouble as well.

"When my brother started to see that, he told me, 'We don't need you trying to be like us,'" Monty said. "They knew it was the wrong thing."

"Once I had my goals set on playing basketball," Monty continued, "I started straightening up."

Ron Mack wasn't as fortunate. Arrested for dealing, he was sentenced to two years in jail.

Mack's face twists uncomfortably as he remembers.

"Me and my brother were so tight and while he was in there I never went to see him," Monty said. "He'd call the house and he'd say, 'Why won't you come see me?' I said, 'I can't see you in there.' I can't go in and see my brother behind bars, knowing I can't talk to him and touch him or hug him. I can't handle all that."

Ron understood.

"He's said, 'I ain't mad at you for not coming.' He said keep up the good work and keep playing," Monty said.

Unlike many inmates, Ron Mack's story has a happy ending. Jail broke Ron's connection to crime and drugs.

"Once he got out, he said, 'I'm never going back in there.' Ever since then he's been on the right path," Monty said. "I'm proud of him. Not too many people get out of jail and succeed. Just from seeing how deep involved in it he was, to see him come out and be doing something good for himself, that says a lot."

With jobs at both Filene's and Dunkin' Donuts, Ron Mack spends a lot of time working, hoping to save up enough money to open his own restaurant some day. But he's always kept close tabs on his little brother's hoop career.

"He's very proud of me. When Bruiser and Cal came on the home (recruiting) visit, he acted like he didn't know they were coming," Mack said, giggling. "My brother called first and asked if they were there already. Ten minutes later the door bell rings and he's got a UMass hat on, sweater, sweats. If they had the sneakers, he would have had them on. He's very proud."

Now Vasquez often invites Mack to practice with and talk to the members of his Metro Boston AAU team. Because of Mack's basketball success, Vasquez said, the players listen.

"Sometimes they get tired of hearing it from me," Vasquez said. "But they see Monty on TV and in Slam Magazine and they pay attention to him."

"I talk to them about school things. Don't give up in school," Mack said. "Concentrate on your school work and don't get involved with violence and drugs. There's basically two paths. You can take the right path or the wrong path. When you get to that intersection, I just don't want them to be confused on what path to go on."

After his recent transgression, Mack wants to use himself as an example of what not to do.

"I'd tell them stealing is not good," Mack said, and then repeated it more emphatically. "Stealing is not good. I'd love to talk to kids about it. I just want to get that point across to them."

New challenge at UMass

Seeing her youngest son get on the right path was always a priority for Ann Mack, and in her mind that path led to a degree.

At the same home visit where Ron arrived looking like a model for the UMass clothing catalog, Ann didn't want to hear about her son's future playing time, or his chances to start.

"If they couldn't guarantee me he'd get his education and get his degree, I didn't want to hear it," she said.

She tried to put Monty on that path when he was young. She caught him skipping school in junior high, and after her anger died down, she found out why. Some other students had been robbing Monty at school and he was skipping to avoid it.

Because of Mack's basketball ability, some people tried to convince Ann to stay in Dorchester, but she wouldn't risk his education, and moved her family from Dorchester to South Boston.

Mack quickly gained acclaim as a basketball player, but Ann enforced her education-first rules again in high school.

"When he was about 14 or 15 he had a big game, but his grades hadn't been so good," Ann said. "I went down to the school and said he can't play. The coaches tried to talk to me, but I wouldn't budge. Boy, were they hot with me."

By the time he graduated, his core grades were good enough, but Mack's standardized test scores fell, according to him, "just short" of the NCAA eligibility standard, forcing him to sit out his first year.

Mack admits that having a year off to focus on academics ultimately helped him, but he says the year was still painful.

During that time he often leaned on teammate Tyrone Weeks, who also sat out his freshman year with academic problems.

"The whole year I was sitting out, (Weeks) was always by my side saying, 'Don't worry.' He used to tell me about the time he sat out and the different things he used to do to get his mind off things."

Road trips were the hardest, when Mack was left behind trying not to think about the fact that he wasn't with the team. Sometimes he'd go bowling, an idea passed along by Weeks, or roller skating, but often he'd just call home.

"He'd call me at home and say, 'Mommy, I don't think I belong here.' But I told him to stay with it and keep working," Ann Mack said. "The year off really helped him. I felt bad for him. I knew if he had one more chance he would have passed (the SAT)."

A long year finished on a high note for Mack. The NCAA passed Proposition 16, a rule stating that players like Mack who entered college as partial qualifiers could earn back their lost year if they graduated on time. The rule has since been amended to include non-qualifiers.

"First I was down because I had to sit out, and then all of a sudden a few months later they pass a rule saying if I graduate on time I can get my year back," Mack said.

"It was like God was watching from above."

Knowing what Mack went through, Weeks gets extra satisfaction from his success.

"I'm very proud of Monty," he said. "He's done a great job and he got his degree. He's now part of the group of guys, including myself, that made it."

Shot at NBA

Mack has a shot to make the NBA, although his height (6-foot-2) will be an issue for him as a shooting guard. And he'll certainly have abundant overseas opportunities if he doesn't make the NBA. But he's happy to have his degree anyway.

"The degree means a lot to me. The game of basketball can come and go," he said leaning over and knocking on the wooden table in front of him. "Any day could be your day, but as long as you have something to fall back on... I feel better knowing I have a diploma."

No matter how long his post-college basketball career lasts, he'll leave in impressive legacy at UMass. Barring injury, he'll likely be just the second Minuteman ever to score 2,000 points. He entered his final season with 1,617. Among active players only Centenary's Ronnie McCollum has scored more points than Mack with 1,737.

Returns after apologies

If Mack stays out of trouble for the next five months, the shoplifting charge will be cleared from his record.

Monday night, Monty Mack returned to the basketball court after a three-game suspension. He's apologized to his coaches, his teammates, his mother and himself.

"I'm sorry it happened, but in a way I'm glad I got caught. I know I can't be doing things like that," Mack said. "Just apologizing to everybody I was close to - the coaches, my teammates, my mom and everybody that's been supportive to me through everything I went through - was the hardest thing to do."

From the fans, the forgiveness already has begun as Mack received more cheers than anyone at Midnight Madness.

Flint forgave him too.

"I'm disappointed in him," Flint said. "But I feel bad because he's basically a good kid and people are going to judge him on this. Monty has worked very hard to regain an extra year of eligibility, but he made a very poor decision. It doesn't reflect what Monty Mack is all about."

But Mack was most concerned with what his mother thought.

"She took it hard," he said. "But she said, 'This is a mistake. Put it behind you.'"

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