MHERST - The day Monty Mack walked into a Kmart and tried to rip off seven DVDs is the day he gained an automatic berth on the preseason All-Foolishness College Basketball Team.
It was dumb, it was stupid, and - for those of you who are tired of reading about the many perks that are afforded the modern-day college athlete - it was alarmingly arrogant.
But if nothing else, give Monty Mack this: He admits he was wrong and he offers absolutely no excuses. He isn't reaching for the ever-ready tough-kid-from-the-inner-city escape hatch, and he isn't trying to convince us that he, you know, ``fell in with a bad crowd.''
And he hasn't paraded out a conga line of social workers, ministers and grammar school teachers to tell us what a fine, albeit misunderstood, boy he is.
``I screwed up, me and me alone,'' he said the other day, sitting in the bleachers at ancient Curry Hicks Cage, where the UMass basketball team had just run through an afternoon workout in preparation for tonight's season-opener against Iona at the Mullins Center. ``I tried to steal some DVDs out of a store. It wasn't something I planned. It was, like, spur-of-the-moment goofing around. And I got caught.''
With one lame stunt, Mack blotted out what could have been one of the best stories to come out of the UMass basketball program in years. This is a kid who arrived in Amherst four years ago from South Boston as unpolished as they come, both athletically and academically. He emerged as a solid Division 1 scorer, and along the way he earned a degree in secondary and urban education, the latter giving him one last year of eligibility to play basketball at UMass.
The UMass people probably would have had him on the cover of the media guide this season, holding his degree. But then came the arrest Oct. 5. Seven DVDs worth $159.93 stuffed down his pants at Kmart.
``The media around here have always been good to him because they think he's a good kid,'' UMass coach Bruiser Flint said. ``Why would he ruin that image by doing something so stupid?''
The day Mack was arrested, he had to make an agonizing call to Boston to tell his mother, Ann Mack, what had happened. He didn't call Flint. He knew Flint would be calling him.
``It doesn't take long for something like this to get out,'' Flint said. ``I get a phone call from a reporter in Springfield who says, `Did you hear what happened to Monty Mack?' It was a shock, an absolute shock.''
Because Mack was a first-time offender, he was allowed to walk. He pleaded guilty, was fined, and was hit with a three-game suspension for this season. He sat out two preseason exhibition games, and will miss tonight's opener against Iona.
This isn't Mack's first brush with the law. There was an incident last year in a UMass dining common, and the story making the rounds is that Mack put himself in the middle of a dispute between two women - one apparently an ex-girlfriend, the other apparently a current girlfriend. Flint says Mack was acting as ``peacemaker.'' No charges were filed.
Another point: Monty Mack is not a kid. He is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior at UMass, and he is the father of a 2-year-old son. When the detainee at store security is 23 years old, it makes it more difficult to dismiss it as a college prank.
``When I told my mother about it,'' Mack said, ``she came out to campus to see me. She hugged me and said, `People are going to make mistakes in life.' I think if I were 11 or 12, she would have given me a smack. But either way, she's there for me.''
And Bruiser Flint?
``He wasn't calm about it,'' Mack said. ``He did some hollering. He was yellin' at me good. He's always been like a father to me, and that's the way I felt. I felt like I was getting yelled at by my father.''
Mack says he has made his peace with the courts, with his coach and with his teammates, to whom he apologized in a team meeting. Around campus, he says he has received some ribbing from friends, but no catcalls or insults.
And what about those UMass students? Are they behind Mack . . . or would they prefer that he be thrown off the team? A tour of the campus and interviews with several undergraduates suggest that most students feel pretty much this way: He screwed up, but not so much that he deserves to be thrown off the team, and he embarrassed himself more than the program. However, one student suggested that UMass should have ``made an example'' of Mack and that, if nothing else, he should have been stripped of his captaincy.
``You pick a captain not because he's the best player, but because he's a leader,'' the student said. ``If a player gets picked up for shoplifting, I think it's hard to look at him as your leader.''
Does the story end here? Hardly. The season is just beginning, and there will be many road games.
``He's going to hear it, and hear it good,'' Flint said.
Translation: There will be end zones in opposing arenas in which smart-ass college boys hold up DVDs when Monty Mack steps to the free-throw line. And on this topic, and this topic alone, Mack ceases being apologetic and gets right to the point.
``I'm sorry for what I did, I really am,'' he said. ``But if I hear stuff when we're on the road? Let's just say I've heard worse. A lot worse. It doesn't bother me. I love playing before a hostile crowd. I love going out there on the court and quickly quieting them down with a couple of shots."
Flint agrees, but adds, ``I hope Monty is thinking about this long-term. I want all my players to look at it that way. It's not about today. It's about 20 years from now, and being able to get a good job. I hope that's the lesson they learn from all this.''