MHERST - When Anthony Anderson walked into the University of Massachusetts basketball locker room in the basement of the Mullins Center for the first time this summer, he smiled.
There hanging above one locker was a nameplate: Anderson 12.
After a tough NCAA-mandated year away from competitive basketball, that sight made it official. The 5-foot-10 point guard had become a college basketball player.
"When I saw my nameplate, I was all smiles," said Anderson, grinning again at the memory. "This is where I want to be. This is what I've been working for all my life."
Raheim Lamb has had his "Lamb 34" nameplate for some time. While Anderson couldn't practice as a non-qualifier, Lamb's partial-qualifier status allowed him to, but the 6-foot-5 small forward couldn't play in games.
Both are eligible now and are preparing with the Minutemen for the coming trip to Greece.
Because of his separation from his teammates last season, Anderson was often miserable, he said. After believing he would be eligible when he arrived in Amherst in September, he discovered just as classes were about to start that the NCAA Clearinghouse had rejected him, making him a non-qualifier.
While UMass couldn't release the specifics, when players are ruled ineligible so close to the season, it often stems from the NCAA ruling that one or more of the player's courses from high school don't qualify as necessary core courses required for eligibility.
So Lamb couldn't play, practice or gather with the team in any other official capacity.
It left him with a lot of lonely time. While his teammates were battling the likes of Temple and North Carolina, Anderson had to settle for playing teams like The Legends in intramural action on the uneven floors of Boyden Gym.
"Playing intramurals was horrible," he said and then repeated for emphasis, "It was horrible. Some people could play, but a lot couldn't. My team won by, like, 92 once. The championship was one of the only good games we played."
Most of all he played by himself, taking shot after shot in Boyden Gym or the Curry Hicks Cage, trying to keep his skills as sharp as possible under the circumstances.
If there is rust from the year of inactivity, it hasn't been apparent to the UMass coaching staff.
Ideally, head coach Steve Lappas would like to move last year's starting point guard, Shannon Crooks, to shooting guard this season, but that will depend largely on whether Anderson or incoming freshman Kyle Wilson are capable of replacing him.
Wilson won't be in Amherst until September, but Anderson has impressed the new coaching staff so far. Lappas has admitted that his motion offense can be difficult to pick up immediately, but he said Anderson has looked like a natural.
"As much as we've thrown at that kid, he's smooth. He never turns the ball over. He understands how to play," Lappas said. "For him to get some game experience can only help us. He did not look like a kid who has been sitting out a year. He doesn't play like a freshman. He's picked up our plays. He's running our stuff already. Based on two days I think he has a high basketball I.Q."
Anderson doesn't expect much trouble adjusting to the system.
"I'm a true point guard, I'm going to feel comfortable in any system in any offense," he said. "I like the motion offense. It's a lot of moving around. People get open. It's a good system."
Lamb has been a little further behind in the adjustment process, but still thinks Lappas' system will suit him.
"In high school we ran a motion and I kind of liked running it, so this is good," he said. "Our team is very athletic and we can run all day, so the offense fits us."
Both were enthusiastic about the chance to use this week to get acclimated to playing with their teammates.
"The team gets to know us better," Lamb said. "We can help out and give us a chance to win some championships out here. The trip (to Greece) is going to be great for us."
"It helps a lot. We're going to learn how to be a team," Anderson said.
One week from today, the importance of nameplates, SAT scores and the past will fade as the Minutemen will take on the Greek national team and Anderson and Lamb will wear the team's maroon uniforms for the first time.
While the games will be half a world away, the duo didn't care if it's Greece or Granby - they're just glad to resume their careers.
"It's about time," Lamb said. "Practicing and knowing I'm eligible feels good."
"It feels real good to play here and really be part of the team."
MHERST — Anthony Anderson and Raheim Lamb will never be stumped if the cross- word puzzle asks for an eight-letter word meaning "qualified."
Eligible. As freshmen last year, they did their academic work and waited their turn, and now they are eligible to play basketball for the University of Massachusetts.
There is so much to do, but there is still time to savor this moment. Finally, it's showtime.
"It's about time," said Lamb, a 6-foot-5 forward who will accompany UMass on a four-game, 10-day tour of Greece that begins Sunday. "It's been a long year."
This exhibition tour has special meaning for these two sophomores. Anderson, a 5-11 point guard from Lynn, has the facial features of an older and wiser man, and he's been places and done things.
But he's never been anyplace or done anything like this.
"I went to Las Vegas for AAUs, and I thought I'd gone everywhere," he said. "I've been to Canada, too. But that's not even out of the country, compared to this."
Anderson played intramurals last year, fighting boredom with each trip down the floor. His team won one game by 92 points. It wasn't exactly the same as putting the moves on Lynn Greer.
This year is a fresh start, not just for Anderson, but for his team.
"It might be easier for me with a new system," said Anderson, who expected to be eligible last year — and then found out he wasn't, at Midnight Madness no less.
"With (former coach Bruiser Flint), everybody but me would have known the system," Anderson said. "Now, nobody knows it."
"Anthony and Raheim have so much going through their heads," said first-year coach Steve Lappas, who has installed a new motion offense. "Raheim shot very well in the individual workouts."
But at least as a partial qualifier — meaning he was eligible in one of two required academic categories — Lamb could work out with the team. As a non-qualifier, Anderson couldn't even do that.
Having recruited Anderson at Lynn High, though, Lappas knows his guard has the rare ability to see the entire floor and sort out the choices. Past UMass point guards have offered various things, but hardly any have offered this.
"I'll be interested in how he plays in a game situation," Lappas said. "But for all we've thrown at Anthony, he understands what we're doing, he runs our stuff and he doesn't turn the ball over.
"He doesn't play like a first-year player," Lappas said. "He has a high basketball IQ."
Anderson and Lamb are bright people whose intellect is not automatically reflected by a test or a grade, which makes them no different from others in basketball or for that matter, in life. Lamb's high school grades were fine, but his Scholastic Aptitude Test score put him on the sidelines last year.
"I talked to Monty Mack (a partial qualifier in 1996)," said Lamb, a 2000 Boston English High graduate. "He said to take my time and do my work. I think it's worked."
"Last year, all the talk was about academics," Anderson said. "This year, it's about both."
Neither Anderson nor Lamb knows much about Greece. Lamb has been seeking information on the Internet. Anderson hears the beaches are beautiful, though he says it wouldn't take much to outshine the beaches of Lynn.
What they both know, though, is that they'll be back in action. Seven time zones away, they'll again feel comfortable in the habitat of basketball.
This is a business trip for both, but also an early Christmas present. Finally, they are Minutemen.
"Practicing is better, just knowing I'm eligible," Lamb said. Anderson says he didn't feel like a Minuteman until he saw his nameplate in the locker room.
"Now I feel like part of the team," he said. "It's what I've been working for all my life."