t was a nice gift, a cordial offering per say. And more importantly, under NCAA rules, it was a legal one.
A seven-day, four-game Grecian hoop tour, commencing in Athens and ending on the Greek Isle of Mykonos - it wasn't a bad premiere for Steve Lappas, the newest head coach of the Massachusetts men's basketball team.
"Tremendous," Lappas initially described the August European adventure.
"It was great trip in a lot of ways. It was great from a getting together standpoint and getting to know the guys. It was also great to get a head start like that - showing them a lot of the things that we want to do that will make the first week of practice much easier.
Under NCAA regulations, schools are allowed to take a trip east to the trans-Atlantic continent once every four years. But before takeoff, the school is also allowed a precursor of ten practice days. Lappas used eight of those days as his orientation, all of which featured double sessions.
"My goal of practice that week was not to go play these games in Greece," Lappas said. "My goal in practice that week was to get us ready for October.
"We practiced hard here, we were going twice a day for a week. But when we got [to Greece] we just played the games and had fun."
Lappas planned the Greek vacation four years ago, while still in his coaching stint at Villanova. But UMass athletic director Bob Marcum agreed to pick up the check - around $100,000 - when he hired Lappas, about a week after the resignation of James "Bruiser" Flint.
The overseas excursion is just the first of many heads-up basketball decisions that Lappas and his staff will most likely make in the near future. The Atlantic 10 conference welcomes eight new coaches for the 2001-2002 season. Seven of them won't be able to run their squads until Oct. 13. Lappas has already set his blueprints.
"It saved us a tremendous amount of time," he said. "I thought that it at least gave the guys a chance to find out how I like to play and then what kind of style we're trying to play. And I thought they did a pretty good job of trying to adapt, considering it was only a week."
This guy knows basketball, and loves it even more. How can you tell? In every which way he talks and breathes hoop. There's just something about the way he carries himself.
On March 26, 2001, a request was placed on his new desk in the head coach's office overlooking the parquet, high atop the William D. Mullins Center. That appeal: "Please Steve, let us return to the days of Mr. Calipari. You know, the days when all 9,493 Mullins Center seats would sell out weeks before the game, when students would skip class to get tickets. You know, the days when March was just the beginning."
No pressure, coach.
Sure, it's a challenge. But it doesn't seem like Lappas is too nervous. It's a new beginning with new players, but it's the same old game that he has succeeded in for many, many years.
"I really don't know what Bruiser's system was, to be honest," Lappas said. "I purposely didn't want to watch tape because I didn't want to get an opinion of these guys before I saw them do the things I want to see them do."
Ah, the signs of patience and wisdom. The stuff that builds and re-builds programs. Oh, but there's no need to jump the revolutionary musket any longer, because it's only September. In Massachusetts, only results utter importance.
What we have now is an uncontaminated specimen. This year's squad will look nothing like last year's 15-15 roller coaster. There's no "superstar" that will be hyped to the death and then eventually, fall over, this time. There isn't a head coach, so very afraid to fail, that his in-game decision-making will be affected for worse, this time. And this time, a realistic schedule beckons the Minutemen.
Shannon Crooks is back for his senior year, and will probably be playing the most time at two-guard. Fifth-year senior Kitwana Rhymer and junior Micah Brand are both back and will be of the utmost importance in the paint. Seniors Eric Williams and Jackie Rogers will back up the duo.
Sophomore Anthony Anderson, UMass' first natural point guard since Edgar Padilla, will add much-needed strength to the backcourt. Marked academically ineligible last year, Anderson has already impressed Lappas with his on-court presence. A coach lives and dies by his point guard. So when Anderson isn't on the court, look to Lappas' immediate right or left - he'll be there.
Look for freshmen Kyle Wilson (White Rock, B.C.) and Brennan Martin (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.), both of whom Lappas recruited at Villanova, to make sudden contributions, at the one place UMass struggled from the most last season - behind the three-point arc.
"The one thing we're not, is a real good shooting team," Lappas said. "And that's going to be a big thing for us.
"But [Wilson and Martin] are both very good shooters. Kyle Wilson also has a very good feel for the game - smart player, very good shooter. Brennan Martin is 6-foot-7, he's pretty athletic and he's also a pretty good shooter."
Boston native Raheim Lamb rounds out the list of newcomers for the upcoming season. And at 6-foot-5, his strength and athleticism could pose a certain danger to opponents at the small forward position. Lamb will be competing with returning senior Ronell Blizzard and sophomores Willie Jenkins, Jameel Pugh, and Dwayne Killings for time at the small forward, off-guard positions.
Who will start on Nov. 16 against Arkansas-Little Rock? Coach has no clue.
"I'm going to have to make some tough decisions," was all he could offer.
In Greece, Lappas played everyone equally, and floored a different starting lineup each game against the Greek national teams.
"[The national teams] were much older, very physical, very smart, and they shot the ball extremely well - typical of what you expect from the Europeans," Lappas said. "We were just playing the games to see what we had."
During the four-game span, Lappas' crew executed mostly a motion offense and a man-to-man defense. The motion offense, however, will be key to Maroon and White success. Under Bruiser, set plays were of the majority. The Lappas offense is little bit freer.
"It's organized freelance, really," Lappas said. "It's an offense where you can do basically what you want but you have certain rules that you have to follow. And I think they enjoyed playing that way. I think it's a player's offense. Yes, it's not totally freelance - there are certain things you have to do in this offense to make it work."
There are certain things you must do to make a basketball team work. And the UMass coaching staff has a firm grasp on things.
So far, so good.