UMass's Crooks is able to change his tune
By Joe Burris, The Boston Globe Staff, 3/2/2002

Shannon Crooks's second grade teacher was so impressed with his work on a writing project that she pinned it to the school's bulletin board. Other students were so impressed that rap lyrics made the board that they memorized them. With that, the Roxbury native's dream of making it in the music business was born.

Shannon Crooks.
As Crooks became older, and his body bulkier and athletic, basketball became the new dream. It was in that sport that he made a name for himself at Everett High. He took his game to St. John's University, and when that didn't work, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, where he would experience triumphs, setbacks, and a coaching change.

The fifth-year senior guard's hoop dreams will likely end this month, perhaps as early as this week. UMass (12-15), which finished fourth in the Atlantic 10 East Division, will meet George Washington (fifth in the West) in the first round of the conference tournament today at noon.

The Minutemen, who have been mired in inconsistency all season, are confident they can beat the Colonials for the second time this season and earn the right to meet Xavier in the second round tomorrow. Xavier, which earned a first-round bye, beat the Minutemen, 72-52, last Saturday.

Whenever the UMass season ends, Crooks will pick up his dream of making it in music again. He has vowed not to be one of those who clings to remote hopes of making it to the NBA.

Should the opportunity to play pro ball arise, of course, he will pursue it. But he does hope to start his own recording company, and it appears he will have no problem pushing aside a sport that has helped him grow but has been bittersweet for him on the court.

''We all had dreams, and I remember talking about it with Wayne, Scoon, and Eggie,'' said Crooks, referring to former Beaver Country Day and Kentucky standout Wayne Turner, former Salem, Boston College, and Ohio State star Scoonie Penn, and former East Boston standout Eggie McRae.

''We all talked about going to the NBA, but we were young, and you don't really see the reality side of basketball until you get to college. Once you get there, it's a reality check. You live in a pipedream like all those other people trying to do the same thing you're doing.''

Crooks is working toward a bachelor's degree in independent concentration, with an emphasis on mentoring minority youth through entertainment. He said he has surpassed the expectations of those who didn't believe he could play at college basketball's top level, but he did, while many of his childhood friends succumbed to the drug culture or landed in jail.

Photo photo
''I love basketball, but I look at it differently than I did in the past,'' said Crooks. ''I don't make it all my life. If God doesn't have that in the cards for me, I will miss it, but I'll be occupied by music. That's another thing I love, so I'll be fine.''

Finding his niche

Crooks, a tricaptain who transferred to UMass after one season at St. John's, is only the fourth player in the program's history to rack up 1,000 points and 300 assists. He also may become the first UMass player since Donald Russell in 1981-82 to lead the team in scoring, assists, and steals in the same season.

He finished the regular season 12th in the A-10 in scoring (14.6 ppg) and 11th in assists (3.93).

''The thing I always say about Shannon is that he really, really competed,'' said Bruiser Flint, who was Crooks's coach at UMass his first two seasons. ''He brought a toughness to the team. We had to live and die with him at point guard but he came to compete every night.''

This season, under first-year coach Steve Lappas, Crooks has flourished at his natural position, shooting guard.

He has struggled shooting at times (he was 4 for 16 against Xavier Saturday), but he is clearly the most consistent player on a team that finished without a top 10 scorer or rebounder in the conference for the first time.

Crooks has played for three coaches in his collegiate career, which meant three different styles of play. In two of those instances, the coaches were under pressure to produce.

Crooks entered St. John's as Fran Fraschilla, in his second year at the helm, was expected to vault the Red Storm back to prominence. Four players on that team - including freshman Ron Artest - are now in the NBA.

Crooks was expected to challenge veteran Tarik Turner for playing time, but instead he struggled, scoring only 43 points in 23 games.

Crooks subsequently transferred to UMass, looking to rejoin former Boston Amateur Basketball Club teammates Monty Mack and Jonathan DePina.

''I think even before he went to St. John's he knew he had made the wrong choice,'' said Flint. ''I got a letter from him during December of his freshman year saying he wanted to come home.''

Rallying around Flint

Crooks and Flint talk it over at the Fordham game last season. photo
Beginning his UMass career as a starting point guard, Crooks appeared out of position, and the team failed to return to the national prominence it enjoyed under John Calipari in the 1990s.

By last season, Flint's job was in jeopardy, and Crooks said players took it upon themselves to save it.

''I told them, `Don't worry about me. I'll be coaching next year. If they don't want me here, I won't be here regardless,''' said Flint. ''I didn't want them putting that kind of pressure on themselves.''

Crooks said the team tried heeding Flint's advice but played for him anyway. That led to lapses in focus. After a dismal start, the Minutemen made a valiant second-half run and advanced to the Atlantic 10 tournament final. But when UMass didn't make the postseason, Flint's contract was not renewed.

''The day they told us he was fired, we were all upset, but we all knew that was a part of life,'' said Crooks.

Flint was replaced by former Villanova coach Lappas, who noticed Crooks in the BABC when he was recruiting a teammate, Mike Bradley.

Crooks recovered from offseason foot surgery to make his way back to the starting lineup, and Lappas returned him to his natural position.

''He's had a tremendous year,'' said Lappas. ''He's one of those kids who has done everything great. He has a great attitude, great work ethic. He has improved much on his shooting since we saw him in high school in AAU.''

Crooks said the team is confident it can put together the type of run it did late last season. But already he is thinking about what lies ahead, and he isn't alone.

''Basketball is over for him after this,'' said Flint. ''He's going to start his music career, because more so than anything, music is what he loves. I always thought that, based on his passion for music, he knew basketball would be short-lived for him.''

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