t's a September afternoon and the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team is playing a pickup game in the Curry Hicks Cage.
Eric Williams and Jackie Rogers are arguing over whether the ball skipped off Williams' foot or Rogers' knee. In the spirit of competition, the two are jawing at each other.
Senior Shannon Crooks walks over and says something inaudible to anyone not on the floor. But the message is clear:
Argument over. Rogers inbounds the ball and play resumes.
Sophomore swingman Jameel Pugh, who is sitting out this game, turns to one of the student managers sitting near him.
"This isn't a democracy," he said, chuckling. "What Shannon says goes out there."
What he does goes, too. His younger teammates listen to what he says and they watch how he carries himself.
His is an important role. Crooks' willingness to assume leadership of his teammates and accept leadership from the coaching staff marks a change in him, one that is critical to UMass' chemistry and mindset as it begins its first season under coach Steve Lappas.
A seasoned veteran
By college basketball standards, Crooks is an old man. At 22, his career begins its fifth season Friday when the Minutemen open at home against Arkansas Little Rock. He'll turn 23 in less than a month. Crooks, a 6-foot-2 guard from Everett, is on his third coach and third offensive system. For all he's been through, Crooks is yearning for success in his final season.
"I played at St. John's and we went to the tournament, but I didn't play, so I consider myself never having been to the tournament," said Crooks, who was a member of the Red Storm for a year before transferring to UMass. "Making it would make me feel like I accomplished something that I can look back on later in life."
To reach that goal this year, Crooks, who still talks with former UMass coach Bruiser Flint regularly, made a decision to trust Lappas from the beginning.
"I knew when coach was coming in, I had to abide by what he was saying," Crooks said. "I had a talk with coach Lappas and the main thing is sacrificing and believing in him. I have."
"My listening skills have gotten a lot better. I take everything coach says because I know it's going to help me," Crooks continued. "When you first come to school you might think that somebody is trying to hurt your game or not let you do your thing. Now I can see that it helps me."
UMass Senior Shannon Crooks.
"I kind of guessed it coming in because he was the only senior on the perimeter, and when we went to Greece, you could see just what his effect is on the rest of the group," Lappas said.
"The thing that he gives more than anything else is the way he approaches practice, the intensity that he brings every day," Lappas continued. "That's something for young players to learn about."
Those young players are paying attention.
"The person I try to watch and do what he does is Shannon," said freshman swingman Brennan Martin. "He's been a great help. He's let me know what you got to do to be successful because he's obviously been successful. We always look to him before practice and before games to give us the pregame speech. We look at him as a leader. He gets guys ready to go."
For Crooks, accepting Lappas meant giving up some control on the floor. For the past two seasons, Crooks has been UMass' starting point guard, a position he never quite got comfortable with. Lappas moved him to shooting guard, believing that position to be a more natural spot for his skills.
In the first two exhibition games, the move has paid off. Crooks scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, and looked comfortable in the team's new offensive system.
That success has only enhanced Crooks' leadership status, as it's been easier to lead by example when teammates can see Crooks' approach yielding positive results.
"Guys look to me for leadership and for guidance and different things off the court," Crooks said. "I'm there for guys to pump them up. If they need anything, they know I'm there for them. I'm like a big brother.
"I try to talk to them from my past experience," Crooks continued "This is the way to do things. You don't want to talk back to the coach or make waves with the coach."
Lappas trusts the advice Crooks is dispensing.
"He's been through a lot. He's mature. He's older. He's a fifth-year guy. He understands," Lappas said.
* * *
During a break in the action in Monday's exhibition game, Jameel Pugh runs from the bench to the scorer's table to check in as an EA Sports player prepares to shoot free throws.
Crooks walks over to Pugh and drapes an arm over his shoulders. He speaks into Pugh's ear as he points to a spot on the floor. Lappas smiles on the sideline as he watches the interaction. Pugh appears to be heeding Crooks' instructions and his own statement from two months ago: "What Shannon says goes out there."
Right now, that seems like a solid motto.