ne of the most important aspects of building a successful college basketball program is holding on to your homegrown talent. California schools race one another for the signatures of the top California prepsters as do Florida schools, Texas schools and so on and so forth. If you cannot keep the local kids, you cannot expect to attract outsiders to your program.
The Massachusetts men's basketball team almost let one of the best high schoolers in state history slip through its grasp, only to be given a second shot with which to make good.
In 1997, Shannon Crooks graduated from Everett High School as the highest scorer in school history. By amassing 1,734 career points during his four-year basketball career for the North Shore town, Crooks defined himself as one of the best college prospects in the region. Crooks truly came into his own during his senior season under John DiBiaso at Everett, averaging 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists on his way to earning his way onto The Boston Globe Super Team and the Boston Herald Dream Team.
But Shannon's high school exploits were not restricted to the gymnasium at his high school. He also experienced success at the prestigious Boston Shootout, one of the nation's top tournaments for high schoolers. He was named to the Boston team three times while at Everett High and helped lead his team to the title twice, garnering All-Shootout honors in doing so in both 1995 and 1996. Crooks was also a member of the esteemed Boston Athletic Basketball Club that included future UMass teammates Monty Mack and Jonathan DePina.
"I remember seeing him as a hard nosed tough kid who could score the ball, and I liked him" said former UMass head coach John Calipari, who along with numerous other Division I head coaches, including current UMass skipper Steve Lappas, watched Crooks' progress closely before leaving his post in UMass following the 1996 season to become the head coach of the NBA's New Jersey Nets.
However, Crooks decided initially not to join his BABC teammates in Amherst and instead headed off to the bright lights and skyscrapers of New York City and Big East powerhouse St. John's. But after being "the man" in Everett, Crooks struggled to adjust to life deep on the Red Storm bench. He appeared in just 23 games under Mike Jarvis averaging less than two points per contest.
|Past Crooks headlines:|
'Nothing more special than life' (2/26/1999)
Crooks keeps busy over the summer. (7/7/1999)
Crooks settles down. (12/4/1999)
Crooks makes his point. (1/13/2000)
UMass points to Crooks. (11/1/2000)
Crooks poised to run offense. (11/14/2000)
Last run for Hard-Earned friends. (3/7/2001)
Crooks weathers changes. (8/14/2001)
Crooks listens, learns, leads. (11/14/2001)
UMass can look to Crooks. (1/4/2002)
Crooks stays positive. (2/18/2002)
UMass's Crooks is able to change his tune. (3/2/2002)
"I felt comfortable down there [at St. John's] to a certain extent, but home is home," Crooks said. "I'm two hours away from home and I got to be close to my mom during those trying times (the transfer and his father's ailing health) and that was the most important thing, making sure she was all right, that was my main focus. But once I was all set sitting out I got a chance to dive back into basketball. But I think that year sitting out and me being close to home helped my family situation a lot and that is something you have to do in life."
Finally, on Nov. 20, 1999 Crooks was able to make his debut for the Maroon and White, scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds in an 85-77 triumph over Iona. The Shannon Crooks Era had officially begun in the Pioneer Valley.
Crooks enjoyed a successful first season with the Minutemen during the 1999-2000 campaign, leading the club in assists with 99 while ranking third in points at 11.6 per contest. That number would surely have been higher but for the fact that Crooks was forced to play the point rather than his natural shooting guard spot because of the play of BABC teammate Monty Mack. Mack averaged nearly 20 points per game that season en route to earning second team all-conference honors.
Despite primarily playing the point Crooks showed glimpses of his true capabilities while his Boston buddy was out injured. In the lone game that Mack missed in Crooks' first season, Shannon exploded for a career high 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting in an 81-72 win over Fordham. He followed this up with 20 just three days later during a 10 point win over St. Joseph's to earn himself the Atlantic 10 Player of the Week Award.
However, the emergence of Crooks did not directly translate into an NCAA Tournament appearance for the Minutemen. Instead the team was knocked out of the A-10 Tournament in the semifinals by eventual champion Temple and it had to settle for a berth in the NIT. In the opening round Crooks struggled, scoring a season low two points as the Minutemen fell 66-65 at the hands of Siena.
His junior season was not much better for the Boston native as the Minutemen started slow, winning just two of their first 11 games and finishing 15-15. Crooks' numbers dipped in nearly every offensive category, a fact that was magnified by the team's struggles. Despite making an unforgettable run to the A-10 Final and nearly earning itself a spot in the postseason, UMass once again fell to Temple at the final hurdle and was left on the outside looking in when the NCAA and NIT committees handed out their dance invitations.
The 2000-2001 season marked just the second time in the past 12 years that the Minutemen had failed to qualify for either of the postseason tournaments. It also marked the end of the line for head coach Bruiser Flint and Shannon's fellow Bostonians Mack and DePina. Those two graduated after the season leaving Crooks without his BABC teammates for the first time since he arrived in Amherst. But their impact on him both on and off the court would not be forgotten.
"It helped a lot to having Monty and Jon being here," Crooks said. "I grew with them and they're like brothers helping me do different things. Sometimes if I got out of line they would be there to keep it real with me. They definitely played a big part in me getting back on the right track and not going down the wrong road."
On March 26, 2001, just 16 days after UMass fell to Temple in the A-10 final, Steve Lappas was named the new head coach of the Minutemen bringing with him a new coaching staff, a new offense and a new role for the senior-to-be Crooks.
"Shannon's going to play all two [guard] which I believe is his natural position," Lappas said prior to the season. "He knows how to play and he plays hard. We are counting on him."
With this early show of faith from his new boss Crooks, who along with Kitwana Rhymer and Eric Williams was named captain for his senior season, set out from day one to repay that faith and become the leader that Lappas was asking him to be. He improved his shooting from both inside and outside the three-point arc as well as his free throw shooting.
Crooks was the model of consistency during Lappas' first year at the helm, scoring in double figures in 24 of 29 games as well as providing much needed poise and experience on the perimeter for UMass. He led the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game while also ranking first in steals (37) and assists (116). His experience playing the point at this level has also helped Crooks ease the adjustment of first year point guard Anthony Anderson who grew up just a few minutes north of Crooks in Lynn.
"I think he helped Anthony a lot," Lappas said. "They're both from Boston so they have a little kinship there and they're pretty close so I think he definitely helped him."
Shannon Crooks on Senior Night, with Steve Lappas, his mother and picture of his father.
Mass. Daily Collegian photo
"It was definitely important [to have him with me,] my father was always my number one fan ever since I started playing basketball," Crooks said. "He's been behind me and I thought that would be the right thing to do, to bring a part of him out there with me on to the floor. He's definitely been there throughout my career in spirit and Senior Day I wish he could have been there but he was there in spirit and I thought that was the appropriate thing to do."
While his UMass career may not have ended the way he would have liked, fouling out in overtime of a 65-59 loss to Xavier in the A-10 quarterfinals, Shannon Crooks can hold his head high after being such an important member of the UMass basketball family for three years. His skill, drive and determination will soon be missed on the Mullins Center hardwood but it will not be forgotten.
"He was a tremendous leader for us," Lappas said. "Without him I don't know where we'd be and he's really made a big difference. He's really done a great job; he stepped forward with his play being so consistent and his attitude, he's just been a pleasure to have."