ASSAU, BAHAMAS - Rashaun Freeman called for the ball. The University of Massachusetts men's basketball team had a three-on-none break on offense and Freeman was easily the closest to the basket. But Brandon Thomas opted to keep the ball and raced in to try a one-handed dunk. The ball clanged off the back of the rim and caromed back toward midcourt.
On the sideline, UMass coach Travis Ford seethed. The game, the Minutemen's second on their five-game trip to the Bahamas, didn't count and his Minutemen were comfortably ahead of the Crimestoppers, 48-26. None of that mattered as he turned his back to the court.
Ford had planned to tone down his often fiery sideline demeanor on this trip. It worked for the first game as his team played almost mistake-free en route to an easy win. But early in the second game, Ford's outer gentleman began losing the fight with his inner fire. He clenched his teeth as his team left Crimestoppers shots uncontested and threw sloppy passes for unforced turnovers.
When Thomas's dunk clanged out, Ford erupted. Stomping down the sidelines, he called time out and took his senior swingman out of the game. Ford keeps one seat close to him open on the bench at all times. It's his learning seat. Often when a player comes out of the game, Ford will point him to the chair. Sometimes he'll simply note a mistake or something to improve. At others the education is delivered at high decibels. Thomas knew Ford would be yelling this time and seemed to be bracing himself as he approached the chair.
Ford didn't disappoint. 'Did you see him up there?' Ford snapped, his face just a few inches from Thomas'. 'Did you see Rashaun ahead up there?'
The tirade lasted for a few minutes. Then, thinking his coach was finished, Thomas got up to head down to the other end of the bench. Ford ordered him to sit back down and launched into another round.
Thomas didn't dare move again. He stayed put and hung his head.
The play, which Ford saw as selfish, would have angered him any time, but it was particularly maddening on this day.
THE MINUTEMEN USUALLY stay at nice hotels on road trips, but the Atlantis, where they checked in for an eight-day jump-start to the upcoming season, is something else. In addition to posh rooms, restaurants, clubs, an upscale mall and a casino, the Paradise Island resort features a private beach, waterslides and an impressive aquarium. It's the type of place that gets 30 minutes on the Travel Channel. It hosts honeymooners, rich vacationing families and business retreats.
NCAA rules allow teams to make an off-season foreign trip once every four years. It is the only way they get to practice daily before mid-October. On the trip, teams play up to five exhibition games against local teams. The last time the Minutemen made a preseason trip was in 2001 when they traveled to Greece prior to former coach Steve Lappas' first season.
The Minutemen arrived in Nassau Aug. 17 to get themselves ready for what Ford and his staff believe will be a big season. With the return of key veterans combined with five newcomers - four of whom were allowed to make the trip - they saw it as a chance to get a head start on playing Ford's up-tempo system as well as an opportunity to develop chemistry.
On most afternoons, the Atlantis conference rooms are filled with executives. One group gathered in an Atlantis' boardroom two days into the Minutemen's stay wore expensive suits and watched a Power-Point presentation on their company's sales goals. Just down the hall in another boardroom, 17 UMass basketball players, coaches and managers, wearing shorts and sneakers, were deep into their own business.
Travis Ford was at the head of the long conference table, an easel holding a large pad at his left. Everybody else was seated around the table, packets of handouts in front of them.
Ford likes to read motivational books. He'd spent a good portion of the summer studying 'Wooden on Leadership,' written by the legendary UCLA coach. He's particularly fond of John C. Maxwell, a Christian motivational speaker and author. He chose Maxwell's 'The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team' as the basis for this meeting. Ford had gone through the text starring and underlining passages he wanted to emphasize. He'd photocopied some of the book's chapters and passed them out to each player.
First he asked his players each to read sections quietly and then, using a black Sharpie, he wrote key words on the pad.
'One is too small a number to achieve greatness,' read Ford. 'To accomplish anything of significance, you need a team.'
'Can any of you think of anyone who has accomplished something important on their own?' When nobody answered he pressed forward, quoting Machiavelli, Nietzsche and Mia Hamm.
Ford talked about ego. He talked about teamwork. He talked about preparation. And then, he talked about goals.
Unlike most successful people Ford has, at least publicly, resisted setting them.
'I used to not be a big goal setter,' he told the group. 'The media would ask me every year what my goals for the season were. But I didn't like to set long-term goals.' He turned to the easel, flipped to an empty page and wrote in big underlined letters:
The players straightened up and leaned forward in their chairs.
'That's our goal, right?' he asked.
Everybody nodded, eyeing each other excitedly. UMass hasn't been to the tournament since 1998, but the players had already been talking among themselves about making it this season.
The coach continued.
Under NCAA Tournament, he wrote 14, for the team's nonconference games, and 16 for the conference games.
How many can they win?
Everybody began tossing out numbers. As Ford wrote 12 next to conference games, somebody called out 14. Ford turned back, smiling, and then wrote a 4 over the 2.
Would 22 wins be enough to ensure an NCAA at-large bid heading into the Atlantic 10 Tournament? Everyone seemed pretty sure.
|Hope centers on Gary Forbes|
by Matt Vautour
Early in the second game of the University of Massachusetts' five-game trip to the Bahamas, the Minutemen had missed several 3-pointers, prompting a heckler in the stands to get on the players.
They can't shoot. They can't shoot, he yelled.
The next time down the floor, UMass junior Gary Forbes got the ball and pulled up two steps behind the 3-point line, right in front of the fan. As the ball swished through Forbes looked at him.
'Who can't shoot?' Forbes asked as he set himself to play defense.
The man laughed.
'OK, he can shoot,' he shouted in concession.
Forbes, who played his first two collegiate seasons at Virginia before transferring to UMass to be closer to his Brooklyn roots, was one of three transfers UMass signed a year ago. After sitting out last year under NCAA rules, all three are expected to contribute. But the highest expectations center on Forbes.
His resume includes a 23-point game against eventual national champion North Carolina in 2005 and a 17-point, 10-rebound effort against perennial power Duke that same year.
After watching him practice last season, UMass coach Travis Ford called him an Atlantic 10 Player of the Year candidate.
In the Bahamas, Ford used him at every position but center. He's expecting Forbes to add leadership, as well as a swagger that the team has been missing.
'He still had a little rust on him after sitting out a year,' Ford said. 'But I liked his leadership. He's a guy that you can give the ball to and he can break guys down and score.'
Forbes appreciated Ford's confidence.
'This is one of maybe three coaches in my life that has really believed in me and my talent. I would love to get a player of the year award, but I'm just thinking about winning as many games as possible.'
Ford went on.
'I want to go undefeated at home,' he said. 'I want to beat at least one team ranked in the top 25.'
'Does that put more pressure on you? Probably. But I think you'll be prepared enough to handle it.'
He looked around the room, studying his players. 'You have to do this together,' he said finally. 'It's not a coincidence that when you're unselfish you play well.'
WHEN YOU'RE SELFISH, sometimes your dunks clang off the back of the rim, like Brandon Thomas' did seven hours later.
In the regular season, that sort of mistake might have earned the senior a long stint on the bench. But Ford wasn't looking to crush his player, just send a message. After cooling off a bit, he reinserted Thomas into the game.
Thomas atoned fast, earning Ford's praise for hustle plays. When he passed up a pretty good look at a 3-pointer to feed James Life, who had a better one. Ford nodded approvingly.
Thomas was sheepish afterward.
'I should have given the ball up,' he said. 'That's why I was hanging my head. We just went over it this morning. For Coach to get on me like that was him saying, "Next time get it right." '
As it turned out, Thomas scored 23 points in the 135-77 win and went on to lead the team in scoring on the trip. 'It was probably karma that it slipped out,' Thomas said. 'It was a lesson learned and it won't happen again.'
That, Ford hoped, would be the point of the trip. Learning lessons, handling adversity. 'I went at him pretty good,' he said. 'I was not happy with him, but by the end of the game he probably played the best of anyone. It shows how quickly he can turn it around.'
FORD, 36, WHO COACHED at Eastern Kentucky for five years, is beginning his second season at UMass. It's been awhile since there's been a big year at UMass: 10 seasons since the Minutemen made the Final Four, eight seasons since the team even made the NCAA tournament. Fan interest and television appearances have waned. The team went 13-15 last year, but year two of the Travis Ford era has generated more optimism and anticipation than any of its recent predecessors.
When planning this trip, Ford and the athletic department's senior staff looked at several European destinations and Australia, where the competition would be better, but chose the Bahamas to keep costs down. The trip, which was paid for through athletic department fundraising, cost approximately $60,000.
Teams taking foreign trips are allowed to work together 10 days at home before they go. Ford spent the weeks preceding the Aug. 7 start of that practice deciding how best to use the time.
While developing chemistry on and off the court was a primary goal, the early practice would give him a chance to try out the team's offensive and defensive systems. Last year, the Minutemen's playing style only slightly resembled the up-tempo approach that made Ford a success at Eastern Kentucky. But player transfers left him with too few men to adequately play at high speed for long stretches.
But now, with only one player gone - senior Jeff Viggiano - and five new ones arriving, Ford would have enough depth to play the way he wanted. He told his players when school ended in the spring to stay in good shape because they'd be running a lot in the 2006-07 season.
They heeded that advice. Most stayed in Amherst for the summer, running and working out with strength coach Bob Otrando, and came back ready.
NOBODY WAS MORE ANXIOUS to be back than Tiki Mayben. Ranked the No. 1 high school player in the country after his sophomore year, Mayben originally committed to Syracuse. But when he didn't reach the necessary combination of high school grade point average and standardized test scores, the university withdrew its scholarship offer.
UMass, which has had success in turning former academic question marks into college graduates, approached Mayben.
He accepted and did well in the classroom while counting the days until he was eligible to play with the team. In the meantime, he kept his skills sharp playing intramural games.
On Aug. 6, the night before practice started for the trip to the Bahamas, he went down to the team's locker room in the Mullins Center.
There he found a stall with his name on it and practice gear laid out for the next day. His time as an outsider was over.
He was so happy he called home.
'I said "Ma, I just went in the locker room. I see my stuff," Mayben said. 'Her voice cracked a little bit. She was probably ready to cry. We waited so long to get here and now we're here.'
While Mayben was dominating intramural games, Chris Lowe, then a freshman, was UMass' only point guard. By the end of the season he rarely left the floor during games. While he occasionally made rookie mistakes and struggled all year with his jump shot, his first season was mostly impressive.
Ford wondered how the two would interact. How would Lowe handle Mayben taking some of his playing time and maybe his spot in the starting lineup? Ford, himself a former point guard, planned to monitor the situation, ready to deal with problems quickly.
Any worries he had dissipated fast in Nassau.
In the Minutemen's first game, a 128-59 win over the Explorers, a quick and athletic but poorly organized Bahamian club team, Mayben was overeager early. When he came off the bench in the first quarter, too many passes missed their marks sailing off the back wall or into the stands. But in the second half he found a comfort zone and took over the game.
Mayben looked as good playing at high speed as any recent UMass point guard and seemed to see every option available to him. As he drove into traffic toward the basket, two defenders converged to block his path. Without looking Mayben fired the ball behind his back to Dante Milligan for an easy layup.
'There's times he sees things that I don't see,' said Ford. 'He usually hits the right play.'
'You couldn't tell Tiki hasn't played in a year,' said senior big man Rashaun Freeman, the recipient of another no-look pass on the break.
Mayben smiled broadly as he walked off the court. After his year in basketball exile, he was finally a player again.
Lowe, meanwhile, had a solid but unspectacular game. He could have faded into the background while Mayben received his adulation, but instead he was the first one on the court to congratulate him, turning a high five into a half hug.
One night later it was Lowe's turn to shine.
As soon as the Minutemen were eliminated from the Atlantic 10 Tournament on March 8, Lowe had gone to work on improving his jump shot. He even spent a week with Chicago Bull Ben Gordon, who like Lowe hails from Mount Vernon, N.Y. Lowe made just five 3-pointers all last season and attempted only 18. Late in the season, teams stopped guarding him on the perimeter, knowing he probably wouldn't shoot and that if he did he was unlikely to connect.
The Crimestoppers, UMass' second Bahamian opponent, had no such scouting report on Lowe and guarded him like anyone else on the perimeter.
But Lowe's summer work had clearly paid dividends. He made six threes in the game to pace the team.
After each one fell, the loudest voice from the bench belonged to Mayben.
'Yeah C-Lowe,' he said, pointing at Lowe and pumping his fist.
Ford solidified their connection by playing both guards together for significant stretches. His up-tempo offense runs much better with two proficient ball-handlers on the floor. On defense the duo's quickness flustered opponents into turnovers all week.
'It's helped us. We thought we were going to have to convince these guys that they're not competing against each other. They figured it out on their own,' said Ford. 'Their relationship is very unusual. You have a point guard [Lowe] who started almost every game. He was an all-freshman in the Atlantic 10. Then you have a player coming in with a huge reputation like Tiki and the natural thing would be to have a rivalry with those guys not supporting each other. It's been the total opposite. They're almost best friends. They are going to play a lot of minutes. But it's an unusual situation. It's been fun to watch. It's a very healthy relationship, very healthy for our basketball team. I don't see any reason it won't continue.'
ON HIS FIRST MORNING ON Paradise Island, Ford arrived at breakfast to find senior guard James Life singing loudly. With a crowd around him.
Some of the people looking on seemed unsure whether Life was a paid entertainer or just a confident amateur crooner.
As he continued, Life borrowed a Bahamas sun hat and began dancing, too. A woman emerged from the crowd and joined him. Nearby his teammates watched and cheered.
'There are no cliques on this basketball team,' said Ford. 'They're usually very loud, singing, being together and having a good time. They're always doing rap songs. They enjoy being around each other. That carries over to the court as well.'
|Snorkel trip pictures, more pictures, and video.|
Ford had embarked on the trip thinking the local teams probably weren't good enough to truly challenge the Minutemen on the scoreboard, a belief quickly confirmed in the first game. So he looked to create challenging scenarios.
On one particularly hot, humid day, Ford decided not to advise his team to stay out of the sun. Allowing the players to spend the morning outside together would likely leave them at least a little tired against the athletic but coincidentally undersized Giants. Though this is something Ford would never do before a real game, he figured it would show him how the Minutemen would react when they weren't at their best physically.
'We need a good whipping,' he said quietly before the game.
The Giants hung with the Minutemen for the first quarter, and even though UMass was able to pull ahead 51-34 at halftime, the team had played poorly enough for Ford to be angry.
But instead of chastising them, Ford took a different tack.
'You handle this,' he told them as they walked off the floor.
The players chose to keep what was said in the locker room to themselves. But whatever it was worked.
The Minutemen returned to the floor and delivered their most dominant performance of the five games. They allowed only eight points in the second half and rolled to a 103-42 win.
Ford got some unexpected but convenient misfortune in the final game. The first four games, played in either a rundown junior high gymnasium or a church hall, attracted sparse crowds and had only one or two officials working. But against the Rattlers, an All-Star squad drawn from several Bahamian teams, a third official joined the crew. He spent most of the game out of position and didn't call a single foul against the home team.
Ford ranted and raved as the game progressed, but said later he was truly glad that his team had had one more obstacle to overcome. Even the referees help couldn't make the game close as the Minutemen prevailed 138-86.
'We needed to face a little adversity to see how our guys would respond to the situation,' he said. 'We got carried away at times. But I liked the way we responded. That could have been a 25-point game, but we ended up winning by 50, which was good.'
Five blowouts of overmatched teams doesn't qualify as much of an accomplishment. But the way the team played and worked could make it a prologue to a good story.
The Minutemen, back on campus, are allowed to practice two hours a week before beginning full-time practice on Oct. 14.
'We're still a long way from our goals. We're not even in preseason yet. We have a lot of growing to do,' said Brandon Thomas. 'But it feels like we're on the right path. It feels like the start to something huge.'
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more UMass coverage, including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.