It was twenty years ago today,
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play
Late on Friday night, Curry Hicks Cage was three-quarters filled with lonely hearts. The fans who came out to watch the opening game of the University of Massachusetts' season hadn't seen consistently good basketball in a long, long time.
The first player introduced in the starting lineup -- little more than a headband and a roaring motor -- was Chaz Williams, the new point guard, the guy UMass coach Derek Kellogg is counting on to be the team's Sergeant Pepper. Preposterously listed at 5-foot-9, Williams stood as one of only two players on the roster with his hand over his heart on this Veterans Day, swaying back and forth during the national anthem.
Over by the bench, his brown hair slicked back as always, his eyes already burning with intensity, Kellogg had the exact same posture: hand over heart, swaying. He, too, was eager to get it going.
It was 20 years ago this month, on Nov. 22, 1991, when UMass last opened its season in the Cage. This had been UMass' colorful home for hoops since 1931, where for years the court had been laid out over a dirt floor, sometimes prompting squirrels to scurry into the lane. This was where fans used to sleep out overnight to get seats to watch Julius Erving play for the then-Redmen in the early 1970s. And this was the place where, one day in practice, a sophomore point guard named Rick Pitino picked a fight with the incumbent senior point guard, Mike Pagliaria, breaking his thumb.
Legendary coach Jack Leaman kicked Pitino off the team for the year, telling the student newspaper, "He thought too much about himself, and not about the 11 other guys on the team."
For many years, the Cage has been a classroom for point guards. Leaman, still UMass' all-time leader in coaching wins, had been a point guard himself at Boston University. John Calipari, who took over a woebegone UMass program in 1988, had been a college point guard. Both considered the position to be the very foundation of college basketball. The good point guard, they preached, was the coach on the floor. He was the guy who made everyone around him better.
Nov. 22, 1991, was also the first taste of college basketball for a young point guard from nearby Springfield. Derek Kellogg was an unheralded recruit from the city where the game was invented. Late in a 94-59 rout of Siena before a raucous full house at the Cage, he was sent into the game by Calipari -- and got his first chance to run the show.
Thus began a season when UMass truly arrived on the national stage. The Minutemen would go on to win the Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament titles for the first time in school history. They got into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 30 years, and advanced to the Sweet 16. (There they lost to a Kentucky team coached by Pitino, in a game made famous by a pivotal technical foul call against Calipari for stepping out of the coaching box.)
If UMass basketball had been going in and out of style, that group was guaranteed to raise a smile. The Minutemen went on a roll, dominating the A-10 for years and appearing in seven straight NCAA tournaments from 1992 to 1998. That stretch included all four years of Kellogg's career, the final three of which saw him serve as the starting point guard, and the last two as the team's captain. If not blessed with explosive athletic ability, Kellogg was clearly the consummate coach on the floor.
Every game at the Cage filled to its capacity of just over 4,000 fans, and even when the team moved to the Mullins Center in February 1993, there was never an empty seat. For years, the crowd was an automatic 9,493. The basketball was certainly a thrill, and the crowd was such a lovely audience.
But in truth, UMass basketball has been out of style for quite some time now. Since that seven-year NCAA run, the Minutemen haven't been back to the Big Dance even once. Of the 14 teams in the Atlantic 10, only three (Fordham, La Salle and Duquesne) have had longer waits.
In April 2008, the UMass athletic department hoped to chart a course back to the promised land by hiring Kellogg as coach. He had spent the previous eight years coaching with Calipari at Memphis. The press conference to introduce Kellogg was held at the Cage. "We're going to be the hardest-working, most fun, most passionate, most energetic team in the country," he said that day.
Leaving aside the rest of it, one thing has been clear to this point: The Minutemen haven't been much fun. There were all kinds of obstacles that Kellogg faced when he took the job (not least of which was a cupboard largely left bare by previous coach Travis Ford).
Ironically, the biggest ingredient in the team's lack of success (records of 12-18, 12-20 and 15-15) has been a disastrous run of point guards. Kellogg has booted two reasonably heralded point guard signees, Doug Wiggins and Daryl Traynham, for disciplinary reasons. His first point guard in 2008-09, senior Chris Lowe, had played three years for Ford and struggled to adjust to a new system that never took hold at UMass. (The vaunted "dribble-drive-motion" that worked so well at Memphis was more of a fizzle, crash and burn at UMass. There were painfully few created baskets and lots of disjointed one-on-one play.) Kellogg also tried to convert shooting guard Ricky Harris, the school's third all-time leading scorer, to point, but that minimized his effectiveness. Also marginally effective were Gary Correia and David Gibbs.
The position that Kellogg knew to be the foundation of a college basketball team's success was, through three years, far from stellar at UMass. Some fans hung in, but the Mullins Center almost never approached even half of its capacity. Superfan "Matty G," in his maroon uniform with the No. 0, would race onto the court during timeouts and exhort fans by saying, "This side -- 'U' -- this side -- 'Mass'!" but the response was usually quite tepid.
The winter sport of choice at the university had become hockey, with raucous crowds the norm. Basketball no longer rocked the house.
Year 4 of the Kellogg regime is a critical time, and deep down the coach knows it. This is time for some results, and it's time for some fun. Enter Chaz Williams.
A redshirt sophomore from Brooklyn, Williams transferred from Hofstra after an impressive freshman year when his coach, Tom Pecora, left for the job at Fordham. Williams arrived with plenty of pizzazz. Before he even played a game at UMass, his teammates were talking about how Williams was already a team leader. Kellogg describes him as a fearless, charismatic, pedal-to-the-metal player who has embraced the leadership role.
On his team bio on the school's website, Williams paints an interesting picture. Besides learning that Williams is lactose intolerant, fans find out that his favorite book is "His Life and Universe," a biography of Albert Einstein. The three words he uses to describe himself as a basketball player are "Nate Robinson Jr."
And the thing he would like to do before graduation?
Friday night's opener was a far cry from Kellogg's playing days when UMass once upended top-ranked North Carolina at Madison Square Garden. Last night, the Minutemen took on another team from North Carolina -- Elon University.
At halftime, the Phoenix had a 43-39 lead. A few of the 3,093 fans in attendance at the 4,024-capacity Cage left to enjoy their weekend.
They missed Williams putting on a show in the second half. He was at his improvisational best -- call it the Jazz of Chaz -- during a 13-0 run that put the Minutemen ahead to stay. In a stretch of just 1:04, Williams:
• Hit a 3-pointer to knot the game at 45
• Fought hard through traffic to find Sampson Carter for a 3-pointer to put UMass in front
• Penetrated into the lane and dished to Freddie Riley for a layup
• Rifled a half-court bounce pass to Carter in stride for a layup that forced Elon to call a timeout and essentially hoist the white flag
It was a flurry of plays that UMass fans had not seen in many moons. It was more than just points on the scoreboard. It was aggressive. It was creative. It was fun.
The players were into it. The fans were, for a moment at least, electric.
"I don't really play to the crowd," Williams said after putting the finishing touches on a game-high 18 points and eight assists (to go with six rebounds and three steals) in an 85-67 win. "I play for my team, just try to win. I play for the brotherhood."
Like New Year's Eve and baseball's spring training, hope is everywhere at this point in the college basketball season. There are all kinds of good-faith pronouncements about unity and commitment. Williams says that UMass bonded in a deep way in the offseason, following last season's freefall. (A promising 7-0 start ended with a 15-15 record after the Minutemen closed the regular season by losing at Fordham, the Rams' first A-10 win after 41 straight losses -- and then followed that up with a 28-point loss to Dayton in the first round of the A-10 tourney.)
"We had a tough offseason," said Williams, who had to sit out the season as a transfer. "We all wanted to win. We all wanted to do this together. Last year is the past. We just leave that behind, and we just worry about now."
The team, which returns most of its top players from a year ago (other than top scorer Anthony Gurley and point guard Correia), has been working for the first time with a full-time strength and conditioning coach, earmarked only for basketball. And before practices began, the team spent a weekend with sports psychologist Joe Carr. "That was the best experience for our group of guys to have," said Williams. "At first we were brothers, but now we're a brotherhood."
Big Brother Kellogg liked what he saw Friday night. He was pleased with the efforts off the bench from erstwhile starters Terrell Vinson (17 points and 11 rebounds) and Carter (17 points and seven rebounds). But most of all, he was pleased that, maybe just maybe, his long-awaited point guard has finally arrived after three years of trying to fill that void.
"To see Chaz play the way he did tonight was, I guess, 'comforting,'" said Kellogg, finding an unusual word in his coaching lexicon. "When the ball is in his hands, at least in my mind, something good is going to happen. He knows what he's doing."
Twenty minutes after the game, the sweat was still streaming down Kellogg's face, but it seemed -- at least for now -- that a burden had lifted. "As much as I was coaching in the game, it was enjoyable to watch him play," said Kellogg. "He made some passes that we haven't seen in a couple of years. ... That's a taste of what UMass basketball is going to be."
Time will tell if that really plays out and the Minutemen come back into style. The Sergeant Pepper of the past and the Sergeant Pepper of the present hope that fans will have their hands over their lonely hearts as they get ready to enjoy the show.
Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).