Spoto High grad Derick Beltran took long journey to reach the Big Dance
In 2008, Derick Beltran graduated from Spoto High in Riverview unsure of where his basketball future would lead.
He bounced around various junior colleges throughout Florida, trying to keep his dream alive, all while trying to avoid a life he had seen too often lead to prison — or worse.
But through rejection, moments of despair and the possibility of failure, Beltran's faith in his abilities never wavered, which led him to today — college basketball's biggest stage.
This afternoon, Beltran will suit up in a Southern University uniform to lead his No.?16-seeded Jaguars (23-9) against top-seed Gonzaga (31-2) in a West Region second-round game in Salt Lake City.
The Bulldogs, the No.?1 team in the nation, are 22-point favorites.
Beltran, a 6-foot-4 college senior, is Southern's top offensive weapon and best defender. He leads the team in points (15.9), minutes played (1,108), free throws made (102), and is second in steals (42) and 3-pointers (76).
On Friday, he scored 13 points and collected seven rebounds and made the deciding defensive play at the buzzer against Prairie View A&M to give his team the Southwestern Athletic Conference title and an automatic NCAA tourney bid.
Beltran, who already had been selected to the All-SWAC first team, was named tournament MVP.
“I always felt like Derick had the ability and potential to reach Division I status as a player,” said Eric Brooks, Spoto's former coach. “He always had a strong skill set and ball handling at his size. It doesn't surprise me at all.”
Beltran's journey to this point was difficult.
“I've come a long way and worked really hard,” Beltran said Wednesday from Salt Lake City. “I never expected to be in this situation. It's exciting.”
Beltran didn't pick up a basketball until his eighth-grade year because he suffered from Crohn's disease and asthma. By his senior year at Spoto, however, the New York native was the leading scorer for the Spartans in their first year of varsity competition. After averaging 18 points per game, he was named Hillsborough County's Florida Athletic Coaches Association Class 4A Player of the Year and was selected to the 4A all-state third team.
Though the talent was there, colleges coaches didn't beat down his door.
Unwilling to give up on his dream, Beltran took charge of his own recruitment and sent more than 30 letters to junior colleges in the Southeast.
Only two responded.
After a walk-on tryout at the State College of Florida-Manatee, Beltran earned a roster spot. After the season, however, he was released.
“I thought my career was over,” he said.
The next year, Beltran landed at Edward Waters, a historically black college in Jacksonville with an enrollment of 800, looking to improve his academics. He did not play on the team but joined their practices as a redshirt.
The following semester, Beltran mailed 60 letters to coaches throughout the Southeast, hoping someone would grant his request for a chance to play.
This time, three responded.
Acting on an invitation to join the team as a walk-on, again, he visited Tallahassee Community College. After a few games, he was named the starting point guard.
It was during his one year in Tallahassee that Beltran met the man who changed his life forever.
Prior to being awarded the head coaching job at Southern University in 2011, Roman Banks, a former assistant coach with the program, was scouting Beltran. He decided to make Beltran, then in his final year of eligibility at Tallahassee Community College, his first signee.
“I got the job late and I saw a great defensive player that could move his feet,” Banks recalled. “He came to us on a team and a program that was declining.”
The Jaguars were coming off their two worst seasons in school history (5-25 in 2010 and 4-26 in 2011) and the team's academic issues resulted in the NCAA stripping the program of scholarships and practice time, along with a postseason ban for 2012 and a warning its membership could be restricted.
Beltran knew it was a risk, but he believed in Banks' vision of the program.
“Coach Banks called me and we had a conversation for about three or four hours,” Beltran said. “He didn't know he was going to get the job yet. Our chemistry and the things he was saying to me … he believed in me. I had faith in him and he had faith in me.”
Together, they turned the program around.
With Beltran as the second-leading scorer, Southern finished 17-14 overall and 13-5 in the conference the next season, but was still penalized from playing in the conference tournaments.
But the blueprint for success on and off the court was implemented, and Banks had Beltran to thank for it.
“I don't know how many guys are like that, who have that type of makeup,” Banks said. “He has tattoos and people probably wouldn't think of him as an upstanding young man, but a lot people will say, 'Wow, I didn't think he was that type of kid.' He's a better person than he is a good basketball player. He's the most coachable guy on the team.”
Said Beltran: “When I came to Southern, I saw we didn't have much scoring and (Banks) told me I need to score more and get that point guard out of my system. That meant I had to work twice as hard. He had faith in me and that's what kept me going. I had to shoot about 500 shots a day.”
Southern will be making its first tournament appearance since 2006 and only its second appearance since 1993. That year, No.14-seeded Southern upset No. 3 George Tech in the opening round.
Today, Beltran is hoping to make program history — again.
“We came here to win a basketball game, nothing else,” Beltran said. “We'll go out there and play as hard as we can. We're going to show them. We're not going to back down at all.”