One last shot
Inside a black and darkly tinted Mercedes Benz is a 22-year-old man. His seat is stretched all the way back. The car is bouncing to the rhythm of 90s hip-hop and has an herb-like odor. It’s left over from the smoke of the past.
“I look to my future because my past is behind me,” Tupac Shakur preaches in his song “Only God Can Judge Me” that plays in the car. With one hit of the gas pedal, the car flies down the 118 freeway towards Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. It is a small journey compared to longer, arduous one taken by CSUN student Julius Arnold.
At five-foot-seven, he is the little left-handed man. His entire world is an orange ball. His dream is to walk-on to to CSUN’s men’s basketball team.
“It’s been tough just trying to get here,” Arnold said. “Just waiting for an opportunity and a chance to show the world that I can be something. All my life I’ve been told my dreams are too big and that I should just give up. And sometimes that’s all I wanted to do, was to quit.”
Arnold grew up in Inglewood. A city that was the capital of the Lakers Showtime era provided the backdrop for some of the area’s greatest athletes that include Paul Pierce and Lisa Leslie.
But the surrounding neighborhood was violent. Gangs and drugs were prevalent, but a love for family and basketball kept Arnold off the streets.
“I remember growing up it was rough,” Arnold said staring down at his arm that is laced with tattoos. “Gangs everywhere but my mom always watched out for me and my battleground was the playground. Playing basketball was an escape and it was how I grew up. Basketball was just a way of life.”
Arnold was already at a disadvantage because of his height. He didn’t have extreme leaping ability and didn’t play on any major club teams. Arnold has a quirky handle, blurring speed and a shot that is tough to cool down once it gets hot.
Despite having these skills that helped him thrive on the playground, it wasn’t enough to make his high school team at Fairfax. He tried out three times: all failures.
“It killed me,” said Arnold whose quiet and soft demeanor turned into tears streaming down his face. “I know that I was good enough and I knew what I was capable of. I don’t know what it was. Was it my attitude? Was it that I didn’t know certain things. Whenever I would take some of these guys one-on-one I would win. But I wasn’t big and I wasn’t what the coaches there were looking for.”
After three seasons of disappointment, Arnold’s chance finally came his senior year when he left Inglewood and moved to Mobile, Alabama. He enrolled in Faith Academy and met Coach John Price in 2014.
“He was just a great kid and I wanted him in my program immediately,” said Price who is now head coach at St. Joseph’s Christian school in Missouri. “He came in at a time where it was hard for him to master our system. He couldn’t play a lot but he had a tremendous attitude and work ethic. He never complained and everyone loved him around the school. Whenever we were winning big late and games, the crowd would chant for Julius’s name. If he knocked down a three-pointer the whole place would go crazy.”
Even as Arnold saw limited minutes, he became the cog that was crucial in his Faith Academy’s success. That season the team went 34-2 and reached the Alabama State Division 5-A state semifinals.
Even with his supporting role, Arnold was seen as a key part because of his tenaciousness and aggressiveness on defense and rebounding in practice. He had become the glue guy.
As a result, the team had become the toast of South Alabama. Faith Academy went 13-0 at home and won 24 consecutive games. Price gave Arnold credit for being a small piece that stirred the allure of Mobile’s love affair with basketball that season.
“He always believed in himself even when he was buried at the bottom of the bench,” Price said. “He always believed there was something out there for him. Usually when you have a player in his position, their attitude goes south but not him. He was always a team guy and good of a kid as I have ever coached.”
After his senior season, Arnold moved back to Los Angeles. He enrolled at CSUN as a Kinesiology major. For the next three years Arnold would work in various jobs from sweeping floors at Wal-Mart to bagging groceries at Ralph’s.
The basketball dream did not die. He would spend late nights going to parks and various open gyms to work on his craft. He tried out for Cal State Northridge’s team once and seemed to earn the good graces of then coach Reggie Theus.
But instead of being offered a jersey, he was offered a polo.
“He said that I should come onto the team as a manager and maybe I would get a chance to play,” Arnold said. “But I knew my self-worth. It wasn’t that I was trying to be cocky, but I knew that I was bigger than just a manager. I didn’t feel it was right path for me to take. I’m a hooper.”
Life took a turn for the worst when Julius’s grandfather Rommie Arnold passed away in January. Rommie had looked after Julius during his youth and was a role model.
Rommie’s death caused Julius to drive down a dark state of depression. He started to struggle in his classes and nearly lost his financial aid as a result. It was basketball that kept Julius from completely crumbling.
“Life was terrible because not only did I lose my grandfather, I lost my bestfriend,” Arnold said with his eyes closed. “I think back on all of his sayings and how when everyone in my circle that seemingly turned its back on me, he was still there. He kept me guided and it is why I ultimately chose to continue the path that I’m on.”
Arnold’s loss became his fuel. From 7 p.m. until close, the CSUN Student Recreation Center became his home. On a nightly basis, he was blowing past and scoring on everybody who was brave enough to challenge him.
His fortunes finally changed in March. Arnold had earned financial aid and then Theus was fired after winning just six games.
The sky was finally clear. There would be a new coach who could see his potential through workouts.
He changed his diet and stopped his use of medical marijuana. Arnold’s changed lifestyle led him to Thousand Oaks. Through various contacts, Julius was able to convince trainers at the facility to improve his conditioning.
It was a grueling experience for Julius who had worked as a Division I athlete. For five hours a day, three days a week; he would work on improving his footwork, his core and quickening the release of his shot.
He was continuously invigorated at the prospect of playing college basketball. Playing on private courts across from him was Sacramento Kings guards De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.
“It was a place I could never have seen myself even being in,” Arnold said. “Playing and working in the same facilities as NBA players? Are you kidding me? It’s amazing how God works.”
As time progressed the turns became sharper. The pain became less and his body went from lanky and unstable to more toned and settled. Julius could absorb more contact and his shot was quicker.
The biggest news came a week after Theus was fired. CSUN hired former Dallas Mavericks scout and UCLA assistant Mark Gottfried.
Gottfried has a proven track record of winning, having been on the last coaching staff to win an NCAA title for UCLA and then achieving AP No. 1 rankings at both Alabama and North Carolina State. He reached the Sweet 16 twice at NC State and the Elite 8 at Alabama.
The world became smaller for Arnold. Gottfried, like Arnold played his high school basketball in Mobile. Faith Academy assistant coach Solomon Davis who coached Arnold was a former player of Gottfried’s at Alabama.
Davis was a walk-on but Gottfried gave him a chance. Despite the odds, he thinks Arnold will get his opportunity as well. It was Davis who spotted Arnold and convinced the kid from California to give Faith Academy a shot.
“I met Julius who was playing at a local church league in Mobile,” Davis said. “I remember seeing this guy and I thought he could really help the team. He could dribble it, shoot it and he was a fighter. I knew his goal was to play so we put him in an environment where he could be challenged.”
As luck would have it, Davis’ best friend is CSUN’s lead assistant Mo Williams who just retired after playing 15 seasons in the NBA.
Davis thinks Williams will see Arnold’s competitive edge that could help drive the Matadors success from within this season.
“Mo is going to see Julius and his fighting spirit,” Davis said. “The reason why our team was so successful was because of our philosophy of competition. Trying to win every sprint and block out on rebounds. If you compete in the small things, then you develop in games. He’s going to be the type of player that makes other players around him better and those are the kind of players Gottfried wants in his program.”
Since his workouts in Thousand Oaks, Arnold have been growing his game with the help of former CSUN guard Aaron Parks. Parks averaged 9.9 points during his college career and played professionally overseas in Iceland last year.
“He’s a very hard-nosed guy who likes to get in the gym,” Parks said. “I like guys who want to reach out for help and he wanted that help to get better. He’s great and everything about his shot, his handle and his conditioning have improved. The biggest change I’ve seen has been his mindset. The game of basketball is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Working on that mental part and helping him grow his overall game.”
Arnold’s chance of making CSUN’s team is still a long shot. For one, CSUN’s best player and returner is Big West Freshman of the Year Terrell Gomez. Gomez, like Arnold, is five-foot-seven and has more experience. It is uncertain if the Matadors afford to have another small guard on its roster.
Arnold will also be competing with the dozens of other hopefuls that are going after the one possible open roster spot on Gottfried’s team.
Walk-ons have had success under Gottfried. Former walk-on Antoine Pettway made the team and started at point guard every game in the 2003-04 season and led Alabama to an improbable run to the Elite 8.
Now Arnold is hoping to provide that same type of magic, but he has to make the team first. He showed a glimpse of what he could do on the court.
Arnold was making shots in crucial situations. Even when his shot wasn’t falling during the various three-on-three sessions, his defense was stout. When faced with being matched up with former all-city player Julian Richardson who held a seven inch advantage, Richardson was mostly quiet.
His game was far from perfect, but Arnold left the Matadome on Monday night by showing coaches he could play. CSUN could ultimately cut Arnold, but not because of his performance.
“Regardless of what happens I’m going to continue to play ball,” Arnold said. “If I make this team I want to be a winner. I want to bring a winning mentality and I want to be a leader. I want to see us win. If I don’t make the team, I’m just going to continue on to the next squad and bring my mentality along with it.”
Considering all the obstacles Arnold has faced along the way, it I amazing he has come this far.
“I’m glad he has kept fighting and kept pushing,” Price said. “He needs to keep fighting and see this thing all the way through. The thing Julius will need to do is if he gets this opportunity, he is going to have to continue to scratch and claw. Gottfried does not take the walk-on position lightly. Julius will have to earn his keep.”