With Cezar Guerrero, the Fresno State point guard, a lot of life these past three years has played out in full view of the public, on and off the basketball court, some good and some not.
There was a two-game suspension for a violation of athletic department policy at the start of his sophomore season and last year, though in good academic standing with the university, he was ruled ineligible for failing to meet NCAA continuing eligibility requirements and missed the first 17 games.
His competitiveness has at times landed him in trouble as he plays on edge, with a fierceness that was ingrained in him long ago, the marker of any success he could achieve.
“When I go out on the floor, it’s basically my guys against you and if you’re not on my team then I don’t like you, you know? It’s that type of thing,” Guerrero said.
Always, he has cozied right up to the line.
“He is,” coach Rodney Terry said, about to sell it well short, “a highly competitive kid.”
Sometimes, Guerrero crossed it. In a game at Wyoming two seasons ago, he threw a tantrum on the bench during a timeout when Terry was taking him out for a spell. Guerrero, not playing well at that point and well aware of it, wanted to prove himself so much and to win so badly, he rebelled. He screamed at teammates, at coaches. Michael Schwartz, then a Bulldogs assistant, eventually picked him up and carried him back to the the locker room.
But if that is all anyone sees, then they’re missing what Steve Robertello, the deputy director of athletics at Fresno State, said is a great success story.
15 Number of games Cezar Guerrero played in for the Bulldogs as a junior last year, with 10 starts. As a sophomore, he played in all 39 games with 38 starts.
That one has played out mostly in private, though there were clues last season.
Veggies on the menu
Joe Covarrubias, who is Guerrero’s older brother and has been coach, trainer and father figure to a kid who grew up in Huntington Park in southeast Los Angeles not knowing his dad, had always been after Guerrero to take care of his academics, to get an education. Basketball, playing professionally, that was never part of the conversation and if it was, it was short. Brought up, shut down.
“I always told him, everyone will always feed you junk food – and junk food was all these different ideas people had for him – but all I’m going to feed you is vegetables,” Covarrubias said.
Guerrero, like many kids, didn’t care much for vegetables.
He took it for granted. When he went to Oklahoma State out of high school, when he transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his family, graduation wasn’t on the radar.
I just wanted to go play basketball. That’s all I focused on.
Bulldogs point guard Cezar Guerrero
He would do what was required, every so often teasing coaches or the academic support staff with what he could do in the classroom. Eric Coleman, assistant athletic director/student-athlete services, has worked with plenty of kids just like him. He was one, too.
“I was that kid,” said Coleman, who is working toward an Ed.D. (doctor of education) in educational leadership and administration. “I was a non-qualifier coming out of high school. I always joke with my students, ‘I speak knucklehead fluently. There’s nothing that you guys can say or do to me that I haven’t seen or tried on my own.’ ”
What he told Guerrero was he wanted to see him graduate.
“I remember the first time I helped him with a paper. I read it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is quality work. … You’re smart,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ He was a little arrogant. But people have always been, basketball, basketball, basketball, and I told him I could care less about basketball. I was a college athlete and I’m just not impressed with all that.”
Coleman put it down on paper, a road map to a degree from Fresno State.
Support and motivation
But it took more, and when Guerrero had basketball taken away at the start of last season he got it.
While he was sitting out through December, in practice but in street clothes on the bench in games, Robertello applied to the NCAA to get a waiver. It was denied. He kept at it, drafted and filed an appeal. It, too, was denied. Coleman, visiting family in Florida over the holidays, flew back to Fresno to provide support when Guerrero was taking winter intersession courses required to regain his eligibility.
He got a push 10 times a day from 20 different people. Terry. Schwartz. Coleman. Robertello. Tyler Johnson, the former Fresno State guard now playing with the Miami Heat, is one of Guerrero’s best friends and showed what is possible with hard work tenaciously applied. Nick Matson, the director of operations for the basketball program. Brandon Wiesemann and Mark Gisbertz, a special assistant and a graduate assistant in the program. Guerrero’s girlfriend, Joana Lopez, a former Fresno State soccer player. “She never gave up on me even though there were days where I was like, ‘You know what, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ ” Guerrero said. “She always said, ‘I need you to do this.’ ”
There was more to it. Back home in Los Angeles, a nephew who grew up with Guerrero was battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
There was more to it. Back home in Los Angeles, Joe’s son, Joey, who grew up with Guerrero living and loving basketball, was battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
“They were sticking their neck out for me for every single thing that was going on. That and my nephew having cancer, I just felt like I needed to change,” Guerrero said. “I felt like I was taking things for granted. I was like: I don’t care. I’ll just play basketball and hopefully I make it or whatever and go play somewhere.
“But seeing that happen, it just makes you appreciate it even more. I felt like I needed to make a change for the better and help re-establish my name as well as my family’s name and everybody who supported me.”
The difference, Terry said, was like sitting in a dark room and having someone flip on the lights.
“He has made it better because he has wanted to make it better,” Terry said. “I think he said: You know what, nobody has ever really looked at me outside of being a good basketball player. Nobody has looked at me as a being guy who can be successful in the classroom and who can graduate and who can have an opportunity to give back to a community – and I think he has really bought into that.
“He’s going to be one of the first in his family to graduate from college, maybe the first from his family to graduate from college. I think he has bought into all of that and he wants to be someone who is setting a tone for others in his family to look up to.”
Graduation and remission
But it was never easy.
“The investment that others had around him and the belief that other people had in him, he had to do his part, and I think at times maybe he didn’t believe the same or didn’t believe he could be as successful as other people told him he could be,” said Schwartz, now an assistant at Tulsa.
“Maybe even basketball-wise, also. Basketball and in other areas. But I think once he realized he’s fully capable, extremely smart, and I think he has bought in. He has jumped in with two feet with that. I think he used to determine a lot of who he was and how he feels based on the basketball part and I think he found a way to balance that more and make that investment and meet those standards.”
And, in the spring, Guerrero will be nine units away from a diploma.
Joey Covarrubias, he won, too. The cancer in remission, he has started his college basketball career at Cal State Monterey Bay. “He wears No. 12, just like I do,” Guerrero said, proudly.
I think last year when everything happened, especially as we were battling through things around the holidays and continuing to work, you eventually I think saw that light go on. Like, that’s not how I want to be. I don’t want people to view me as this. I think that helped him turn and then I think he has been pretty dialed in.
Steve Robertello, deputy director of athletics at Fresno State
Said Robertello: “A lot of student-athletes, they’ve never been told you can be successful in academics. They’ve been told you’re a great basketball player or a great football player, but they’ve never been told you can achieve academically. That’s never discussed. I think last year when everything happened, especially as we were battling through things around the holidays and continuing to work, you eventually I think saw that light go on. Like, that’s not how I want to be. I don’t want people to view me as this. I think that helped him turn and then I think he has been pretty dialed in.
“I’m very proud of Cezar. We still have the basketball season and the spring, but we see the finish line. We just have to make sure we get to the finish line. But I’m very confident he will do that because he believes he can do it and wants to do it and that’s the most important thing.”
They all have different but similar thoughts on what that day in May will be like, when Guerrero walks across that stage in cap and gown.
“It’s a big deal for me,” Covarrubias said. “And I think down the road when he looks back, he’ll go, ‘Man, this guy was feeding me all the green stuff, the stuff that I needed to hear.’ It will feel real special to me.”
His timeline at Fresno State will have been five years, with a lot in there, with the spikes and dips resembling an electrocardiogram, and he will be the first in his family to graduate from college.
For Guerrero, it will be a thank you. His goal now, after basketball, is to coach.
For Guerrero, it will be a thank you. His goal now, after basketball, is to coach.
“I give Mr. Coleman a lot of credit because even through all the struggles I’ve been through, he has always been there for me and always kept me positive. That guy, he knew what he was doing,” he said. “Mr. Robertello … that guy, man, that guy has some faith in me. He’s one of the people I talk to every so often whenever I need to talk to somebody.”
There are many more, and of course Terry.
“Even though we’ve bumped heads a lot on countless occasions, at the end of the day that still is somebody who has done a lot for me and I really appreciate that,” Guerrero said. “I really don’t get to tell him a lot because he’s always in sergeant mode and he’s always telling you, ‘Hey, you have to be here. You have to do this; you have to do that,’ but for the most part he has a great part in changing my life. He has always been there for me and he has always stuck out his neck for me every time I’ve got into some trouble. Every time. I go to church with him now on Sundays and it’s a blessing, to see somebody who cares about you so much.
I don’t really get teary eyed with anybody except for my brother, my mother, my sister and my nephew, but he’s one of the special people in my life who I feel has really changed me and helped me become the person I am.
Cezar Guerrero, on Bulldogs basketball coach Rodney Terry
“I don’t really get teary eyed with anybody except for my brother, my mother, my sister and my nephew, but he’s one of the special people in my life who I feel has really changed me and helped me become the person I am. I’m proud of where I am today, even though I have a way to go and a lot of things to accomplish. I’m glad I’m here at Fresno State. I’m glad I’m here playing for the basketball team and playing for, in my mind, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. I love that guy to death.”
So, how will he feel, the work done and the diploma in hand? Guerrero slowed himself to string the words together.
“Accomplished,” he said. “Really ... alive.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. PEPPERDINE
- Friday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Series: Pepperdine leads 15-13 overall; Fresno State leads 7-6 in games played in Fresno
- Last meeting: Pepperdine 89, Fresno State 74 (Nov. 14, 2014, in Malibu)
- Of note: Fresno State is 4-0 in home openers and 2-2 in season openers during head coach Rodney Terry’s first four seasons. ... The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth and senior guard Marvelle Harris was named Preseason Player of the Year in the Mountain West by the league’s media.
Fresno State roster
Hometown (last school)
Las Vegas, Nev. (Trinity International High)
Inglewood (Brentwood High)
Terrell Carter II
Redondo Beach (Redondo Union High)
Dallas, Texas (Berkner High)
Lionel Ellison III
New Orleans, La. (Coffeyville CC)
Las Vegas, Nev. (Quality Education Academy)
Huntington Park (Oklahoma State)
Rialto (Eisenhower High)
Mesa, Ariz. (Colorado)
Chandler, Ariz. (Midland College)
Galveston, Texas (Texas)
Bloomington, Minn. (New Mexico JC)
Burlington, Kan. (Burlington High)
Los Angeles (UMKC)
Los Angeles (Washington)
Phoenix, Ariz. (Paradise Valley High)