Photos by Austin Simpson
On a recent Saturday night, Colorado State men’s basketball guard Daniel Bejarano spoke through five stitches in his lip to reporters after his team’s 82-67 dismantling of rival Wyoming.
He spoke of a team who — despite a season’s worth of injuries and adversity — had regrouped, grown up a bit and shown the type of tenacity and effort it had been looking for all year. But little did he know, Bejarano was also describing the past six years of his life in a 45-second sound bite.
After all, this was never part of the plan.
Success marred by tragedy
As a child, Bejarano grew up in a home environment very few people would envy. The oldest of five children, he spent most of his childhood moving between apartments in Central Phoenix, Arizona, supported only by his mother, Barbara Butler and later his stepfather, Steven Butler.
At an early age, Bejarano picked up baseball and ran with it before eventually finding a home on the basketball court. He stood at almost 6-foot-1 by the time middle school rolled around. As an eighth grader, Bejarano’s name began appearing in local newspapers as a player to watch before he’d even set foot on a high school basketball court.
That’s when he began hearing from his biological father, former Phoenix prep star Damion Gosa.
And while many of his peers’ toughest decisions were what to wear to the school dance or how they’d spend their allowance money, Bejarano made a choice that no 14-year old kid should have to make: telling his father he didn’t want him in his life.
“I just told him that I didn’t want him around,” Bejarano said.
But even as he began a stellar career at North High School in Phoenix punctuated by the first of his four Phoenix Metro Region Player of the Year awards, something was still missing – his dad.
The two started to build a relationship, simply working on just becoming friends. But just as it seemed the two were beginning to connect away from the basketball court, tragedy struck.
During the summer before his senior year, one where he would lead North High School to their second consecutive state championship and be named the 4A-5A Arizona Player of the Year and a Jordan Brand All-American, Bejarano was in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the elite prep basketball summer camps in the United States. Already committed to the University of Texas, Bejarano was on his way to the prestigious NBA Top 100 at the University of Virginia when he received a phone call from his dad while on a layover at Atlanta International Airport. The two spoke briefly and Bejarano promised to return the call when he landed. He didn’t know that would be the last time he would hear his father’s voice.
Skeptical of banks, Gosa had been choosing to keep his money in a safe located inside his apartment, which at the time held more than $10,000. Word spread quickly and led a group of men to jump the back gate surrounding Gosa’s apartment and attempt to rob him. When he refused their order to give up the money, he was killed. It wasn’t until the next morning that Bejarano received a call from his mother telling him the tragic news.
He immediately decommited from Texas and made up his mind that he would stay close to his family and play college basketball in his home state.
An unfulfilled promise
Just one day after letting the Longhorns know of his change of heart, Bejarano welcomed University of Arizona coach Sean Miller into his home. The Wildcats had been recruiting Bejarano since his freshman year of high school and were overjoyed at the chance to sign their first in-state player since 2007. Like many top-flight prospects, Bejarano was promised the chance at immediate playing time and the opportunity to be a star at one of college basketball’s elite programs.
But the pastures weren’t as green as Miller painted them to be when Bejarano arrived on campus, as so many of those prospects eventually find out. After playing a total of 30 minutes in eight games during his freshman year, Bejarano questioned whether he’d made the right decision when he chose the Wildcats.
That question was answered in a meeting with Miller following the team’s NCAA Tournament run that ended with an Elite Eight loss to eventual champion Connecticut.
When Bejarano brought up his concerns about whether Arizona was the right fit, Miller immediately responded by telling him that he was not welcome back to the team and that he would never play basketball at the Division I level.
But Bejarano was not short on college programs inquiring about potentially playing for them after his departure from Arizona. He was ranked as the 75th-best high school basketball player in the country in the class of 2009 by Rivals.com. And for a 19-year-old kid a year removed from losing his father, it was time for a change.
“He (Coach Miller) didn’t play me that much and that was his choice,” Bejarano said. “But I needed a change and I didn’t want to go overseas. There wasn’t any way I was ready to be that far away from everyone.”
The University of Arizona Athletic Department said they wouldn’t comment any further on the situation.
Finding a home away from home
When he re-opened his recruitment, Bejarano didn’t even know Colorado State existed. At the time, CSU was a program that was two years removed from a 9-22 campaign and three years removed from going 0-16 in the Mountain West Conference.
But as Bejarano mulled offers from CSU, Nevada, Montana, and a host of other schools, he decided it was time to grow up and see what life outside the comfort of his home state was like. And after months of convincing by then-CSU assistant coach Niko Medved, Bejarano decided to visit Fort Collins and see what a future at Colorado State might hold.
“I just felt really comfortable when (former head coach) Tim Miles was here and with Niko, too. He recruited me and I just felt at home,” Bejarano said. “Guys like (former teammates) Greg Smith, Dorian (Green), and Wes (Eikmeier) just really made me feel like this is the place I should be.”
And after deliberation with family and close friends, Bejarano committed to Colorado State in May 2011 electing to redshirt the following season to be eligible for the 2012-13 campaign.
But just as it seemed that Bejarano was beginning to find a sense of normalcy, his plans were dealt a big blow when Miles took the head coaching job at the University of Nebraska in March 2012. He began to question his decision to attend CSU, wondering how he would fit in with a new coaching staff.
“To be honest, my mind was all over the place of whether I wanted to stay here or pick up and go somewhere else,” Bejarano said. “I sat down with (athletic director) Jack Graham and the rest of the team. I just knew I didn’t want to sit out another year or have to go overseas at the time — and then came Coach Eustachy.”
It was less than three weeks after learning of Miles’ departure that Bejarano and the rest of his teammates were informed that former Southern Mississippi head coach Larry Eustachy had been hired as their next head coach. And despite carrying his own baggage that included a bout with alcoholism and subsequent dismissal from Iowa State in 2003, there was only one thing his players cared about – he knew how to win.
“The first time I met Coach Eustachy, he was just a great guy,” Bejarano said. “I didn’t know much about his past or anything like that but when I met him, he seemed like he was ready to just come in here and get to it, which is exactly what I wanted to do.”
And get to it is exactly what the Rams did.
Behind the leadership of Eustachy and five senior starters, CSU had arguably the best season in school history, going 26-9 and advancing to the third round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to eventual champion Louisville. Key in that success was Bejarano, who was named the Mountain West Conference Sixth Man of the Year while averaging 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in just over 22 minutes per game. While Bejarano enjoyed the team’s success and camaraderie, he was eager to become “the guy” again, a role he occupied for his entire high school career.
“I’m the type of guy who will do whatever it takes for us to win,” Bejarano said. “That’s just how I play. If I need to be “the guy” for us to win, then I’ll do it, and if not that’s fine too. But this year I feel like I’m able to show a little more of what I can do out there versus coming off the bench last year when I was just doing whatever the team needed.”
Growing up and becoming “the man”
After losing the aforementioned five senior starters, many people wondered where this team would find its offense. Those five players accounted for more than 77 percent of the team’s scoring last season and the only three returning players with meaningful experience at CSU were Bejarano, senior guard Jesse Carr, Jon Octeus, and forward Gerson Santo.
Fast forward to Sept. 30, 2013. The second day of official practice for the Colorado State men’s basketball team and a day that would begin to define the 2013-2014 season for the Rams. During a non-contact drill, Carr re-injured the ACL he tore less than 12 months before leaving yet another hole in an already depleted lineup.
Then just six weeks later, junior guard Dwight Smith was sidelined with a broken hand leaving CSU with just eight healthy players and forcing Bejarano to move from shooting guard back to small forward just two games into the season.
But with Bejarano and Navy transfer JJ Avila at the helm, the Rams battled to a 9-4 record in the non-conference portion of their schedule, even taking then-No. 20 Colorado down to the wire before falling 67-62. But after a brutal opening stretch of conference play including two losses in two weeks to Mountain West powerhouse New Mexico, the Rams limped into Viejas Arena for a nationally-televised game against then-No.5 San Diego State.
Remember how we talked about the great relationship between Eustachy and Bejarano? Well it would be put to the test early on that night.
Less than three minutes into the game, after being benched by Eustachy for freshman David Cohn, Bejarano took exception to something said in the by the coach in the team huddle. The two began a heated argument that led to Bejarano having to be restrained by assistant coach Leonard Perry. During the postgame press conference Eustachy simply stated, “Daniel just needs to grow up.”
While he may not have liked it at the time, Bejarano couldn’t agree more today.
“Everyone’s going to get into arguments and misunderstandings in the heat of game like that,” Bejarano said. “But there’s a lot of love and respect between me and Coach and we understand that we all need each other to get where we want to be. We have a great relationship and I expect that to continue to go on. It happened and we’ve moved on, I paid the price and learned from what happened.”
Bejarano returned to his spot in the starting lineup for the team’s next game against UNLV, where before the game he and Eustachy shared a moment that the coach treasures as one of his favorite parts of coaching.
“He came up before the game and I went to give him a high-five and he said, ‘No, give me a hug. I love you Coach,'” Eustachy said in the postgame press conference. “We’ve got a lot of respect for each other. That right there is the reason I’m in coaching — to see a guy bounce back after something like that. He was just terrific tonight.”
Just as impressive as Bejarano’s maturation off the court has been, so has his performance on it. After averaging 13.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists during the non-conference schedule, Bejarano has been one of the top players in the Mountain West, behind Naismith Award candidates Xavier Thames of San Diego State and Alex Kirk of New Mexico.
Through 16 conference games, Bejarano’s scoring has jumped to 19 points per game while shooting almost four percent better from both the three-point line and the field. Included in those performances have been two near triple-doubles against UNLV (24 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists), and Wyoming (20 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists).
And while wins have been harder to come by this year with the Rams standing at 15-14 overall and 6-10 in the Mountain West, he believes the toughness and tenacity of this team gives them a fighting chance to beat anyone on any given night.
What else would you expect from a team led by Daniel Bejarano?
After all, success was always a part of the plan.
Collegian Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.
The Daniel Bejarano Files:
High School: Phoenix North HS (2006-09)
4-time Phoenix Metro Region Player of the Year
2009-10 “Best of the West” First-Team Selection
All-Arizona Pick in 2009 and 2010
2010 Class 4A-5A Player of the Year
2010 Jordan Brand All-American
Averaged 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.7 as a senior
Played in eight games, starting zero
Averaged 0.8 points on 1-8 shooting for the season
Colorado State (2012-13)
Averaged 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 22.1 minutes per games
Played in all 35 games, starting two.
Named Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year
Colorado State (2013-14)
Averaging 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in 34.2 minutes per game
Has started all 29 games
Named Mountain West Player of the Week on December 30th, 2013.