Nineteen-year-olds partying with NBA stars like Lonzo Ball during NBA All-Star Weekend might be tempted to feel like they’ve already made it. Dancing in the background of a music video as one of their best friends raps on stage might be enough to leave them feeling satisfied.
But not Austen Awosika of Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball. Most nights Awosika isn’t found on Instagram stories with his childhood-friend-turned-megawatt-Lakers star. Instead, he’s is in the gym, sweating and trash talking with three other Titans who joined the team at the same time he did.
Late at night in Titan Gym, teammates Awosika, Dwight Ramos, Davon Clare and reigning Big West Freshman of the Year Jackson Rowe, engage in spirited games of two-on-two that both sides claim they win almost every time.
Awosika said he and Clare “destroy” Ramos and Rowe, while Ramos claims that his friend is just “mad” because he and Clare “lose every time.” The one thing the two sides can agree on is that Awosika is a relentless trash-talker on and off the floor, telling anyone who makes a shot while he’s in their airspace that they’re “lucky.”
That trash talk is just one piece of evidence of the competitiveness that drives Awosika to not be satisfied as a mere backup dancer. He might be averaging just 7.6 points and 2.7 assists for the Titans this season, but he wants to be a star.
“He wants to be Big West Conference Player of the Year,” Ramos, one of Awosika’s best friend’s said of his future goals. “I know he wants to play in the NBA.”
The drive started from the moment Awoksika’s mother, Darlene, put the ball in his hands at the park around age four in an effort to give the hyperactive child something to expend his energy on.
But by the time he reached middle school, basketball had become more than an outlet for Austen, who had started to work with the man who would become his personal trainer, mentor, confidant and everything in-between: Marquis Washington, from his middle school in Long Beach.
Washington told Austen early on that basketball could take him anywhere, from a Division I school to overseas to play professionally, or even the NBA. There was just one caveat: Austen would have to work, and not only in their practices with his travel team. He’d have to sign up for extra, grueling, two-hour-a-day sessions of private practice with Washington after school before going just as hard at team practices two days a week.
“He said that he was going to do everything it took and from that day forward we started working out four to five times a week,” Washington said.
Right after school, Austen would hop into Washington’s car and head to a local gym, where they would spend two hours working up a sweat as Austen tirelessly practiced his ballhandling, shooting, floaters and conditioning.
Some days that was all they would do, but on Wednesdays and Fridays they would head to Subway or Wendy’s — because they were the closest dining options to the gym, Washington said — after which they would head back to the gym for practice with the travel team Washington also coached Awosika in, running another two hours.
During those quick meal breaks from their marathon practice sessions, Washington and his pupil would chow down on cheap fast food while talking about their goals for Austen’s future.
“It was mainly basketball conversations but he always related it back to life: never giving up, always go hard. Those things made me who I am today,” Austen said.
But Austen’s relationship with Washington wasn’t always happy-go-lucky. Washington would coach him as hard as he coached any player, something he continues to do in postgame rap sessions over the phone or by text.
Once, when Austen was in high school, Washington didn’t think he was playing hard enough. The coach didn’t hold back on his most dedicated student.
“I looked in his eyes and I told him that he didn’t really love the game anymore,” Washington said. “He was content. I told him he should go home and not play basketball until he felt like he had his passion back. I yelled across the gym and told his mom she should just take him home because he’s not here mentally and until he can find his hunger again, he shouldn’t even play basketball.”
But rather than wilting, Austen fought back. The week after he called Austen out, Washington found him at a local 24 Hour Fitness in Chino Hills (where Austen moved for high school) lifting weights and getting shots up on his own, in an effort to prove to his coach and mentor that he was worth all of the time they were investing and that he would do everything in his power to reach his full potential.
It turned out Austen didn’t mind being coached hard, because he comes from a competitive and hardworking family that starts with his mother. She would drive him 30 to 40 minutes every day from Carson to Long Beach to go to middle school and be coached by Washington.
Austen remembers the plans his mom canceled so she could chauffeur him around to his games and watch him play. She decided to move them to Chino Hills so he wouldn’t have to go to high school in Carson, which Austen described as not a bad town or good town, but somewhere in-between.
Darlene’s sacrifices meant enough to Austen that he specifically asked that her impact on his journey be included in his story because he knows he couldn’t have made it this far without her.
“Honestly (she) makes me look at women differently,” Austen said. “I owe her everything.”
Darlene’s reward for all the travel and canceled plans was getting to watch her son play. It takes “something serious” for her to miss a game, Austen said, and the rest of the time, she’s usually a quiet observer. That is, until someone talks about her son.
Once, when Austen was in high school, an opposing guard was complaining incessantly about Austen fouling him, leading the father of the player to shout at referees to kick Austen out of the game.
It wasn’t long before Darlene responded, snapping back at the father, “Tell your son to stop being so soft!”
Trash talk runs in the family, with Austen’s teammates describing him as a trash-talker both on the floor, where he tells his opponents much worse than they got “lucky,” and off, where he argues nonstop with Clare, Rowe and Ramos over whether LeBron James (his personal favorite player and choice as the greatest player of all time) is better than Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, pulling up stats on his phone to drive his point home.
Austen’s teammates are just sparring partners, however. They are practice for the Big West guards he loves to try to get in the heads of. He’s never more satisfied than when those opponents finally crack.
“Going forward I have an edge over him,” Austen said. “Either they hesitate and they don’t look to do anything anymore, or they try to do too much and they disrupt the flow of their offense.”
And while the relentless trash-talker hesitated before identifying the names of players he had made crack before, Austen did laugh and offer to name their schools, until he was advised not to do so by an Athletics Department official. Anyone curious can just watch him play and see him try to get in the head of every player in his path.
Austen’s teammates say all the trash talking, bickering and dry humor belies one of the nicest people they’ve ever met.
“People think he’s mean, but he’s always joking around,” Ramos said. “Something new happens everyday with us. If I’m by him, I got to have Snapchat ready just in case he does something I have to catch him real quick.”
— Dwight Ramos (@3wight) May 8, 2017
But Austen’s humor turns off when it’s time to work. After a rough 1-6 showing in which he scored 2 points and posted 3 rebounds, 1 assist and two turnovers in the Titans’ season-opening loss to the USC, Austen was subsequently benched, a reminder that he’d have to scrap for whatever minutes he’d get.
“It really gave me the wake-up call that I needed,” Austen said. “It just made me work harder and want to prove to myself and to my coaches that I deserved the job.”
During Austen’s time coming off of the bench, Washington stayed in his ear, telling him it was because he wasn’t good enough to be a starter, that he’d gotten away from the habits and work ethic that got him to CSUF, pushing his pupil to be better just like he had since middle school.
Eventually Austen fought his way back into the starting lineup, since which the Titans are 6-4, but Washington kept pushing him to be better over the next few weeks, to do whatever it took to help his team win.
“I told him that he doesn’t play defense, that he is one of the worst defenders on the team,” Washington said. “If you actually played defense then the coaches would respect your defense more and you could go out there and guard the other team’s player, but right now you’re terrible at defense.”
Austen responded with a career-high 6 steals in the next game, after which he texted Washington, “’Well, I guess I can play defense.”
From playing defense to emphasizing things like rebounding, setting up his teammates or swiping steals, Austen is focused on impacting areas of the floor outside of scoring, a focus Washington pushed him toward from a young age.
“I’ve always tried to tell him that when it comes to basketball, everybody is scoring,” Washington said. “Throw the ball at the rim enough times and it’ll go in, but what can you do when the ball is not going into the basket?”
Austen hopes he can continue his basketball journey by proving himself as an asset outside of scoring. From getting asked to tryout for the Nigerian national team due to his father being of Nigerian descent (an opportunity he turned down because of summer school commitments at CSUF) to getting recruited to play for the Titans, Austen looks like he could have a shot in making it to the next level of basketball.
He certainly hopes so, given that he doesn’t have a backup plan just yet.
“I know that I need to have a plan B, which I’ll figure out soon, but 100 percent of me is in basketball,” Austen said
For now, summer workouts against Ball — who he became close friends with after playing against in high school — give Austen the confidence that he can follow his dreams, that he can be more than a backup dancer or side character and that he can grind his way to the league no matter how far off that seems.
“Being in the gym with Zo and playing against him a lot I know where to measure myself at. I think I definitely have a chance,” Austen said.