The moment Wayne Arnold knew he had to get his family out of Compton came when he saw someone get shot and killed right on the doorstep of the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mom and her boyfriend.
Arnold was only in sixth grade at the time, but even as a child, he knew his family needed to be anywhere but there.
“When I saw that, I was like ‘I really got to get my mom in a better place, in a better position,’” Arnold said. “I was like ‘I have to figure something out to get my family out’ … I didn’t know it was basketball yet.”
Arnold didn’t start seriously pursuing basketball until eighth grade, but once he did, it was with the single-minded determination and focus of a child who just wanted their parent to be safe.
He gave up skateboarding because he didn’t want to tweak his ankles or hurt his knees. He started watching Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant to learn his moves and mannerisms, most notably Bryant’s hard-edged and unceasing competitiveness, a trait everyone who knows Arnold cites as one of his greatest strengths.
It’s a trait that helped earn him a full scholarship to Cal State Fullerton and a spot on the men’s basketball team. While Arnold hasn’t played much this season — he’s only averaging 12.8 minutes per game and seems to exist right on the fringes of the normal rotation — the slightly undersized, 6-foot-4-inch freshman, has already made an impression on the Titans because of his dedication.
Titans head coach Dedrique Taylor has been impressed with the way Arnold has come in and put up extra shots in his free time and how he visits Taylor’s office to ask specific questions about the Titans’ defensive schemes.
Arnold has also quickly excited Taylor by not sulking when a coach has to critique him, or when a more experienced teammate is roughing him up in practice.
Taylor described a recent practice in which Titans guard Khalil Ahmad — a senior who made the All-Big West Second Team in 2018 and whom Taylor estimates outweighs Arnold by about 40 pounds — continually scored on Arnold in a scrimmage, leading some of Arnold’s teammates to start telling him to switch.
The problem? Arnold had no desire to do so, and wanted to keep scraping and clawing to try and get the best of Ahmad. Taylor said he doesn’t give Arnold that option in games, but he gives his young guard a little more leeway to keep trying to get better in practice because the way Arnold is fighting has impressed Taylor.
“Most freshmen will kind of maybe sulk, or walk off the floor with their head down,” Taylor said. “But Wayne didn’t back down he just said ‘Hey I got him. I got him.’ That competitive spirit I think gives him a unique advantage.”
That fight goes all the way back to Compton and Arnold’s early days of playing on an Amateur Athletic Union team with now-Titans teammate Austen Awosika, under coach Jonathan Davis, who would also coach Arnold at Dominguez High School.
Awosika and Davis got one of their first glimpses of Arnold’s fearlessness and drive during a tournament in Las Vegas. Awosika was a junior at the time and Arnold was a freshman playing in an upper age division. Awosika said Arnold was probably the skinniest kid in the entire game as well.
But Arnold didn’t act like it, fearlessly driving to the basket in the closing minutes of one of their games and catching everyone in the gym by surprise when he dunked on a 6-foot-8-inch opposing center, who was significantly wider than the then-freshman guard.
“He just dunked on him real bad. It was bad, man,” Davis said.
Arnold remembers the moment well.
“I screamed in his face and he just looked down at me and laughed,” Arnold said.
The big man couldn’t help but crack up at the confidence of the skinny kid who just dunked on him, but was any part of Arnold worried that he might be about to start a fight he couldn’t finish?
“Nah, my teammates had my back,” Arnold said.
They aren’t the only ones. Davis has had Arnold’s back from the day he started coaching him, taking him out to eat, dispensing life advice and even playing video games with the player who would ultimately help improve his high school team’s record every year he was on the roster.
Davis would spend an abundance of time around Arnold because Arnold’s mom was always working to support him and his little sister. Arnold knows his father, but he lives in Riverside, meaning he wasn’t always able to be around him.
Davis said he has been close to a lot of his players, but the connection he built with Arnold is special, extending far beyond the court and is obvious to everyone around them.
“My assistant coaches used to call Wayne my son,” Davis said.
Davis acted the part, driving Arnold not just on unofficial recruiting visits to schools like the University of California, Berkeley, but also taking Arnold to and from practice, sometimes as often as four days a week.
During these rides, sometimes they would see police tape in front of houses in Compton, signaling more shootings or other crimes, and giving Davis a chance to remind Arnold that basketball could be his family’s way out.
“I used to always tell him ‘Man, you have an opportunity to be able to get your parents out of this area,’” Davis said.
So far, Arnold has at least gotten himself out of there, but he still has the same goal. He hasn’t picked a major yet, and doesn’t know what he wants to do if it’s not professional basketball.
He’s had the same plan since he was in middle school, and it’s worked so well that he has no reason to change it now. The time for backup plans is later for maybe the most confident and driven player to ever step foot in Fullerton.
“I want to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball,” Arnold said. “I’m gonna see wherever it takes me, but my goal is to make it to the NBA for sure. That’s where I want to be.”