Flowers Rides the Bench
ZERO: Once a starter, Flowers is now a role player for UCI. Raised by gangsters in Los Angeles, Flowers will be the first in his family to graduate in June.
There are three minutes left in the first half when freshman starting point guard Alex Young bangs legs with a defender from the University of Hawai’i. A concerned UC Irvine bench watches Young hobble down the court on defense, desperate for the next timeout.
A whistle blows, finally. Senior backup Derick Flowers sprints onto the court to replace Young. Flowers, once a rising star in the Big West Conference, gets the opportunity he has been waiting for all season.
On the next possession, Flowers burst up the court with shoulders hunched, tucking his left arm into his body as the right kept up with his frenzied steps. He passed to an open teammate, hop-stepped around the perimeter as the ball entered the low post, swung to the right wing to the top of the key and back to Flowers, where he spotted his toes just behind the blue line and held his right hand eye-level, and kicked his right foot outward for style points until the shot went in.
Flowers backpedalled past half-court to the defensive end. Is Young out for the year? Is this the break he’s been waiting for all season? Flowers’ confidence is back, having made two of his first three attempts for five points. His 26 percent shooting percentage gets a minor bump; last season it hovered around 40 percent, back when there was no second-guessing, no backup to poach time from him and no reason to feel self-conscious. When reserve guard Aaron Wright went down one year ago, Flowers was THE guy, head coach Russell Turner’s guy. Times have changed.
Flowers’ eyes bug out, sliding back and forth every so often to anticipate a screen with his peripherals. White shorts, hanging a few inches below his shins with a tiny cartoon anteater logo atop the kneecap, dance above Flowers’ feet as he follows the ball in a half-squatting position.
With Young in the trainer’s room getting his left leg checked out by the medical staff, time expires to end the first half. This is Flowers’ senior season, and a teammate’s injury could be the difference between playing professional basketball in Europe next year and looking for work with a bachelor’s degree in social ecology. Of course he wants to win a conference championship (they all say they do), but Flowers longs to be the starting point guard if or, as many of his teammates confidently say, “when” they win a championship.
Flowers struggled in the first seven games of the 2012-13 season, while Young played beyond his years. After leading the nation in the first seven games of the season in assists-to-turnovers ratio, a statistic that values point guards who make plays happen without turning the ball over, Young became UCI’s starting point guard, unseating Flowers. With seniority out the window, Young is now averaging 27 minutes per game, compared to Flowers’ 13.
“I’ve adjusted the best I can,” Flowers said. “I’m still playing well and making the most of my minutes. If we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”
At the start of the season, Flowers was a starting point guard for a promising Irvine squad that was predicted to finish in the top three in the Big West Conference for the first time in years. They’re 14-13, currently in fifth place with five regular season games to go, but Flowers hasn’t had nearly as much of an impact as he had hoped. Now, he’s giving freshman point guard Young water breaks, playing leftover minutes for the Anteaters.
Early in the season, Coach Turner raved about his new freshman point guard, Young — his poise, his defensive presence and his ability to lead the Anteaters fresh off a high school diploma.
Gushing over his new recruit, Turner asserted that Flowers, who averaged 7.8 points and 3.2 assists per game as a junior, had competition with Young’s arrival.
“At one point I started a freshman [Aaron Wright], in front of Derick last year,” Turner said. “A lot of guys would have folded up on that, and he didn’t, he just fought and fought and fought. I know he’ll keep doing that. He’s playing with confidence right now and when he’s confident, he’s really good.”
Flowers was playing with confidence in November, as Turner said, prior to the season. But after reading his own quotes, which admired Young and neglected Flowers, Coach Turner made a point of praising Flowers as reassurance.
“I’ve got to be careful what I say about Derick, because he’s sensitive,” Turner later said.
Minuscule playing time is a setback, but it’s nothing compared to what Flowers has dealt with his entire life. Flowers was raised in the Crenshaw District in Los Angeles. He started from nothing, which is why he chose the number zero. In sixth grade, Flowers, the youngest of four children born to Belizean parents, lost his grandfather. His mother flew back to Belize to attend her father’s funeral.
“She was so stubborn. She wasn’t a U.S. citizen,” Flowers said. “She said, ‘Nothing’s going to stop me from burying my father.’ They let her out of the country easily, but when it came time to get back in, she couldn’t come back.”
She wouldn’t see her son through middle school and half of high school. With his father not in the picture, Flowers was left with two high school brothers serving as interim fathers to a 12-year-old.
“We couldn’t come up with rent money so people came and took everything out of our home,” Flowers said.
With money tight, Flowers’ brothers joined the Bloods, moving cocaine and marijuana to support the family. Soon rent was no problem and his brothers arrived with brand new cars. Flowers remembers walking into homes regularly with boys 12 to 18 years old surrounded by stacks of cocaine, $1,000 worth of blow and piles of weed adorned tables.
“These were guys my age,” Flowers said. “It wasn’t for me, and my brothers wouldn’t allow me to join. They always say, ‘If you ever join a gang, we’ll kill you ourselves.’”
Every day after school, Flowers had to carefully walk home through a rival Crip neighborhood in junior high.
Instead of seeking affiliation, Flowers focused his attention on football, where he played running back until converting to basketball at Pacific Hills School. Football was not offered at Pacific Hills. Point guard was fitting for the former tailback, who is often the fastest player on the court and cuts through defenses like a running back rushing between offensive lineman before laying the ball off the glass and in. He became a standout point guard at Pacific Hills, winning two CIF championships and earning all-state honors in basketball. Flowers also ran track in the spring. From time to time when the family was short $200 on rent, he risked everything.
“There were times when a friend would say ‘How much are you short?’ and I’d show up to school with two backpacks,” Flowers said, explaining that he had to sell marijuana at times to pay bills.
Next year, Flowers hopes to play professional basketball in Italy before returning home to the streets of Los Angeles to become a youth probation officer. His mother is back in the United States and is expected to take her U.S. citizenship test in September. She attends games at the Bren Events Center regularly. Flowers’ brothers remain tied to the Bloods.
“No matter when my mom calls me now, it scares me to pick up the phone. I’m always afraid to answer, thinking that one of [my brothers] is dead.
“I’ve lost friends over drug money. I’ve seen so much. I always tell my brothers, ‘Yo, you guys gotta grow up.’ They’re still in it. They’re so deep in it. I really do want them to stop.”
Without their gang affiliation, the family may have split up. Flowers’ brothers did what they could to sacrifice for their youngest brother to live a better life, like a single mother working three jobs.
“I might not agree with what they’re doing, but I know what they’re doing it for,” Flowers said. “They have families now. They think of it as, ‘What else am I going to do?’ They’ve been doing it since they were 13 years old.”
“It wasn’t for me. I took a lot of shit. I’d hear from friends, ‘Yo, you don’t want to roll with us? Fuck you, then!’”
Wearing a Sigma Alpha Epsilon sweatshirt outside of the pub on campus at UC Irvine, Flowers is approached by acquaintance after acquaintance every so often for a quick handshake and a “Wassup, bro?” He doesn’t have to seek shelter or fear for his life in Irvine, one of the nation’s safest cities.
Considering Flowers’ UCI career up to this point, it would be understandable to be bitter on thebench. But just as his Blood brothers sacrificed for him, Flowers is doing what’s best for the team, allowing the more promising athlete in Young to guide a team.
“I want to win. Right now I’m playing three to five minutes a game and that’s my role,” Flowers said. “I like starting, but that’s my role. I would never want Alex to go down [and be injured]. I love the way he plays. Him starting over me, it’s no biggie.”
As Flowers walks into the pub, he greets a fellow student that he just met at the door.
“Are you coming in? All right!” Flowers says as he holds the door open with a signature smile.
Flowers doesn’t purchase a beer. He slides a wooden chair out and sits next to Young and Wright, two players who have started over him in consecutive years.
When things are going right on the hardwood, Flowers is chipper, bouncy, the team’s clown. When his minutes are sporadic, Flowers tends to shrug his shoulders a bit on the bench. At practice in November, Flowers took an errant pass that went to the opposite side of the court during a half-court drill and decided to pick it up and sprint to the basket, with no other teammate giving chase. He elevated, then contorted his body three times, avoiding invisible defenders below the basket, before laying it up and in like a six-year-old boy playing rec basketball with not a care in the world.
“That’s a cute layup, Flo, but what do you say we get back to practicing?” Coach Turner said.
Flowers giggled as he slapped the ball down with a flimsy wrist, a playful form that he’d never use in a game. He then passed the ball back to his coach. Once the ball was back in his hands, he held up a couple of fingers to call out the next play and was back to business, dribbling forcefully and delivering a firm pass to an open teammate.
After defeating Hawai’i, 68-64, Flowers emerged from the locker room in street clothes with the rest of his teammates.
He walked past the media room, where Turner was inside with the door shut, proud of the team’s win, but also doing damage control after playing Flowers for just seven minutes.
“Balancing minutes with this group is a hard gig,” Turner said. “Flo’s numbers don’t look great, but think of the number of games that Flo has changed in our favor over the course of time that we’ve been here. Tonight was another one of those. I mean, he comes in, he gives our guys energy. When he makes a big play, it has a multiplying effect with our team because of Flo’s personality. And I give credit to him, there’s going to be other games when he plays more and does more.”
Against Hawai’i on Jan. 9, Flowers played seven minutes, a season low at the time. Despite Young’s calf injury in the first half, Turner left his freshman in the game for 34 of the game’s 40 minutes — more than any other player on the Anteaters. As a junior, Flowers played 26 minutes per contest and started 24 of the team’s 32 games. Flowers continues to see less playing time while he looks up at a freshman. 13 of the team’s last 17 games have been determined by less than 10 points, meaning that Coach Turner sticks to his starters longer and has a short leash with his bench players.
Averaging just nine minutes of playing time in his last 12 games, Flowers no longer hears his name over the stadium’s sound system while charging from the bench through a bridge of cheerleaders and teammates to chest-bump teammate Wright and howl at the crowd in anticipation for tip-off.
Instead, he’s on the side of that bridge, watching teammates pass by as he claps. He then takes his seat on the sideline, waiting for Turner to walk by when Young passes a ball out of bounds or appears to be tired, to check into the game.
“I’m out there just trying to do what’s best for the team,” he says, tinkering between disappointment from a lack of playing time and relief from the team’s conference victory.
Assistant coach Nick Booker notices Flowers’ body language, approaches, and pats D-Flo on the chest, starting some small talk and dragging him away from the conversation before Flowers could subtly express any more discontent.
With the Big West Tournament approaching, Flowers’ collegiate basketball career is winding down. Throughout his time in Irvine, Flowers hasn’t played on a single winning team, but that could change as the Anteaters are currently one game above .500. He wants to help UCI advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history this season. And after the final buzzer that ends his Anteater career, Flowers is expected to be the first of his family to wear a cap and gown at a college graduation.
“Coach Turner says I have what it takes to play professionally in Europe,” Flowers said.
“I’m the first member of my family to go to college and will be the first to graduate, this June. There’s still work to be done, but staying away from that gang lifestyle is paying off for me.”