SAN BERNARDINO - Diablo Valley College coach Steve Coccimiglio's first talk with basketball prospect Brian Goins hardly went as expected. He saw a talented player, but something didn't seem quite right.

"I asked him what freeway overpass he was living under because he was so skinny and just unkempt-looking," Coccimiglio recalled.

It wasn't exactly a freeway overpass near the Pleasant Hill campus in Contra Costa County, but the coach wasn't too far off. Goins had been spending most nights sleeping in the bushes or on a bench along the Bay Area Rapid Transit route. On a good night, he'd sleep on a friend's couch.

He did whatever it took to survive. He peddled drugs, stole money from strangers and shoplifted - all things he is ashamed to admit now. But he didn't see any other choice at the time.

"The only thing I really thought about was making it to the next day alive," he said.

Basketball was his sanctuary. He played in any open gym he could find. It was the only time he didn't worry about where or when his next meal would come from or when he would get to take a shower.

Friends recommended Goins to Coccimiglio. That proved to be the start of a second life.

After two years at Diablo Valley, Goins has moved on to NCAA Division II Cal State San Bernardino.

Goins, now 23, doesn't dwell on his past. The person who knows him best is his roommate Robert McCall, a junior guard who transferred in from Ohlone College, also in Northern California.

Coyotes coach Jeff Oliver has heard only what has come out in Northern California news outlets in the past year.

Goins credited Shadeed Salim, now an assistant coach at Holy Names University in Oakland, for helping develop his game during those days when he had nothing to do but hang out in the gym.

Goins, however, never told Salim about his past.

"He never brought it up," Salim said. "I worked with him every day for a couple of hours and it was probably a year before I knew about his past.

Brian Goins shoots in a game against San Diego State.
Brian Goins shoots in a game against San Diego State. (LaFonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)

"Even then it was only stuff I heard from the other guys."

Goins has dealt with adversity for most of his life. His mother spent 22 years in the Army and now is in Afghanistan, where she has worked as a contractor since leaving the military.

He has lived in five states and three countries. When he was 3, his mother left for a tour of duty, so Goins and his older sister went to stay with a family friend.

His mother returned home to find him gone, along with all of the family's belongings.

Goins was raised by his mother and a stepfather, with whom he never got along. He claims his stepfather was so physically abusive he had to wear long-sleeved shirts to school to hide the bruises.

"No one else would stand up to him but me," Goins said of his stepfather. "It got to the point where whatever he would say I would do the opposite.

"I told him the only thing he could do worse is kill me."

Goins admitted he was a rebellious child, and his mother tried the tough-love approach. He ended up in Juvenile Hall multiple times and spent almost six months at Byron Boys Ranch, a juvenile detention facility in Contra Costa County.

When Goins was 16, his mother decided to move back to Alabama with his stepfather, from whom she's now divorced. His sister and five other step-siblings went too, but Goins opted to stay behind. He could not bear to witness the abuse inflicted on the rest of the family.

"I couldn't just stand around and watch," he said. "I knew I would end up killing him."

Goins stayed with a friend on the condition he get a job, but work never materialized and he eventually dropped out of the continuation school he had been attending.

A year or so later, Goins' biological father heard his son was homeless and asked him to come live with him in Ohio. Goins did, only to find out his father had a serious drug problem.

After six months, Goins returned to California. He was aided by an Ohio AAU coach who purchased him a bus ticket and gave him some pocket change for the trip.

A couple years of uncertainty followed.

"He is very quick and has great control," Coyotes coach  Jeff Oliver says. "He can be running down the court full speed and stop on a dime.
"He is very quick and has great control," Coyotes coach Jeff Oliver says. "He can be running down the court full speed and stop on a dime. He does it better than any player I've ever had." (LaFonzo Carter/ Staff Photographer)
 

It wasn't until May 2010 that Goins, coaxed by his basketball buddies, enrolled in two summer classes at Diablo Valley, the cost covered by the government because he is from a military family.

In the fall Goins made the team, which brought about a whole new set of challenges, most notably academics.

He also was learning to play organized basketball, which isn't the same as an open-gym, free-for-all in which your only goal is to impress your peers.

Despite Goins being unaccustomed to the concept of team basketball, Coccimiglio saw right away he had a player with unusual talent. After 10 games or so, he changed his offense to suit Goins.

There were other struggles. Goins often was late to class or practice. Coccimiglio let his star know he had a responsibility to the team, but the veteran coach found himself walking a fine line between doing what was right for the team and what was right for the player.

"A lot of coaches probably would have run him off," Coccimiglio said. "I was trying to look at the bigger picture. Yes, we were a better team with him. But the best way I could help him was to keep him under my umbrella.

"Because if I ran him off, who knows what would have happened to him?"

Coccimiglio also helped Goins smooth things over with his mother. They're now on good terms and are in touch by text and email, but the 12-hour time difference makes it tough to speak to her personally.

She has never seen him play but has watched DVDs which have been sent to her.

Goins had a job at Sam's Club but it didn't last long. His mother knew he had enough to deal with and took care of his living expenses so he didn't have to work.

For the first time in several years, Goins also had a roof over his head. He shared an apartment with five teammates.

Just as life appeared to be settling down, Goins suffered another blow. He and a friend stopped by a gas station after school and his friend was shot and killed right in front of him.

He arrived for a game later that night, visibly shaken. Goins broke down when he told his coach what had happened. Despite all he had been through, it was the first time he cried.

"That had a profound effect on him," Coccimiglio said. "He realized if he kept hanging around with the people he had been, bad things were going to happen."

Goins is small in stature at 5 foot, 10 inches and 160 pounds, but he packs a punch on the court and averaged 17.8 points and 4.9 assists at Diablo Valley. He followed that up by averaging 18.8 points and earning Big 8 Conference Most Valuable Player honors as a sophomore. He earned first-team All-State honors both seasons.

Coccimiglio said Goins has the talent to play at the Division I level, the only deficiency in his game being the inability to defend a bigger player, but academic shortcomings prevented him from entertaining those offers.

So he signed with NAIA national power Concordia University in Irvine but had a change of heart on a second visit.

"I wanted to be part of a team that had the potential to play for a national championship," he said.

Oliver happened to check in with the player right about the time Goins was questioning his commitment to Concordia. The Coyotes were coming off a second consecutive year in which they didn't make the playoffs and subpar guard play was a major factor.

Coccimiglio was steering his player toward Kentucky Wesleyan, a Division II power, but Goins preferred to stay in state. Once he visited Cal State San Bernardino, he was sold.

"Our timing was good so we got a little lucky," Oliver said. "We had seen him the year before when we were looking at some other players and kept track of him."

Coccimiglio endorsed the move and trusted Oliver and his coaching staff with a player to whom he had grown close.

Goins made an impact right away by scoring 29 points in the first game of the season, a 97-90 loss at Westmont. He is averaging 18.8 points in six games, which leads all players in the California Collegiate Athletic Association. Goins also is second in steals.

Oliver said he has been impressed.

"He is very quick and has great control," Oliver said. "He can be running down the court full speed and stop on a dime. He does it better than any player I've ever had."

The transition on the court has been easy, but it hasn't been as smooth off the court. Oliver and his coaches have to keep daily tabs on their player when it comes to academics and following through with his commitments.

The other problem has been professional scouts and others who have been in Goins' ear, telling him he should go overseas where he can get paid to play.

Coccimiglio has tried to persuade him otherwise.

"He can use the two years of growth, both as far as maturity and physical strength go," Coccimiglio said. "Besides, education lasts a lifetime. Basketball does not."

michelle.gardner@inlandnewspapers.com

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