Watching Tyrell Coleman interact with his Bakersfield College teammates at Monday’s basketball practice, there doesn't appear to be any noticeable scars.
His smile flows freely and he speaks with a quiet confidence. But anyone that knows Coleman understands nobody survives a journey like his unscathed.
Coleman's wounds run deep as the result of a troubled childhood, a difficult time that has also helped forge a strength born out of years of overcoming challenges that started early in his life — and continue to this day.
That toughness has also translated on the court, where the 6-foot-3, 215-pound guard leads the Renegades in scoring, averaging 16.6 points per game heading into Friday night’s 4 p.m. game against Santa Barbara as part of the two-day Western State Classic Showcase at the Gil Bishop Sports Center.
“I’m getting things off the court more situated so I can focus more on the court,” said Coleman, who also averages 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game for BC (10-2), which is ranked 30th in the state. “I don’t have to worry as much about the other things I’m going through.
“My story is like a lot of people’s childhood stories. You face those things growing up by yourself, things like that. And you have to deal with it.”
Dealing with it started when Coleman was just 6 years old. His mother left the family, leaving his father to take care of him and four siblings. It was the start of a childhood that was anything but traditional.
Coleman struggled in school, and even more with authority. His family moved in with his grandmother when he was 15, but by then, plenty of damage had been done. At that point, he had been expelled from two schools for fighting, was enrolled in his fifth high school and was headed nowhere fast.
“I was living with my dad,” said Coleman, who made a habit out of sleeping in class, when he wasn’t cutting school. “He was there, but he wasn’t really there, you know? My grandma was doing her best, but she was by herself and trying to do things to make her life better.
“So for me, it was like I was like I was on my own, too, you know? A lot of struggles and violence everywhere. You know you have to keep yourself from those distractions. A lot happens right there, so you can’t be outside at night. There’s negative people everywhere and it becomes part of your life.”
Now living in Central Bakersfield, Coleman enrolled at Bakersfield High for his junior year, and things began to turn around.
“I realized that there’s nothing given to you,” said Coleman, who has three brothers and four sisters. “There was nobody to give me advice when I was young. I had to figure it out for myself.
“I knew nothing was going to be given to me and nothing was planned for me, so I had to set goals for myself and where I want to be in life. The thing I had to do was not do things like sleep in class. I had to change my ways and change my bad habits into good habits. It was tough to turn things around because there was no guidance before I got there. Nobody showed me what to do. When I was sleeping in class, nobody was telling me not to sleep in class. So that was bad for myself and hurt myself with things like that.”
Coleman found a safe haven, and a different kind of family when he decided to tryout for the Bakersfield High basketball team.
“He’s quite a story, he really is,” said Stan Thompson, assistant varsity boys basketball coach. “He had a pretty rough upbringing.
“We have these core values that we teach our kids. And for some reason, he bought it hook, line and sinker. We try to teach them to do the right thing, and to play a certain way, and carry themselves a certain way. He just took it in and I think that’s where his life changed. I also think he found out how much he really loved basketball after that.”
Coleman earned a starting spot on the junior varsity team and helped lead the Drillers to an undefeated Southwest Yosemite League season as a center. He also started taking care of business in the classroom.
“He transferred in and we didn’t really know much about him,” said Greg Burt, Drillers head basketball coach. “He did well on JV and we thought we might see what he could do on varsity as a senior, and he really turned into probably one of the most all-in players we’ve ever coached. He had a great senior year and ended up being the MVP of the Kern High School District All-Star game. He just helped us so much.”
Coleman averaged 7.3 points and 5.8 rebounds a game for the Drillers as a senior. He scored in double figures in 12 games and pulled down 21 rebounds against North in the Lloyd Williams/Kern Schools Federal Credit Union Shootout.
Despite his success on the court, Burt was more impressed with Coleman’s role as a teammate.
“When you give kids a job to do and you can tell how enthusiastic they’ll echo a call from a coach or make sure their teammates are doing the right things,” Burt said. “Tyrell would do those things and was always aware of what was going on on the court even when he was on the bench. He did everything he could to help the team.
“I think with kids, if you take an interest and show that you care, they will reciprocate that. And I think what he really found was a family environment that cared for each other and he really thrived in that environment. And it was just so many new experiences for him.”
Coleman’s experience at BHS also helped remind his coach of a few things.
“We asked our players at one practice ‘what’s the best experience of your life?’ and Tyrell’s response was going to Fresno to play in a summer basketball tournament,” Burt recalled. “I mean, we’re in LA for a tournament and he had never seen the ocean before. Those kind of experiences humble you a little bit and give you a little bit of perspective on where these kids come from. And you hope that through the experiences they get in basketball and getting an education that it takes them a lot further in life than had they not played.”
Coleman’s basketball experience continued the following year when he moved to Ridgecrest to play at Cerro Coso College. But after just nine games, Coleman’s season was cut short when he says his roommates decided to quit the team and left him with nowhere to live.
He stopped going to practice and dropped out of school. He returned to Bakersfield and spent the next two years working, and playing lots of basketball, wherever and whenever he had time.
“He’s one of the many that leave and we get them on the rebound,” BC men’s basketball coach Rich Hughes said. “It’s kind of a curse that we have sometimes, but he’s been a good curse. He’s come back. He was in a bad situation in his first stop, and he was out a few years and we found out about it. A couple of people we talked to were able to get him down here and get him in school. And that was the first step, because then we had to get him eligible.”
After passing several courses last spring and summer, Coleman returned to the court in the fall, and Hughes couldn’t be happier.
“The one thing that was the biggest difference between high school and now is that he matured physically as a man,” Hughes said. “He’s gotten a lot bigger and stronger. The shooting has come. He’s been able to knock down shots to keep people (off balance), but his best attribute is his ability to get in there and score at the rim. Whether it be jump stopping and overpowering someone at the rim or just getting to the rim. And the outside shot just kind of helps open up that drive for him because he’s good at getting to the basket.”
Coleman’s contributions have been all the more important considering two talented guards suffered ACL injuries early in the school year and will have to miss the season.
The Renegades won their first six games of the season, lost two and have since won four straight. All the while, Coleman has been leading the way. He scored a career-high 25 points in a win over Cuesta earlier this year and has scored in double figures in nine of 12 games this season.
“Before the season started we checked the rankings and they put us at 26,” Coleman said. “We hold a grudge. The captains and I try to put that in everyone’s heads. Most of our players came straight out of high school last year, and we try to tell them that nothing is going to be given to us. So we have to go take it. We gotta play hard. We can’t just go lollygag. If you really want something, you have to go take it. Nobody’s going to hand it to you. So when they put us down in the rankings, we’re trying to move up top.”
Coleman’s mentality on the court is a lot like the way he looks at his life.
“It’s a day-by-day thing and I’m trying to teach other people, everybody goes through things, and if you can help somebody, then that takes the stress off of you,” Coleman said. “Never quit. On the court I just hustle. Life-wise, just don’t quit. Keep going. Keep pushing. If I fail, I know what I did, learn from it and keep going.”