Roads less traveled: Derek King’s path to success is far from ordinary

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Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

D
erek King only had two weeks’ worth of clothes packed with him.

What he believed to be a two-week trip to help his mother move into her new home in Palo Alto became the start of a new life. King was uprooted from his home, landing in a foreign country half a world away.

Before the biggest shock of his life, King was a 14-year-old kid living alone without his family in one of the largest cities in the largest continent on Earth.

After this earth-shattering move, however drastic it may have been at the time, King began to place the first brick in a long and winding road that would lead him to a destination that few, including King himself, thought he would reach.

I
n his freshman season of high school basketball at SMIC Private School in Shanghai, China, King quickly established himself as a star, being named both team MVP and First Team All-Conference.

Life on the court was a breeze for the guard, but life off the court was an entirely different animal.

As a teenager, King lived by himself in a city with a population of approximately 24 million, but he was alone. King lived in the Pudong district, while his father lived about 16 kilometers away in Puxi and his mother worked in India. King had no adult figure to coach him in the game of life, and he had to grow up fast.

“Three of my best friends were seniors, and they took me under their wing. … I learned a lot of street smarts too, knowing how to familiarize myself with my surroundings,” King says. “The lifestyle I was living was definitely not a typical 14-year-old.”

King had an allowance of 300 yuan per week — the equivalent of about 50 American dollars — which would be used for food, transportation and other expenses.

“My dad gave it to me, and he was like, ‘Learn, this is what you have for the week,’” Derek says. “Sometimes, the first day, I’d go to McDonald’s and get a feast and spend 150 yuan in one day. By the time Tuesday, Wednesday rolls along, I’d have no money left.” King says.

The setup was less than ideal, but with a father who frequently took business trips and a mother working in India, it was his reality.

When his mother moved from India to California, she had King visit for “summer vacation.” King, however, had no clue of what lay ahead.

According to King, his mother was not a big fan of the idea of him living in a major city by himself at a laughably young age. Once the two connected in California, she didn’t book King a return flight.

King didn’t have the opportunity to bid his friends farewell because he assumed he would return. Born and raised in China, he was in a new country with no friends, no knowledge of the culture and no experience with the U.S. educational system.

A
s expected, King was far from enthusiastic about his life being completely transported from one side of the world to the other, but he and his mother would smooth things out over time and he would prepare for life in the United States.

King had the benefit of arriving in California the summer before his sophomore year of high school, giving him an opportunity to get a feel for the culture before being thrust into an American public school. Part of getting a feel for the United States was playing basketball for Santa Teresa High School, his new academic home, over the summer.

“Even though I spoke English, it took me a while to fit in,” King says. “I was pretty shy at first, and it took me a while to open up, but I still had basketball.”

But while King may have left China as one of the best young players in Shanghai, he was now an unproven sophomore who had to recultivate his reputation and prove why he was an MVP. Not only would King have to prove himself on the court, he’d have to do it while learning a different brand of basketball.

“(Playing in the United States) was very different,” King says. “As a freshman in Shanghai, I was a pretty dominant player. It was a big adjustment, athleticism-wise — the size of the players and the speed of the game. It took a while for me to get adjusted to the American high school game.”

King’s first two seasons with Santa Teresa, compared to his freshman season with SMIC, saw him take on a reduced role as he would come off the bench.

As a senior, however, King was finally inserted into the starting lineup and given the green light, and that newfound freedom on the court was met with a rise in production. In his last go-round with Santa Teresa, King made the leap and was named a First-Team All-League selection.

K
ing’s spot at the top of the totem pole wouldn’t last long. Upon graduation, it was time to once again start over and prove himself at the collegiate level.

Instead of heading to college straight out of high school, however, King would enroll at La Jolla Prep Basketball Academy, a preparatory school based in San Diego, with the hope of being noticed by a top-tier school.

“Out of high school, I was only getting recruited by Division III schools, and I wanted to do better than that,” King says.

Unfortunately for King, La Jolla was the opposite of what was advertised.

Before the 2012-13 season, La Jolla’s website made several promises, including that players would conduct three workouts per day with access to a basketball gym and that post-grad players would take classes at a local junior college, among others. This was far from the reality.

“It got to the point where we couldn’t afford practice time,” King says. “We’d just show up to games and play. There was no structure.”

For what it’s worth, before King left, La Jolla did accomplish the mission of getting him noticed — he caught the eye of San Diego Christian College, which offered him a partial scholarship.

San Diego Christian’s basketball coach was under the belief that all incoming freshman should redshirt to develop their games. King redshirted, but he had second thoughts about the program and parted ways with the school after the 2013-14 season.

King would return to Northern California to play for Foothill College, a selection made because he had a friend from Santa Teresa who played for the team. Much to the tune of his transition from SMIC to Santa Teresa, King would have to start from scratch and learn along the way.

“I came off the bench my first year at Foothill. It was kinda disappointing because I thought I was going to come in and dominate right away,” King says. “It was Princeton offense, super complicated offense. Very detailed, team-oriented program. It took me a while to get used to it.”

The challenges that came with adapting to the Princeton offense, a scheme that doesn’t allow for an individual contributor to bask in the spotlight, showed up in the stat sheet. In the Owls’ first 23 games of the season, King would score a combined 50 points.

“Going to a junior college, I thought I was going to produce right away.” King says. “Some days, I’d pretty much be depressed, but I told myself to stay the course and stick with it.”

King’s perseverance would be rewarded with a string of stellar performances toward the end of the season, including an 11-point performance against No. 1 Fresno City College in the playoffs.

In the final nine games of the season, King would score a combined 63 points on 50 percent shooting from the field.

“As we progressed into the new year he really started turning the corner and becoming a good collegiate basketball player,” said Foothill head coach Matt Stanley in an email. “There were many times he came off the bench to rescue our team.”

His star performance down the stretch manifested into a starting role the next season, and as his role increased, so did his production.

“I was really confident going into that second season, especially the way I finished off the first season,” King says. “My coach talked to me and told me I’d have a big role next year. After season, in those open gyms and workouts, I was playing pretty well. We had some summer tournaments that I did really well in as well, so I knew I was going to start and have a bigger role.”

As a redshirt sophomore, King became one of the primary offensive weapons for Foothill, averaging 10.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per contest while shooting 37.5 percent from deep.

King would end his time at Foothill with a bang, averaging 16.8 points on 51 percent shooting in his final four games with the Owls. Against Skyline in his third-to-last affair, he would drop a career-high 27 points.

L
ightning didn’t strike a third time when King came to Cal.  The redshirt senior only has two whole minutes of basketball under his belt for the Bears this season, but that doesn’t make the experience any less meaningful.

“I’ve been challenged a lot, mentally and physically,” King says. “I’ve grown a lot as a player and as a person. It’s humbling going from a starting role to barely playing at all. It teaches you a lot about life both on and off the court.”

Not only will he be able to walk away with a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, but he’ll have done so while fighting tooth and nail to be in rare company. Of the 2,059 men to play basketball at the Division I level in the 2016-17 season, only six were Asian.

“Coming from Shanghai, college basketball is like a dream,” King says. “I never really imagined that I’d be at a Power Five school. It’s kinda crazy how things work out.”

King’s journey — from living alone as a teenager to suddenly being thrust into an entirely new country to playing under a corrupt organization, and everything else in between — has led him to the fulfillment of a dream. But for King, it’s far from the final stop on his journey.

And for someone with aspirations his size, he’ll know to pack more than two weeks’ worth of clothing.

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510