To others, the choice may have seemed foolish, but Tony Akins says he couldn't be happier a year after making the biggest decision in his young life.
In 1985, Akins chose to play basketball for Cal State Dominguez Hills--probably one of the smallest colleges interested in him after a stellar career at Pasadena's Muir High School.
Though the Toros suffered through an 8-19 season in Akins' freshman year in 1985, the husky 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward was Dominguez Hills' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.5 points and six rebounds a game. In the second game of the year he set a school record with 35 points, and had 61 points in his first two collegiate games--numbers that would have gotten headlines if he were playing in the Pac-10 or Big East.
But Akins, 19, wasn't playing for a school that would get him the recognition he would have received had he accepted other scholarship offers. And the offers were there. After dominating at Muir, Akins said he "had bags and bags of letters" from college scouts across the country.
But he turned down such Division I schools as USC, San Diego State and Loyola Marymount to play for small Dominguez Hills on the Division II level. And he says the decision was easy.
"Coach (Dave) Yanai was the difference," Akins said. "He came across as the coach who cared for me as a person--not just a basketball player."
Still, some insist that the level of play in Division II basketball is a step down from Division I. It may be, but don't tell Akins.
"You automatically think that in Division II there aren't any players who are good enough to play Division I," Akins said. "But there are just as many Division II players that could play Division I basketball (as those who couldn't)."
Unfortunately for Akins and the Toros, though, there were few Dominguez Hills players last year who were talented enough to make that jump--at least right away. And losing was a tough, new experience for Akins.
First Losing Season
"I've been playing since I was 4 and it was really my first losing season," Akins said. "It was an experience.
"It wasn't like we were getting blown out or anything, though. We were in every game, but there was always one point where we would break down and the other team would take advantage."
Six of their 11 conference losses were by seven points or less, a fact that could be attributed to the team's youth. It also made the losses tougher to deal with, but Akins said he was still enjoying himself.
"I love playing and I hate to lose," Akins said. "I'd be discouraged from it, but I'd never let it get me down."
What got Akins and Yanai down, though, was the forward's defensive performance. "In high school I mostly overpowered guys. Offense has never been a problem," Akins said. "You tend to overlook the other facets of the game when you're a great offensive player. Working to become a complete basketball player is my goal. 'Polishing the diamond,' coach calls it."
Coach Is Impressed
Indeed, Yanai, who keys his coaching to strong fundamentals, says Akins needs to work to become a legitimate star. And the coach said he has been impressed with Akins' performance in the first weeks of practice.
"Defensively he needs to really improve," Yanai said. "We're pleased with his performance after the first days of practice. We're very, very pleased with his performance inside. This is the area that he has to most work on.
"We expect him to do a lot more for us inside with his strength and size."
To do that, Akins said, he is going to have to learn to use his feet to get better position defensively and for rebounding. "It's a matter of not getting posted up," Akins said. "Coach (Yanai) says I should never be satisfied with just being a good defensive player. I should be a great defensive player."
No Problems Academically
Off the court, the transition to college life has been even easier for Akins. "I'm doing well. It's not really harder (than high school). It's just a matter of applying yourself," Akins said. "I was a 3.5 student in high school. Academics is never really a problem."
In fact, Akins is quite creative off the court. He said he has had a series of poems published in American Poetry Society magazine, but he plans to major in marketing research and advertising.
On the court Akins is convinced the Toros can compete in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., where they were 3-11 last season, and even contend for the title.
"We've got everybody coming back. We've definitely got a good shot to win the conference and go far in post-season," Akins said. "The year of experience helped us all as a team. You've got to play together, as a team, to win together."
Coach Also Confident
Yanai is also confident that the upcoming season could be more rewarding for the Toros--and Akins.
"I think we had some young kids who were talented and now they have the experience," Yanai said. "We feel that's a great combination."
Shortly after last season's disappointments ended with the last game, Yanai said he was convinced, by Akins, that the Toros hadn't lost confidence.
"(Akins) said, 'Geez, coach, I wish we had another round to play.' " Yanai recalled. "Most kids would have just wanted a season like that to be over with, but they wanted the season to keep going. That means they really feel like they're improving."