SAN DIEGO — Coming home to play his senior season at San Diego State sounded soothing to Shawn Bell.
He had seen enough of the country in 3 barnstorming seasons at Chicago State. It was time to return to the city and neighborhood he left at age 17, only a few months removed from his playing days at Morse High School.
"I felt real good about it--to be back where I was born and raised," Bell said. "I had this idea about going back to see old friends, relive old times."
Bell cherished those times the most. But as he soon learned, home was different now. It had changed; he had changed. Those simple times were lost.
He has found some old friends down and out. He has discovered others deep into drugs.
"The drugs are what really shocked me," Bell said. "I left at age 17, that age when you're just coming out of high school, and you and your friends are real close. But I was gone for 3 years and lost touch. To come back and see a lot of my friends using drugs, it really hurt me. It was something that was unreal."
Some of the stories tear at Bell's heart.
"I went by one guy's house from high school and his brother was there," Bell recalled. "He told me, 'Shawn, you need to talk to my brother. He is messing around (with drugs). He's skinny and looking bad.' It really hurt me to hear that. You try to talk to them, but when they are in that condition, it doesn't do much good."
Seeing old friends in trouble has made his return to San Diego a time of reflection for Bell. It has helped him put basketball in perspective.
This was to be a season he devoted to playing basketball, a chance to learn the game's finer points from SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg and play out the final moments of his college career in front of family and friends. But it has become more than that. It has been a time for Bell to better understand where he was raised, the people he knew then and adult life he has begun to build for himself.
Bell is the father of a 7-month-old child named Brandon. Bell lives with his son and Tracy Bonner, the baby's mother and his girlfriend of 3 years. They share an apartment across the street from his mother's house in San Diego.
"Having a child is something that really woke me up," Bell said. "Usually the athlete's existence in high school and college is kind of wild. But being a father has made me realize a lot of responsibilities."
Bell said he and Bonner debated whether she should move from her home in Los Angeles so they could live together in San Diego. After some discussion, they decided to make their home here. Bell said he was influenced by his own experience of growing up in a single-parent home.
"I grew up without a father," Bell said, "and I always told myself that if I ever had a kid, I would do whatever I could to take care of that child."
Now that he has made the decision, Bell said he could not be happier, despite the difficulties in raising an infant while trying to be a full-time student and basketball player.
"After about 2 months, I had to go to my mother and thank her," Bell said. "Now I know what raising a child like me must have been like, because I was a rough kid growing up.
"But to see Brandon grow up, to see him get his first teeth, to come home to him. It's an experience that is hard to describe."
While his domestic duties have added to Bell's responsibilities, they have not prevented him from trying to do his best on the basketball court.
"There is an understanding that this is an important year for me," Bell said.
The early results have him firmly holding the starting spot at small forward. He enters tonight's Western Athletic Conference game at Brigham Young (6:30 PST) among the team leaders in the most important categories. He is second in rebounding (6.2 per game) and third in scoring (10.6 points per game), assists (40) and steals (14).
His ability to step in after sitting out last season under National Collegiate Athletic Assn. transfer rules and make an immediate impact is one reason the Aztecs (8-4, 2-0 in WAC) are off to their best start in 4 seasons.
"When we took Shawn, we thought we would get a very athletic basketball player who could run and jump and rebound," Brandenburg said. "Shawn sees himself more as an offensive player than a rebounder, defensive-type player; we've been working with him to make him more of an all-around player."
Bell, a 6-foot 6-inch senior, said the opportunity to develop his overall skills is one of the main reasons he decided to play for Brandenburg. Bell said he wanted that kind of discipline after 3 seasons at Chicago State.
Bell came to Chicago State when the school first moved up to NCAA Division I play. It was a time of transition in which Chicago State, a new independent, traveled the country looking for games. In Bell's junior season, Chicago State had a schedule of 18 road games and 10 home games, including a nearly month-long, 9-game trip.
"It was fun at first," Bell said. "But the travel got a little tiring in the end."