It’s 7 a.m. and inside a black and darkly tinted used Mercedes Benz is a 22 year old man. His seat is stretched all the way back. The car is bumping to the rhythm of 90s hip-hop and inside the smell has an herb-like odor. It’s left over from the smoke of the past.
“I look to my future because my past is behind me” Tupac Shakur preaches in his song Only God Can Judge Me that plays in the car. With one hit of the gas pedal the drive begins down the 118 freeway towards Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. It is a small journey compared to long and arduous one taken from Cal State Northridge student Julius Arnold.
At five-foot-seven, he is the left-handed little man. His entire world is wrapped up into an orange ball. His goal and dream is to walk-on to to CSUN’s men’s basketball team
“It’s been tough just trying to get here,” Arnold said. “Just waiting for an opportunity and a chance to show the world that I can be something. All my life I’ve been told my dreams are too big and that I should just give up. And sometimes that’s all I wanted to do, was to quit.”
Arnold grew up in Inglewood. A city that was the capital of the Lakers Showtime era and provided the back drop for some of the area’s greatest athletes that include Paul Pierce and Lisa Leslie.
But the surrounding neighborhood was violent. Gangs and drugs were prevalent, but a love for family and basketball kept Arnold off the streets.
“I remember growing up it was rough,” Arnold said staring down at his arm that is laced with tattoos. “Gangs everywhere but my mom always watched out for me and my battleground was the playground. Playing basketball was an escape and it was how I grew up. Basketball was just a way of life.”
Arnold was already at a disadvantage because of his height. He didn’t have extreme leaping ability and didn’t play on any major club teams. What he’s always had was a quirky handle, blurring speed and a shot that is nearly impossible to cool down once it gets going.
Despite having these skills that helped him thrive on the playground, none of it was good enough to make his high school team at Fairfax. Three times he tried and three times he failed.
“It killed me,” said Arnold whose quiet and soft demeanor turned into tears streaming down his face. “I know that I was good enough and I knew what I was capable of. I don’t know what it was.
“Was it my attitude? Was it that I didn’t know certain things. Whenever I would take some of these guys one-on-one I would win. But I wasn’t big and I wasn’t what the coaches there were looking for.”
After three seasons of disappointment, Arnold’s chance finally came his senior year when he left Inglewood and moved to Mobile, Alabama. He enrolled in the state’s powerhouse Faith Academy and met coach John Price in 2014.
“He was just a great kid and I wanted him in my program immediately,” said Price who is now head coach at St. Joseph’s Christian school in Missouri. “He came in at a time where it was hard for him to master our system. He couldn’t play a lot but he had a tremendous attitude and work ethic. He never complained and everyone loved him around the school. Whenever we were winning big late and games, the crowd would chant for Julius’s name. If he knocked down a three-pointer the whole place would go crazy. He was just great to have as part of the program.”
Even as Arnold saw limited minutes, he became the cog that was crucial in his Faith Academy’s success. That season the team went 34-2 and reached the Alabama State Division 5-A state semifinals.
Even with his supporting role, Arnold was seen as a key part because of his tenaciousness and aggressiveness on defense and rebounding in practice. He had become the glue guy. The practices were harder than the games.
As a result, the team had become the toast of South Alabama. Faith Academy went 13-0 at home and won 24 consecutive games. Price gave Arnold credit for being a small piece that stirred the allure of Mobile’s love affair with basketball that season.
“He always believed in himself even when he was buried at the bottom of the bench,” Price said. “He always believed there was something out there for him. Usually when you have a player in his position, their attitude goes south but not him. He was always a team guy and good of a kid as I have ever coached.”
After his senior season, Arnold moved back to Los Angeles. He would enroll at CSUN as a Kinesiology major and for the next three years would work in various jobs from sweeping floors at Wal-Mart to bagging groceries at Ralph’s.
The work of basketball never stopped. He would spend late nights going to parks and various open gyms in an effort to perfect his craft. He tried out for Cal State Northridge’s team once and seemed to earn the good graces of then coach Reggie Theus.
But instead of being offered a jersey, he was offered a polo.
“He said that I should come onto the team as a manager and maybe I would get a chance to play,” Arnold said. “But I knew my self-worth. It wasn’t that I was trying to be cocky, but I knew that I was bigger than just a manager. I didn’t feel it was right path for me to take. I’m a hooper.”
Life took a turn for the worst when Julius’s grandfather Rommie Arnold passed away in January. Rommie had looked after Julius during his youth and was seen as a role model.
Rommie’s death caused Julius to drive down a dark state of depression. He started to struggle in his classes and nearly lost his financial aid as a result. It was basketball that kept Julius from completely crumbling apart.
“Life was terrible because not only did I lose my grandfather, I lost my best friend,” Arnold said with his eyes closed. “I think back on all of his sayings and how when everyone in my circle that seemingly turned its back on me, he was still there. He kept me guided and it is why I ultimately chose to continue the path that I’m on.”
Arnold’s loss became his fuel. From 7 p.m. until close, the CSUN Student Recreation Center became his home. On a nightly basis, he was blowing past and scoring on everybody who dared challenge him. No matter what skill level: beginner, high school level or junior college; nothing was stopping him from scoring.
His fortunes finally changed in March. Arnold had earned his financial aid after filling an appeals letter and then Theus was fired after winning just six games.
The sky was finally clear. A new coach who could maybe see his potential and his workouts began to progress.
He changed his diet and stopped his use of medical marijuana. Arnold’s changed lifestyle led him to his drive into Thousand Oaks. Through various contacts, Julius was able to convince trainers at the facility to improve his conditioning.
It was a grueling experience for Julius who was being worked as a Division I athlete. For five hours per day, three days a week; he would work on improving his footwork, his core and quickening the release of his shot.
He was continuously invigorated at the prospect of playing college basketball. Across from him and playing in closed off courts was Sacramento Kings guards De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.
“It was a place I could never have seen myself even being in,” Arnold said. “Playing and working in the same facilities as NBA players? Are you kidding me? It’s amazing how god works.”
Julius in his first few weeks looked a man well beyond his years. He threw up at times after strengthening his upper body and would struggle during the agility drills.
As time progressed the turns became sharper. The pain became less and his body went from lanky and unsettled to more toned and settled. Julius could absorb more connect and his shot was going off quicker.
The biggest news came when CSUN decided to hire former Dallas Mavericks scout and UCLA assistant Mark Gottfried. The hiring happened just over a week after Theus was fired.
Gottfried has a proven track record of winning, having been on the last coaching staff to win an NCAA title for UCLA and then achieving AP No. 1 rankings at both Alabama and North Carolina State. He reached the Sweet 16 twice at NC State and the Elite 8 at Alabama
The world became smaller for Arnold. Gottfried, like Arnold played his high school basketball in Mobile. Faith Academy assistant coach Solomon Davis who coached Arnold was a former player of Gottfried’s at Alabama.
Davis was a walk-on but Gottfried gave him a chance. Despite the odds, he thinks Arnold will get his opportunity as well. It was Davis who spotted Arnold and convinced the kid from California to give Faith Academy a shot.
“I met Julius who was playing at a local church league in Mobile,” Davis said. “I remember seeing this guy and I thought he could really help the team. He could dribble it, shoot it and he was a fighter. I knew his goal was to play so we put him in an environment where he could be challenged.”
As luck would have it, Davis’s best friend is CSUN’s lead assistant Mo Williams who just retired after playing 15 seasons in the NBA.
Davis thinks Williams will see Arnold’s competitive edge that could help drive the Matadors success from within this season.
“Mo is going to see Julius and his fighting spirit,” Davis said. “The reason why our team was so successful was because of our philosophy of competition. Trying to win every sprint and block out on rebounds. If you compete in the small things, then you develop in games. He’s going to be the type of player that makes other players around him better and those are the kind of players Gottfried wants in his program.”
Since his workouts in Thousand Oaks, Arnold have been growing his game with the help of former CSUN guard Aaron Parks. Parks averaged 9.9 points during his college career at last season played professionally overseas in Iceland.
Arnold has been under Parks’s wing since August and will begin his tryout with the team tomorrow.
“He’s a very hard-nosed guy who likes to get in the gym,” Parks said. “I like guys who want to reach out for help and he wanted that help to get better. He’s great and everything about his shot, his handle and his conditioning have improved. The biggest change I’ve seen has been his mindset. The game of basketball is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Working on that mental part and helping him grow his overall game.”
Arnold’s chance of making CSUN’s team is still a major long shot. For one, CSUN’s best player and returner is Big West Freshman of the Year Terrell Gomez. Gomez, like Arnold, is five-foot-seven and has more experience. Can the Matadors afford to have another small guard on its roster? Maybe. Maybe not.
Arnold will also be competing with the dozens of other hopefuls that are going after the one possible open roster spot on Gottfried’s team.
Walk-ons have had success under Gottfried. Former walk-on Antoine Pettway made the team and started at point guard every game in the 2003-04 season and led Alabama to an improbable run to the Elite 8.
Now Arnold is hoping to provide that same type of magic, but he has to make the team first. He showed a glimpse of what he could do on the court.
Arnold was making shots in crucial situations. Even when his shot wasn’t falling during the various three-on-three sessions, his defense was stout. When faced with being matched up with former all-city player Julian Richardson who held a seven inch advantage, Richardson was mostly quiet.
His game was far from perfect, but Arnold left the Matadome on Monday night by showing coaches he could play. CSUN could ultimately cut Arnold, but not because of his performance.
“Regardless of what happens I’m going to continue to play ball,” Arnold said. “If I make this team I want to be a winner. I want to bring a winning mentality and I want to be a leader. I want to see us win. If I don’t make the team, I’m just going to continue on to the next squad and bring my mentality along with it.”
Considering all the obstacles Arnold has faced along the way, his one in a lifetime opportunity has come. Whether he makes or misses on his shot is all in his and the coaches hands.
“I’m glad he has kept fighting and kept pushing,” Price said. “He needs to keep fighting and see this thing all the way through. The thing Julius will need to do is if he gets this opportunity, he is going to have to continue to scratch and claw. Gottfried does not take the walk-on position lightly. Julius will have to earn his keep.”
Written by Ethan Hanson