In Act One of “The Dreon Barlett Story” – a true-life biopic about the rise of a Sacramento State basketball player through multiple acts of human goodness – we find a teenage boy asleep on the slide at Rosita Park in Santa Ana. He wakes up with the sun, so he won’t be late for his basketball lesson with the mystery coach whose name he never knew.
The coach drives up to the adjacent Salgado Center, and they go to work. The coach drills Dreon on skills and shows him tricks, like how to come off a screen. When they’re done, the coach feeds Dreon breakfast, then drives him to the beach, where he makes him run in the sand. The coach feeds Dreon again and drops him off somewhere, anywhere, nowhere.
Flash back to earlier in the summer of 2010, when Dreon first meets the coach. Dreon is playing a pickup game at a park in Fountain Valley. A tall, older man watching from the sideline tells Dreon he can teach him how to really play the game. They arrange the Salgado sessions.
But Dreon is one of 14 kids; his mom lives in Pasadena and his dad in Garden Grove. Both are struggling to survive. He tells them he’s going to go stay with his best friend, Juan, in Santa Ana, so he can work out with the tall guy he came to know only as “Coach D.” Things don’t work out at Juan’s house, so Dreon sleeps on the slide at Rosita Park.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
I was supposed to go back to my mom’s house, but I really wanted to train with this guy. Coach D promised me, ‘If you train with me, I’ll get you a Division I scholarship.’ So I was going to any friend’s house that I could sleep at, and when I couldn’t do that, I was sleeping at the park, just so I could work out with Coach D.
Dreon Barlett, Sac State senior
“I was supposed to go back to my mom’s house, but I really wanted to train with this guy,” Dreon said this week. “Coach D promised me, ‘If you train with me, I’ll get you a Division I scholarship.’ So I was going to any friend’s house that I could sleep at, and when I couldn’t do that, I was sleeping at the park, just so I could work out with Coach D.”
In the second act, we meet Claudette Brunelli. She is a part-time wealth-management adviser who lives in Huntington Beach. One of her two sons plays basketball on the Cali Rebels, a 16-and-under travel team in Orange County. They notice Dreon is missing games. She makes inquiries. Now it’s the fall of 2010, and she learns Dreon is not enrolled in school. Brunelli discusses Dreon’s situation with her family, and she tells them, “I think we can help this kid out.” Dreon’s mom and dad give the OK, and he moves in.
The Brunellis get to know Dreon as an uncommonly happy, kind and loving kid. His demeanor belies a life not lived in one place more than a year or two. He bounced from Mom to Dad to Victorville to Adelanto to Altadena to inner-city Los Angeles to Garden Grove to Juan’s house to Rosita Park. He’s a good basketball player, but Claudette tells him if he’s going anywhere in this world, his priority has to be books over hoops. She hires tutors. He resists at first, but he discovers he is a terrific student.
“I’d been pretty much on my own since eighth grade, so it’s like the first time I actually had structure in my life,” Dreon said of the experience. “At first it was really difficult to adjust to that. I was really overwhelmed. I was so far behind in school. I did not like it, but I learned to love it, because I realized, ‘Whoa, this is really working.’
“I’d never dreaded school. I’d actually liked going to school, even when I wasn’t doing well. I just wasn’t focused. When I was home, it was loud – babies crying, so much going on, taking care of my younger brothers and sisters, my dad’s gone, so it’s like I didn’t have time for school, really.”
I’d never dreaded school. I’d actually liked going to school, even when I wasn’t doing well. I just wasn’t focused. When I was home, it was loud – babies crying, so much going on, taking care of my younger brothers and sisters, my dad’s gone, so it’s like I didn’t have time for school, really.
Dreon Barlett, Sac State senior
In Act Three, Dreon excels as a junior on the basketball team at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, averaging 14.2 points on a team that goes 26-3. Recruiters from Duquesne, Portland State, UC Irvine and Sacramento State drop by. At least in the case of Sac State, they’re looking at senior Dylan Garrity, who eventually signs with the Hornets. They all notice this lanky kid Dreon can play, too.
But there are problems with grades. In Dreon’s senior season, Sac State coach Brian Katz comes down for another look. Katz sees that if the kid is going to qualify for D-I, he’s going to have to pull a 3.5 GPA his senior year, in tough subjects. It’s a long shot, but Dreon lights it up in the classroom. He hits the 3.5 shot at the buzzer. It’s more impressive than his 22.8 points per game. Katz gives Dreon a scholarship.
At Sac State, Dreon plays off the bench for three years. He improves into a senior starter who averages 26.7 minutes and 8.0 points. He’s an athlete who can shoot, and every day is a joy. His coach describes him as “easily the happiest person I’ve ever been around.” On track to graduate in four years, Dreon plans to apply for graduate school. His goal is to become a community college counselor or clinical psychologist.
“I took a psychology class in high school, and that’s what I’m majoring in now,” he said. “It was, ‘Whoa. This is what I want to do.’ I want to help people like I was helped.”
It’s supposed to say something here about this being the end. For Dreon Barlett’s story, it’s better to say it’s only the beginning.