In Compton, a role model coaches a role model

April 6, 2009

By Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times

April 5, 2009

The amazing Grovinya "Sweets" Underwood is on my left, her aunt on my right, her basketball coach in front of me. We're sitting in the library at Centennial High in Compton, talking about the odds against beating the odds.

Underwood lost her mother to breast cancer, her father to a heart attack and a 21-year-old cousin to murder. She was 10 when she moved in with her aunt, Corlotta Adams, who was both loving and demanding. Very demanding.

Sweets can recall only three or four Bs in four years of high school, but she had to answer for them.

"She caused a little fuss," Sweets says of her aunt, looking sideways at her.

"She had to explain it to me," Aunt Corlotta admits without remorse. "I had to know why."

Sweets was originally known as "Sweet Feet," a name given her when she ran middle-distance races for the track team. But then three years ago, coming up on 6 feet tall, she also was recruited to try basketball.

At first, it was painful to watch.

"She was an absolute mess," says Derrick Florence, who coached her at Compton High for two years before they both moved to Centennial.

He's got a look on his face that says he's not exaggerating about her clumsy attempts to do anything remotely graceful on a basketball court. And Sweets isn't disagreeing either.

"I said, 'Forget it, I'm going back to track.' "

But then Aunt Corlotta got some old tapes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird playing hoops, and Sweets did what she's always been good at. She studied for hours on end. And then she rang Coach Florence.

"She would call me at 9:30 at night on weekends and say, 'I wanna work out in the gym.' And I'd say, 'I have a life.' "

But he'd always come through, opening the gym and running her through workouts that often lasted until 1 or 2 in the morning. It wasn't just her athletic potential Florence was developing, but something far more important. He was trying to get Sweets into position to change perceptions about Compton, both inside and outside the city limits.

Florence grew up in Compton himself and worked his way to Harvard. It had to be Harvard, he said -- not just for a great education, but so he could serve as a role model back home.

So after earning an undergrad degree at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he moved up the East Coast to begin working toward a master's in education at Harvard. But he had to put that dream on hold for four years and come back home to take care of his ailing mother. She died of heart failure in 2004, nine months after his father died the same way.

"I made a promise to her that I would finish at Harvard," says Florence, who in the meantime worked as a substitute teacher and part-time coach. Last year, he fulfilled his pledge to his mother, finishing his master's by spending Monday through Wednesday each week in Massachusetts and then rushing home to coach basketball at Centennial. His team was fighting for first place, he explains, and he didn't want to miss out.

"I have been privileged to work with a group of young ladies (each of whom has her own story of adversity and triumph) who have worked tremendously hard not only in the gym, but more importantly in the classroom to challenge and debunk many of the negative images, ideas and stories that have been reported . . . about Compton," Florence wrote in pitching me a story on Sweets.

"The helicopters, the gunshots. . . . It's not a normal way of life," Florence says. "I tell my students to go away and see something else. It meant something to me to show that someone from here could graduate from Harvard."

The mission now, he says, is to find the next generation of role models. When he saw how hard Sweets was willing to work, he knew she'd be one of them.

By the end of her first year on the basketball court, she'd finally stopped tripping over her own feet. By her second year, she was becoming scary good. And this past season, she was unstoppable, averaging 19 points and 12 rebounds a game as Centennial won the league championship and Sweets won the MVP award.

Meanwhile, she's had nothing but A's so far in her senior year, even while serving on the Compton Youth Leadership Council and as her school's student athletic commissioner, student government leadership rep and morning PA announcer.

"We had back-to-school night and she ran the popcorn machine," Florence says.

"When you have an aunt like her," Sweets says, pointing to Aunt Corlotta, "and a mom like mine, someone's always telling you to be your best, to strive."

Her mother suffered greatly while dying of breast cancer, says Sweets, especially toward the end. "She didn't even know who I was, and her face was disfigured. Basically, everything I do, I say, 'Do it for your mother.' That kind of pumps me up."

Sweets got so many letters and scholarship offers from colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools, she long ago lost track of the number. In November, when she signed a letter of intent to accept a full scholarship to UC Santa Barbara, she did so at Compton City Hall, with city and school officials turning it into a party.

Sweets, who wants to be a teacher, is itching to get through the rest of the school year and make her move this summer. She loves Santa Barbara and wants to make a break from Compton -- to see something else, as Coach Florence says. But she didn't want to be so far away that getting home again would be a hassle.

Florence keeps reminding her that if she does well in Santa Barbara, as he knows she will, she'll inspire those behind her and open doors for them too.

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