Women’s basketball assistant coach moves from Harvard to the hardwood

State Hornet Staff

It is safe to say that Sacramento State women’s basketball assistant coach Derrick Florence more than understands what it means to persevere.

Florence was born and raised by a single mother in Compton, Calif., a city that has made a name for itself as a gang haven, riddled with drug issues and police corruption.

“I’ve literally had a gun pointed at my head by police officers on several different occasions,” Florence said. “I’ve experienced the feeling of my hands on top of a hot police car hood just for standing on the corner of my street.”

Florence’s mother, Virgie Washington, was there to remind him that getting an education was his way of escaping the harsh realities of Compton.

“The price and value of education meant a lot to her,” Florence said. “She tried to instill that in me early on.”

Washington worked as a postal worker for 33 years, taking time off to shuttle Florence to and from school, only to return to work in the evening.

She also introduced her son to basketball, the sport he would eventually pursue a career in.

“My mom took me to a park when I was in elementary school and there were some guys playing. I had a big mouth and thought that I could play,” Florence said. “I got out there and ended up embarrassing myself.”

In eighth grade, his mom sent him to UCLA coaching legend, John Wooden’s basketball camp, where he developed a love for the game.

While Florence possessed exceptional talent on the court during his time at Compton High School, he had difficulty staying healthy due to injuries.

“Two out of the three years I played in high school, I had a broken ankle,” Florence said. “It did not stop me from playing though.”

Florence’s uncle, Forrest Washington, was another key figure in his upbringing Soon, Florence emulated his on-court play after one of basketball’s all-time legends, Michael Jordan.

“The boy could jump out of the gym,” Washington said. “It looked promising for him to go on to the next level.”

Florence’s injuries eventually caught up to him.

“I had already started college and went to the doctor and was told there was something in my X-ray,” Florence said. “I thought it was going to be something simple and I’d be back playing in 4-6 weeks. The doctor said I’d be happy to be walking again.”

Once again, Florence’s mother was there remind him that his education would help overcome another obstacle.

“Thankfully I still had my mom nearby telling me that I had to get my grades up and stay on my books,” Florence said. “So it was never to a point where I didn’t feel good about things for a while because I fell short of my dreams.”

Florence graduated from Morehouse College in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree and two years later, pursued a master’s degree in education policy and management at Harvard University.

“My first year [at Harvard] was incredibly challenging,” Florence said. “Financial aid did not really come through and I didn’t really have a place to live. I couldn’t afford my books, and not having books at Harvard is like driving without wheels.”

In addition to the difficulties on campus, Florence’s mother had suffered a major heart attack, forcing him to return to Compton.

Florence was the primary caretaker for his ill mother while he continued his education at Harvard.

“He didn’t let it derail him,” Washington said. “He went back and did what he had to do.”

In between caring for his mother and Harvard, Florence came across coaching.

A friend from home said that he was coaching the boys basketball team at Frank L. Walton Middle School in Compton and he wanted Florence to join him.

Florence’s success at Walton allowed for him to make the jump to the high school level.

It was at Compton High School where he met longtime friend George Christie, who served as an assistant on Florence’s staff.

“I wanted to get into coaching and went to him about being a coach,” Christie said. “He said he was able to have me and for the first four years it was just him and me. Ever since then we’ve been good friends.”

However, Florence said he was not as keen to the business side of coaching men’s basketball, and made the transition to coaching the women’s side.

Then on April 26, 2004, tragedy struck.

Florence had been living up the street from his mother’s house in Compton, in a home rented by his uncle, when his mom suddenly passed away.

“I stopped in to check on her after basketball practice,” Florence said. “We were fussing about a piece of apple pie because she was supposed to watch what she was eating at the time.”

Florence then heard his mom go into the bathroom and grew concerned when he didn’t see her return after some time. He went to open the door and found her laying on the floor, struggling to breathe.

By the time paramedics arrived, he knew it was already too late.

“She was my best friend,” Florence said. “My mom defied a lot of odds and gave me everything and then some.”

After leading the girls varsity team at Centennial High School in Compton to three league championships, Florence achieved another feat in 2008.

“Graduating from Harvard was a crowning achievement for me,” Florence said. “At first I had doubted myself and how I ended up there, but like my mom taught me, you can do anything you put your mind to.”

After continued success at Centennial and as head coach of the Cal Sparks Team Black, an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) girl’s basketball team, Florence was given an opportunity to coach on a Division I college staff.

Florence’s success had drawn interest from new Sac State women’s basketball head coach Bunky Harkleroad.

“Bunky called me and we had a chance to speak,” Florence said. “I flew up for a formal interview and things felt really good.”

Since joining Sac State this season, Florence has helped the women’s team to its best start in program history.

Satchi Hover can be reached on Twitter @SatchiHover