GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — The basketball court once provided a shelter for Northern Colorado senior Devon Beitzel, a place to escape a crumbling home life that included a mother battling drug addictions and a father in constant legal trouble.
Now, the court has become his forum to shine, a canvas to display a deft shooting touch that has led some to refer to him as “Jimmer Junior,” a respectful nod to BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer.
Like Fredette, Beitzel’s hardly bashful about hoisting up shots, averaging 21.4 points this season for the Bears (21-10), who earned their first NCAA tournament appearance as a No. 15 seed and will face second-seeded San Diego State on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.
Hardly as heralded as Fredette, Beitzel is coming off a season in which he was the Big Sky’s regular season and tournament MVP.
To look at him is to wonder: How can this diminutive guard take command of a game?
Beitzel looks more like the auditor he’s set to become for Ernst & Young after graduation and less like the scoring sensation who can hit shots from all over the floor.
Generously listed at 6-foot-1, Beitzel has a quick release, something he’s spent hours sharpening in the gym, which has always been his sanctuary, a site to solve life’s complexities.
From an early age, Beitzel turned to basketball in times of turmoil.
When things got too difficult at home in Lafayette, Colo. — about a 50-minute jaunt from the Northern Colorado campus — he’d grab his ball and head to the nearest hoop, shooting jumpers to clear his mind.
“A way to release stress,” Beitzel explained.
At 14, he arrived at a crossroads.
His mother was wrestling with drug and alcohol problems along with financial woes. His father, in and out of prison for mostly small drug-related crimes, was planning a move to the mountains.
Beitzel didn’t want to leave his friends.
So, he moved out.
Not exactly sure where he was going to live, Beitzel broached the subject with the mother of his best friend, Tyler Louth, while sitting at their kitchen counter.
The boys were on their way to a movie when Beitzel hesitated, glanced up and asked Joan Louth if he could come live with her family.
“I was expecting him to ask if I could pick them up at 11 from the movies,” Joan Louth said. “Live with me? I just said, ‘Yeah, we can make it work.’ I can’t imagine being 14 and asking that.
“But it’s biggest compliment to me in the world.”
Just like that, Beitzel had a more stable environment. He could concentrate on hoops and homework, without any other distractions.
Beitzel was a two-time team captain at Centaurus High School and an all-Colorado selection. But he hardly received any looks outside of Dartmouth and Princeton, along with a few Division II offers.
He was too small, he wasn’t quick enough.
And then coach Tad Boyle came calling as he set out to transition the Bears into the Division I ranks. Boyle, who would leave for the University of Colorado before the 2010-11 season, overlooked Beitzel’s height and saw glimpses of the shooter he could become if he put in the work.
“What makes Devon special is what’s on the inside,” Boyle said. “He wanted to be great, so he worked on the things he needed to work on to become a great college player.”
However, Beitzel’s inaugural year with the Bears was quite a reality check.
“I got destroyed,” smirked Beitzel, who redshirted that first season. “I wasn’t ready to play physically with these guys. But coach stuck with me, worked with me before and after practice, to try to develop my skills.”
He began to blossom his junior season, averaging 14.3 points. But he broke his foot that February, missing the rest of the 2009-10 season in which the Bears turned in a 25-8 record.
Still, Beitzel, much like the Bears, was beginning to arrive on the scene.
With assistant B.J. Hill taking over the program last April, the transition from one head coach to the next has been smooth.
Since an early funk, the Bears picked up steam, winning their first regular season title in two decades and then earning a spot in the NCAA tournament with Beitzel guiding the way. He scored 27 points during a 65-60 win over Montana in the conference tournament finals.
“He just wanted an opportunity here and he’s made the absolute most of it,” Hill said.
On his biography page for the team’s website, Beitzel lists both of his moms — Michellene Lenz and Louth — for their roles in his life.
And for senior night, both escorted him onto the floor.
“I was out of my skin that night, so proud of him,” said Lenz, whose other son, Dustin, is in the Navy aboard the USS Enterprise. “It’s phenomenal how they (her sons) can take a hold of all the ugly circumstances; they can change it, rise above it and fulfill their dreams.”
She’s just grateful for a second chance.
“That’s all I ever wanted — a future with them,” Lenz said.
Lenz attended as many Northern Colorado games as she could this season and has booked a flight to Tucson for the tournament.
So has Joan Louth and her clan, which includes her three sons and another boy she brought in to help raise as well.
“We’re all part of Devon’s family. We all care about him and love him,” Louth said.
Beitzel also remains in contact with his father, whom he said is currently in prison for a parole violation.
“My dad knows how I’m doing. He checks the paper whenever he can to stay up to date,” said Beitzel, an academic All-American who will go to work for Ernst & Young this summer if his hoops career closes. “I’ll hear from him soon.”
Snaking along his right arm, Beitzel has a tattoo that’s a show of respect for both families.
On one side is a dragon, representing his birth parents and how they taught him to be “strong and courageous.”
The other half features a Phoenix, a tribute to the Louths for “giving me a second chance to really be a kid.”
“You can always make something out of a bad situation,” Beitzel said. “You can’t let what’s happened in the past dictate what happens in the future.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)