It was early in the season and the future was bright for Pomona High basketball star Derwin Collins.
The 17-year-old senior, who is known as Tank and has a muscular, 6-5, 215-pound frame to match, was enjoying a December to remember.
Through seven games, Collins was averaging 28.6 points and 17.1 rebounds and tied former Mater Dei High star Tom Lewis' four-game scoring record in the prestigious Tournament of Champions with 122 points.
Collins has not played since.
He was ruled academically ineligible for failing a course last semester and cannot play again for the Red Devils until at least Jan. 30.
It has been a painful lesson for Collins, who was enjoying his best season in three years as a starter and attracting considerable interest from college recruiters.
But Collins, regarded as the top college prospect in the San Gabriel Valley, says his academic problems may have been a blessing in disguise.
He now works harder in the classroom.
"I'm working harder because I didn't do it before," Collins said. "I let Tank the basketball player interfere with Derwin the student. It was a setback, but I realized that I have to study if I want to go to college."
He said that laziness was the root of his academic problems.
"I just got too lazy with my classwork. I was opening the paper every day and seeing my name there and I let it interfere with my schoolwork."
And the flood of attention Collins has received from college recruiters did not make things easier for him. "He was being talked to by a lot of schools, and I think that took away from his study time," said Pomona Coach Willie Allen, who said Collins has been recruited by nearly 100 colleges.
Collins said recruiting pressures did not bother him as much as the pressure of living with his reputation as Tank the basketball star.
"All the attention I was getting was hard to deal with because everywhere I went people knew who I was," he said. "Everywhere I played coaches would have special defenses just to go against me."
Collins still receives calls from recruiters, although they are a little more concerned about his grades. "Most of them are playing a waiting game," he said. "I think it came to everyone as a shock."
The news hit Allen like a bombshell.
"When we learned that he was declared ineligible I was disappointed, because Derwin is a bright kid and he had never been ineligible before," Allen said.
The loss has also dampened the hopes of the team, which has gone from 5-2 with him to 7-7 without him.
"He has a super attitude about the whole thing," Allen said. "We have always been team-oriented here, and he realizes that he has let the team down."
Collins said it has been painful to watch on the sidelines as the team has struggled.
"It's tough not playing because I have to watch my team lose games that I know they wouldn't if I was in there," he said. "They're my buddies and I feel like I let them down by not keeping my grades up."
Collins has also had to find different places to practice since the school does not allow him to practice with the team while he is ineligible. He said he has stayed in form by attending a morning basketball class and also practices at a park near his home.
There is little doubt that Collins is still in top shape and ready to return. The question is whether he will have the grades to return at the end of the month.
Allen says Collins' has a good attitude.
"He's a heady kid," Allen said. "He knows what has happened and he knows what has to happen for him to play again. Some kids don't realize that." The coach said he has seen a noticeable change in Collins' classwork since he was ruled ineligible.
"There's no doubt in looking at his grade checks that he's making progress," Allen said. "He is working a lot more diligently than in the past."
Collins, who has carried a grade-point average higher than 2.0 but was ruled ineligible because of the Pomona Unified School District's no-fail rule, is pleased with his progress in the classroom.
His confidence was boosted last week when he learned that he had scored 680 points--20 points under the minimum for NCAA eligibility--on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Not as high as Collins had hoped, but higher than a lot of people had expected.
"I'm not dumb," Collins said. "I got a 680 on my SAT and I know I can do better. I will take it again April 4 and I'm pushing for a 720."
"With his score in the SAT, I think they (recruiters) are now aware that he has the ability," Allen said. "He just has to buckle down a little more. They (recruiters) have been in contact with him about it."
Allen said he is optimistic that Collins will regain his eligibility this season and reach the minimum standard to be eligible as a freshman in college next season.
But Allen is more concerned about improving Collins' chances for long-term success in college.
"There's no question about his ability to play in college," Allen said. "It's his ability to go to a good academic program and make it that is my main concern.
"My concern is not what he has done in the past but what he must do in the future. He can't just be content to be eligible. He has to try to pick his grades up to a different level."
With his recent academic problems as a firm reminder, Collins said it will not happen again.
"It has been tough on me, but I'll always remember what happened," he said. "I messed up and I'm not going to forget my mistakes. It won't happen again here or in college."