The Travels and Travails of Laffitte : USIU Is Now Home and a Household Word for Gull Guard
Demetrius Laffitte attended and played basketball at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley for 4 years. During that time, Laffitte had not heard of U.S. International University, an NCAA Division I school just about 25 miles north in San Diego.
It took 2 more years for Laffitte to hear of USIU and another year to discover where it was located.
Now USIU is where Laffitte calls home. At least on the basketball court.
Laffitte, a 6-foot 5-inch junior guard, is third on the team in scoring with 15.4 points and leads the Gulls in rebounding with 10.5 per game. But more importantly, Laffitte is the only USIU player shooting over 50% from the field.
“That’s the funny thing about it,” Laffitte said. “I never heard of USIU until they led the nation in scoring.”
The Gulls will be trying to extend the reputation of their program when they play host to defense-oriented St. Mary’s (10-1) tonight and high-scoring LoyolaMarymount Saturday night--both games at 7:30 at Golden Hall.
USIU has already seen what St. Mary’s can do. The Gulls were routed, 98-67, by the Gaels in Moraga on Dec. 6. In that game, Laffitte led USIU with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. But it wasn’t nearly enough as St. Mary’s rushed to a 21-2 lead and put the game away by halftime with a 55-26 lead.
St. Mary’s has established itself as the favorite to win the West Coast Athletic Conference title and as one of the top teams on the West Coast. A victory would give the Gulls’ program some much-needed attention.
Attention was something it didn’t get back when Laffitte was in high school.
But it’s easy to understand why USIU had escaped Laffitte’s notice. While he was at Monte Vista, USIU had one of the worst Division I basketball programs in the country.
During Laffitte’s final 3 years at Monte Vista, the Gulls were compiling a 6-77 record.
But as Laffitte headed to Cal State Long Beach on a basketball scholarship, the Gulls hired Gary Zarecky, who had built a dominant program at Sweetwater High School in National City.
Zarecky’s first plan was to score as many points as possible to get some recognition for the beleaguered USIU program.
It worked as far as Laffitte was concerned. The Gulls led Division I in scoring Zarecky’s first year (1985-86) with 90.3 points per game. Now, at least, he knew there was a USIU.
While Zarecky was trying to build a program at USIU, Laffitte’s fortunes were going in the opposite direction.
He averaged 16 minutes and 4 points a game as a freshman at Long Beach. But things went downhill from there.
First, he injured his rotator cuff on his left shoulder lifting weights before the start of his sophomore year.
“I didn’t know I tore it until I went to practice and went for a rebound and someone yanked the ball out of my hand,” Laffitte said. “I knew it was sore, but I thought it was just a slight strain. (Anthony Langston) grabbed the ball and my arm. He took everything.”
Laffitte red-shirted his sophomore year while he rehabilitated the injury. By the time the season came to a close, he was healthy but the 49ers were not. The coaches had submitted their resignations effective at the end of the season.
“I made up my mind as soon as they resigned,” Laffitte said. “I just wasn’t advancing up there. I didn’t think I was improving fast enough. I didn’t know where I was going to fit in. I didn’t like that situation so I decided to come home, play at Grossmont and start over again.”
Laffitte also decided that he wanted to stay home to play basketball. But his thoughts still did not include USIU. Instead, Laffitte wanted to play at San Diego State, a school that had given him a glance when he was at Monte Vista.
He averaged 22 points and 12.5 rebounds as a forward to lead Grossmont Community College to the state playoffs. SDSU was interested in Laffitte, who could also play guard, and Laffitte was very interested in the Aztecs.
“I was set,” Laffitte said. “I was going to go (to SDSU). I wanted to go to SDSU. But then Coach Zarecky started recruiting me.”
Laffitte had known Zarecky since he was in junior high school, where they met at summer basketball camps and leagues.
“The word coming out was that he was going to SDSU,” Zarecky said.
Laffitte met Zarecky and he finally found out where USIU was located.
“I knew I was going to play for (SDSU), but I wanted to start,” Laffitte said. “I knew I could start at USIU. The chance to play 30 minutes--and the schedule they had--did it.”
Laffitte was exactly the type of player Zarecky needed for this year’s team--maybe the finest the school has had since becoming NCAA Division I in 1979.
“He is the cog in this year’s team,” Zarecky said.
The Gulls have managed to win despite shooting 38% from the field and are 6-9.
The only player who has been able to put up respectable shooting percentages is Laffitte, who is shooting 50.3% from the field. But Laffitte’s biggest asset has been his rebounding. His 10.5 rebounds is more than double anyone else on the team has. Last season’s leading rebounder was freshmen center Mike Sterner with 6.0.
Zarecky brought in several community college transfers and freshmen this season. Only guard Steve Smith, who played at Serra High School, had proved himself as a Division I starter. Smith was the starting point guard for USIU last season and started at off guard as a freshman and sophomore.
“We have talent,” Laffitte said. “But we don’t have the mental part, the concentration, yet. I’m not so nervous. I know how important the mental game is and confidence.”
Laffitte’s experience playing at Cal State Long Beach also prepared him for the 10-game trip USIU went on earlier this season. The Gulls were 2-8 on the trip and allowed 94 points a game.
“I saw adversity set in,” Laffitte said. “Our confidence went down. I’m glad we came home. Our confidence is coming back.”
Despite the Gulls’ rough start, Laffitte has not regretted his decision to play at USIU, even though he may have been able to play in a more established program and on a team that played in front of far larger crowds than the ones that show up at Golden Hall.
“I think this program will get going,” Laffitte said. “And when it does get going, I want to be able to look back and say I was part of helping it get there.”