Allan Guei was a standout player on the Compton High School basketball team, but when he stepped to the free-throw line for a chance to win $40,000 in college expenses, he admitted to feeling a little pressure.
He made five out of 10 attempts in the March competition, edging the first runner-up, who sank four underhanded baskets as she trembled at the line.
But it was the 18-year-old’s next move that astonished his classmates at last month’s graduation ceremonies.
After receiving a full basketball scholarship to Cal State Northridge, Guei announced he would give his contest winnings to the seven runners-up in the free-throw competition.
Under NCAA rules, Guei could have kept most of the winnings without giving up his athletic scholarship. But he thought the others were more in need of the boost.
“They were all smart and wanted to pursue their dreams, but were having financial difficulties,” Guei said after basketball practice recently. “I felt it was the right move to help the others, especially when everything else was taking off for me.”
His classmates were thrilled.
“It was a shock,” said runner-up Omar Guzman, 17, who plans to attend San Diego State University in the fall. “I’m really grateful there are people like that out there. It was generous.”
Victory Holley, another runner-up, took a world history class with Guei last year and knew he was kindhearted. But she never expected such a gesture.
“I thought he’d at least give that money to his family or something,” said Holley, 18, who plans to attend El Camino Community College. “That made his character even better.”
The contest was the brainchild of Court Crandall, an advertising executive and screenwriter who wanted to make a documentary that dispelled some of the negative stereotypes associated with the city of Compton.
He decided on the free-throw contest because his 16-year-old son, Chase, played club basketball on teams that included boys from Compton and because he saw the free-throw line as something that could unite people as opposed to the racial, social and economic lines that divide them.
His ad firm, Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener, got behind the project, raising more than $75,000 for scholarships.
The contest was open to Compton seniors with a grade-point average of at least 3.0. Of the 80 who qualified, eight were chosen at random.
“My hope was that what started as a competition would become a collaboration with the kids supporting each other,” Crandall said.
“They did, but in the end they did that to a much greater extent than I ever could have anticipated.”
The students had been told that runners-up would receive $1,000 for college, but they were surprised to learn after the competition that they’d each receive about $5,500 — for most, enough for a full year’s tuition. Many, like Efren Arellano, 19, who plans to attend Rio Hondo, will be the first in their family to attend college.
Compton High School Principal Jesse Jones said he had become skeptical about the intentions of outsiders because the image of Compton and its youth didn’t always reflect the reality.
But he decided to trust his students’ abilities. The scholarships were the most the school had ever received and demonstrated to students that academic achievement could be rewarded, he said.
“My staff can preach about good grades, but unless they see evidence of the outcomes, it doesn’t register,” Jones said.
Although Guei, a 5-foot-9 point guard, was a star on the basketball team, Crandall thought it would be unfair to exclude him, since he had also succeeded academically.
Money received by student athletes is governed by strict NCAA guidelines, but Guei probably could have kept as much as 80% of his contest winnings, said Cal State Northridge basketball coach Bobby Braswell.
“Allan fit all the things we look for in a student: academics, athletic skills and character,” Braswell said. “And doing what he did made us feel we made the right choice.”
The contest money will be distributed evenly to the runners-up over the next four years, unless Guei loses his scholarship. In that case, he would be able to use the remaining funds to continue his education, Crandall said.
Guei, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Ivory Coast, vows to complete his education and earn a degree.
“I’m leaning toward business — I like being the boss,” he said, laughing. “Even if I make the NBA, that will open all the doors for me.”