FGCU's Brandon Goodwin trades troubled past for bright future at Dunk City

FORT MYERS, Fla. – So what got him expelled? Brandon Goodwin would rather not say. At least not on the record. And, to be honest, you can't blame him. After all, this was, what, eight years ago? Nine? Feels like a lifetime ago. At the same time, it feels like yesterday.

Today Goodwin is a 22-year-old senior for a Florida Gulf Coast team that's picked to win the Atlantic Sun Conference and make its third straight NCAA Tournament one year after nearly upsetting No. 3 seed Florida State in the first round. Goodwin is the centerpiece of a loaded backcourt, alongside Zach Johnson and Christian Terrell, and Michigan transfer Ricky Doyle provides some big-time frontcourt talent. But it's Goodwin who is this team's heart and soul, a speedy pit bull of a guard with Marcus Smart-like intangibles on defense and an array of weapons on offense.

These days, the world appears to be Goodwin's oyster. He's playing the game he loves, he's starring at a university that has an on-campus beach and the "Dunk City" brand, and he's getting looks from NBA teams who appreciate a lightning-quick combo guard who could average upwards of 20 points per game this year.

But back then he was just a kid. A bad kid. Elementary school, middle school, and into high school, he was always getting suspended. Dumb things, mostly, things that in retrospect might have reflected a desire for attention from a boy being raised by a single mom: Fighting, arguing with teachers, being the class clown. One day in middle school he took the principal's cell phone in the middle of the school day: Suspension. Nothing too harmful: not a bully, just always a lightning rod. His mother, Swan Goodwin, would dread the daily calls and emails from teachers that would detail her son's latest screw-ups. In time, the bad stuff all added up. And that one day in ninth grade he took things a little bit too far, and all those years of discipline got him kicked out of Norcross High School in suburban Atlanta and put into an alternative school.

"There were times I walked in on my mom crying because of me," Goodwin said the other day, sitting in Florida Gulf Coast's locker room before a practice. "It's like, 'Why am I the reason that my mom's crying?' "

For his mother, his expulsion was the part that broke her heart. She'd worked so hard for him. A single mom working two jobs, as a hairstylist and a security guard, then worked her way into one good job as a retail manager at Verizon. A lesbian who tried her best to raise a son to become a man. A mother who saw the wild side in Brandon from a young age – he was walking at nine months, he got kicked out of day care for biting other kids, he was powerful enough as a toddler that he could avoid her spankings, he developed real, actual muscles by the time he was 5 years old – but he always had a sweetness to him. He was difficult, but he loved his mom. She could never figure out how a good kid at home – respectful, kind – could become such a bad kid at school.

So he went to the alternative school.

"Can I please leave?" Goodwin cried to his mother for 30 straight days.

"I realized, when you think you're bad and you get put around kids who are actually bad – it's like, whoa, I'm not that type of person," Goodwin said.

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Brandon Goodwin nearly led FGCU to an upset of Florida State in the NCAA Tournament. USATSI

Then, a blessing: One of his basketball coaches started a team at a Christian school in Georgia, appropriately named New Birth Christian Academy. He transferred there. He played basketball there, and for an entire year, he didn't get in any trouble. The school was a 75-minute drive from their home, so every day mother and son awoke at 4 a.m. They were on the road by 5 a.m. They were at the school a bit after 6 a.m. Then Swan drove to work.

It was not a good year.

"But that month at the alternative school really opened his eyes," his mother said. "He knew it broke my heart that he was there. But things changed when he realized it was breaking me to take him to the private school every day and find a ride for him to get home."

His old high school coach, Jesse McMillan, kept an eye on him. He saw Brandon grow taller, and more muscular. He heard an assistant coach tell him Brandon wanted to come back to Norcross and show that he'd outgrown his immaturity. He knew Brandon was the type of kid who could fall through the cracks, so he gave him one more chance.

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Brandon Goodwin 's mom, Swan Goodwin, has been  a guiding force in his life. Goodwin family photo

Life became basketball and school and video games like NBA2K, Madden and Call of Duty. No room for screwing around. And no room for error.

"And he was a completely different person when he came back for his junior year," McMillan said. "He was incredibly focused, almost to a fault. I had one of my returning players come to my office early that year. He said, 'Coach, I don't think this Brandon kid is going to be a good fit for us. We're playing pickup, one on one, and he's beating everybody so badly and just making fun of everyone when he's doing it. We're trying to play, and he's taking it too serious.' And I said, 'Well, I sure don't have a problem about that.' We just needed to find a way to reel in this fire and be a better teammate. He was so competitive – it was win at all costs."

As a junior Goodwin averaged 17 points per game. As a senior Goodwin led his team to the state championship, won state player of the year and committed to UCF. Life was good. He was focused on his NBA dream.

"The best thing that could ever happen to him was when he got a code to the gym at the college level, and he could just work, work, work," McMillan said. "In the summers when he's home he'll text me three times a day to get in the gym. If I get in 10 a.m., he shows up at 10 a.m."

The best thing that could ever happen to him was when he got a code to the gym at the college level, and he could just work, work, work . Jesse McMillan, Brandon Goodwin's high school coach

But it's not as if it's been a straight path from high school redemption to collegiate stardom. When he was 18 and a freshman at UCF, he stole an unlocked bike from a rack on campus. He returned it to a different rack, but it was actually a police bike, part of a "bait bike" program. He pleaded guilty to a petty theft charge and later transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. One more mistake. And one more chance to try and make good.

And Goodwin is trying. This summer he played against Kyrie Irving, one of his favorite players, in a pro-am game. Goodwin scored 18 points, and on defense he stopped Kyrie four or five times in a row. He spent his offseason learning how to think basketball, not just to play basketball. Be the big man off the ball screen. Get the pull-up J if his man hedges. Be more efficient. And bring his teammates with him. He's studied Kyrie's hesitation moves and Allen Iverson's left-to-right crossover and Russell Westbrook's ability to lure his defender into thinking he's going to do one thing before doing another.

He doesn't know where he'll be one year from now. Maybe he'll hit the jackpot and be in the NBA; he knows that's at least a possibility. Maybe it's the G-League. Maybe it's playing ball overseas. But what Goodwin and his mother both know is that wherever he ends up will be a much better direction than the road he was once heading down.

"For a long time I didn't think he was going to make it, to be where he is right now," his mother said. "That he'd go to jail. That he'd start doing drugs, drop out of school – just become one of those kids that don't do anything with their lives. That was my greatest fear. But I never gave up.

"I needed him to know there is a God watching over him. He needs to praise and worship God. I never thought it was instilled in him, but it was. He has Bible at school. With Brandon, it's a story of redemption, but it's more a story of forgiveness. It's a story of blessings and lessons – of lessons learned."

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