Tavrion “Tay” Dawson, 21, was born and raised in Southern California. Having bounced between Compton and Long Beach all his life, he admits basketball was one of the only things that provided consistency, as well as self-assurance. It made him the man he is today and gave him an awareness he carries to other aspects of his life.
“Don’t let nobody stop you from fulfilling your dreams. You do you first, then worry about others. Don’t let nobody stop you,” says Dawson, who undoubtedly learned that lesson from his mother and grandmother who raised him. Even though they sometimes lived in rough neighborhoods, Dawson always went to private schools and he credits his single-parent mother for changing the course of his life.
“She kept me away from all the gang stuff, you know,” he says. “She didn’t let me go out in the streets. She held me hostage inside… I don’t know how she did it, but she did it.”
As a young teenager, Dawson’s main sport was football—until he broke his leg and spent the healing weeks getting taller. By the time he entered high school, he was 6’3” and decided that basketball might be a better fit. His talent shined quickly and by the time he was a sophomore, he was a star on the varsity team.
Carl Brown, another 21-year-old junior at California State University Northridge, lived a similar experience. Having also been raised by his mom and grandmother, one of his main focuses outside basketball is to be a mentor to his 10 siblings (four brothers and six sisters).
“I want to make sure they have a successful life, too,” Brown says. “They don’t really see the good side, all they see is the bad side where I’m from. I just want to show them a better life.”
Brown was raised in Louisville, Ky., a far reach from the beaches and sunshine of Southern California. His uncle also played college basketball (for Ohio University), so in a way, sports is in his blood. But it also means so much more to him, and his family.
“My mom would always tell me I need to be the one to set the example for my younger brothers and sisters,” Brown says. “So I always had the bigger responsibility. Then my granny would always tell me to stay focused with my basketball. She never let me quit.”
He adds, “I know at this point it’s the only way out for me. It’s a chance for me to do something special.”
Dawson echoes his sentiment, adding that basketball kept him off the street.
“I had friends that got stabbed in high school, shot at and stuff,” he explains. “[I saw] that and I didn’t want my life to go that way, so I looked at sports as an outlet. I got serious at basketball. I got good at it… and I got out with a scholarship.”
Now with one more year at an undergrad level, the two athletes have their eyes set on the NBA. Brown’s dream team is the Miami Heat, while Dawson’s is the Los Angeles Lakers.
While they’ve proven their value at an early age (both were averaging just under 20 points per game at the end of their high school careers), they’re the first to tell you it took tremendous sacrifice to sharpen their skills on the court.
Dawson remembers the moment when he made the choice to push himself beyond his limits. In high school, he was part of the California Supreme team, a nonprofit youth organization that sends players to compete at the collegiate ranks, as well as the pros.
“I was only averaging like two points on the team,” he recalls. “I’m playing these top guys from every state, and I’m thinking, ‘Damn, I’m not that good, like these dudes are really good.’”
That summer, he hit the gym hard then came back to school and started killing it—going from three points per game to averaging 18.
“That’s when my whole game changed, when I changed my work ethic,” he says, adding that a huge part of it was mental. “Some guys try to get in the gym and workout, but some guys don’t. They can just come and play. It’s all about how your mental is. If you’re very confident in yourself and you know how to play the game, then you’re gonna be fine.”
The sports mentality also bleeds into other areas in life and inspires Brown to remain confident.
“It helps me on my toes and on my feet, lets me know not to be satisfied with nothing, to always want to be better than anyone this day forward,” says Brown, who has vowed to remain “love free” while keeping his focus on sports and school studies.
This year the team at Cal State Northridge saw a huge turnover, with mostly new players coming in, giving Dawson an opportunity to pay it forward and be the “big brother” that older teammates were for him when he was a freshman.
“I’ll try to show them just the way to go about things, things they should and shouldn’t do,” he says. “It feels good to show dudes... what works for you. Especially me, because I’m like a leader, and they see how I work out, and how I am off the court. They gravitate to what I do, so I don’t even say things, they just go do things I would do. It feels cool to see that.”
Brown also tries to be a mentor, but he has a different approach. “I try to mentor them the best I can, but most players want to learn on their own,” he says. “I know I wanted to learn on my own.”
With graduation approaching fast, and hopes of the NBA edging nearer, both athletes know the next few years will either be a giant payoff or a staggering disappointment. But their strength and discipline has them feeling more excited than anxious.
“You just gotta relax, go about what you can control, just stay faithful to God, and let everything handle itself,” says Dawson. “Do your part and then everything will be alright.”
His advice for young guys looking to sharpen their skills is to “work hard, always grind, and stay in the gym. You can’t always go to parties. You can’t always be with your friends. You gotta keep working and everything will fall into place. Stay in your books and stay out of trouble.”
“I love basketball,” Brown says proudly. “When you find a game you’re good at, then you work hard and see yourself get better [and] you feel way better about yourself. You can accomplish anything good with work.”