Ricky Torres had the spotlight last week as college basketball fans anxiously waited to find out where the 6-foot-3 guard would be playing next season.
It was an emotional moment for Torres, who choked back tears as he reflected on the struggles of dealing with a mother permanently disabled, a father deported to Panama and siblings who had been in jail.
Against those odds, Torres persevered, transforming from a Pinellas Park High School dropout to one of the best junior college players in the country.
His courtship by several major Division I-A programs ended with his commitment to Wichita State.
"My life story is crazy," said Torres, an All-American at Missouri State-West Plains. "I felt like I've been working so long, just grinding every day. Now the payoff has finally come. At West Plains, I could dunk on somebody and no one would know about it unless I posted a video on YouTube.
"Now, at Wichita State, I could dunk and it will be on ESPN, maybe even make SportsCenter's Top 10 plays. That's crazy to think about considering where I started."
Torres was not one of those boys who dreamed of playing big-time college basketball. His first love was football. He was encouraged to try out for the basketball team as an eighth-grader at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, but never saw time on the court.
Still he did enough to impress teammate Dallas Moore, who went on to star at Boca Ciega High and North Florida and is now playing professionally in Italy.
"I'm extremely proud of him," Moore said. "He wasn't even on the team my eighth-grade year — he was like a manager — but he wanted to be there. He just loves the game and I'm glad he stayed with it."
At the time, Torres could not devote a lot of his time to sports.
He had more practical matters to worry about at home.
His mother, Kimberly Samuels, suffered an injury at work that required numerous surgeries and left her unable to use her right arm. His father, Ricardo, who had spent time in prison, was deported to Panama. Two of his six siblings were in jail, too.
As a result, Torres struggled academically. He withdrew from Pinellas Park and attended several alternative schools, including Bayside High.
"There was so much stuff going on at the time," Torres said. "It was hard to catch up, so I decided to drop out."
The basketball court became his sanctuary.
"That was my getaway," Torres said. "The court was the one place where I felt at peace."
After dropping out, Torres started playing travel basketball for Terrance Whitaker, whose son, Terrell, played at Pinellas Park.
"My biggest thing was to get Ricky on the right track," Terrance said. "Everything was overwhelming for him. He was around a toxic environment and was constantly taking a big heavy drink of it. I needed to show him that he can rise above that and become a better young man. We could relate. I had similar circumstances growing up. I was raised by a single mother and didn't have the grades to make it as a college player.
"But I knew he could do it, and it served as a way out."
Torres' basketball skills improved, so much so that college coaches started taking notice. Trouble was, they could not find any high school film — or academic transcripts.
Torres knew he had to get his GED, not just for himself but for his family. He became a father by the time he was 18.
His college career was a vagabond one with stops at ATG Academy (a prep school), Eastern Florida College and finally at Missouri State-West Plains the past two years.
West Plains, a two-year school, is located in Howell County, Missouri, population 11,986. The small town served as a perfect setting for Torres to thrive.
Terrell Whitaker was one of his teammates.
"It was a huge culture shock," Torres said. "I was homesick a few times. But I just poured everything into school and basketball. I would go to the gym constantly. I had a son now and I was doing it for a lot more than just myself."
As Torres improved on the court, so did his family life. He was able to locate his father through social media in the past year. They now talk regularly. His brothers are no longer in jail. One has his own business.
"I'm the first in my family to go to college," Torres said. "By me doing that, it woke everyone up. All my family is doing so well now. You just realize that you can do so much and that this is for everybody."
In the past year, Torres received 35 offers from colleges. He sought the advice of Marreese Speights, a former standout at Gibbs and Admiral Farragut and the University of Florida who now plays for the NBA's Orlando Magic.
"I played for Marreese's travel team and know that he's been down this road before," Torres said. "He's someone I look up to and I want to get to where he is at someday."
Speights was more than happy to oblige.
"I'm very proud of Ricky," Speights said. "To go through all the things he's been through to be where he is at now speaks for himself. I can relate to his career that's why I can get to him a little more. I'm happy for him. He will do great at Wichita State."
After announcing his plans to become a Shocker, Torres did not take too much time to celebrate. He was back in the gym for two workouts that day.
"This commitment is just a stepping stone," Torres said. "Now it's real, and I know I have to work that much harder. I didn't come this far just to relax."