Editor’s note: This article is part of the Star’s 2018-19 college basketball guide, which ran in Sunday’s paper.
Firstly, the burritos.
They are big burritos, a warm tortilla filled with cheese surrounding yet another warm tortilla, only this one stuffed to the gills with carne asada and guacamole and sour cream and salsa and yes, french fries, because this is Southern California, and this is a takeoff on the California burrito, and this is the right way to do them.
They come from Trujillo’s Taco Shop at 5120 Cantina Way, right off College Avenue, directly adjacent to the dormitories of San Diego State University, and they are so darn good.
Zylan Cheatham misses them.
But this is a story about basketball. And as happy as those burritos made Cheatham, basketball made him that sad, so he had to get away.
He had to go home.
And San Diego State’s loss was Arizona State’s gain.
• • •
A year on the sidelines, brutal.
Wait, scratch that. Another year on the sidelines. Doubly painful.
Cheatham redshirted the 2014-15 season because of a broken foot that went undiagnosed until an MRI in August. His second season, his freshman year in basketball eligibility, went well enough: A 7.9-points-per-game and 5.4-rebounds-per-game average. His sophomore year brought progress: An increase in scoring 9.1 points per game and rebounding to 6.3 per game.
But relegated to the post, put in a position that he felt didn’t showcase his skills while playing in Steve Fisher’s rigid offensive season, Cheatham — a Phoenix South Mountain High School grad — was unhappy.
“When you’re not happy doing something you love to do, it takes a toll on you. It does,” he said. “Working a job you’re not happy at. You know it’s not your calling. I found myself looking into other things, doing things to get my mind off of it. It was so hard to leave my friends, the relationships, everyone. I was embraced by the whole city.
“Trujillo’s, I mean, it was simple as that. Every time I walked in, they knew my order. I couldn’t see myself leaving that situation. But once you do some soul-searching, you kind of have to blur everything else out and see what means most to you.”
And for Cheatham, that means basketball.
Even if it meant leaving those delicious burritos.
Not that Tempe’s Mexican food is anything to sneeze at. It’s good.
But Cheatham never saw himself going back home. Not until he talked to Bobby Hurley, at least.
“This had nothing to do with coming back home. Arizona State just seemed like the best option.” he said.
“I’m coming home to a program that’s on the up, hungry coaches, hungry players, hungry city. This is a city looking for something to support. What a better way to finish off your college career.”
• • •
Last year was great for Arizona State, with the undefeated nonconference run that included wins over Xavier and at Kansas, a climb in the polls and the Sun Devils’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2013-14. But it was painful for Cheatham.
“Last year, we were No. 3 in the country, going into conference play at Arizona, I wanted to play so bad,” he said. “It takes a certain amount of love sitting out, knowing no one sees the work you put in every day, no instant gratification. Just knowing your time is going to come.”
On the verge of one last season to open NBA eyes, to set himself up for his future, to enjoy one last run in the college game, he is a wind-up toy ready to explode in motion.
“A chip on my shoulder — that doesn’t say enough,” he said. “This anticipation, this hunger, it’s been instilled in me. There’s no way I would go through it again, but the fact I’ve been through it, it adds to the anticipation. I display that every time I touch the floor. I’m gonna say — I want it more than a lot of people. I just means more to me.”
Hurley saw that out of Cheatham the first time he played against him, when the Sun Devils traveled to Viejas Arena in December 2016 to take on the Aztecs. Actually, he saw it before.
“His all-around game was so good,” Hurley said.
“I was probably asking my assistants how anyone let him get out of Arizona. When he decided to transfer, we knew he was a local kid and he might have interest, and it was a no-brainer for us.”
Hurley, known for his tremendous all-around play as an All-American for the Duke Blue Devils in the early-1990s, paid Cheatham the ultimate compliment.
“When I evaluate him, it’s almost like there’s a checklist you go through that equals winning,” he said.
“When he’s out on the floor he checks all those boxes. He’s fiercely competitive, a great communicator, a rebounder, plays both ends of the floor, plays hard, good leader, so many intangible things. Every day in practice, he’s one of those guys who lights a fuse.
“His personality comes through. He has a voice out there on the floor.”
An uplifting voice, Hurley says.
Because he’s happy. Happy doing what he loves.
Maybe he can have his burrito and eat it, too.