Guard Cezar Guerrero overcomes setback on way to degree

by Eddie Hughes

Senior point guard Cezar Guerrero played in 89 games at Fresno State and helped lead the Bulldogs to a Mountain West Conference tournament championship and their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001. But it’s the 17 games he missed that taught him the most.

Guerrero was forced to sit out the first 17 games of his junior season in 2014 while working toward meeting the NCAA’s continuing eligibility standards on progress toward a degree. He returned for the second half of that season, and this year started all 35 of the Bulldogs’ games.

But, more important, he’s on track to graduate in May with a philosophy degree. And he’s not shy about sharing his philosophy on how he turned things around in the classroom.

“When I first came here, all I cared about was basketball, basketball, basketball,” says Guerrero, a Huntington Park native who attended Oklahoma State for a year before transferring. “I thought basketball was going to last forever and it doesn’t. What lasts forever is that education and having that degree in your hand and using it to your advantage.”

The Bulldogs had high expectations in 2014-15 but struggled early in the season and lost several winnable games. The absence of Guerrero in their starting lineup was certainly a factor. But there was nothing he could do about it until he improved his academic standing after the fall semester.

“I felt like I let down a lot of people,” Guerrero says. “I let down my family, I let down my teammates. It was a very difficult time to overcome because I was away from the team.”

Guerrero’s mother gave him some simple advice. “Ponte las pilas,” she told him. The Spanish-to-English translation: put on your batteries.

“She told me, ‘You better get the batteries going, because if not then your battery is going to be dead.’ It’s just a figure of speech saying you’ve got to get things going before you lose your opportunities. That one runs through my mind a lot. Even through tough times, I wanted to give up but I just kept hearing that.”

The day before his final game in the Save Mart Center, Guerrero met with his adviser and learned he had all the necessary classes and was on track to graduate. He called his mom to share the news that he was on track to be the first in the family to earn a four-year degree. “She was crying,” Guerrero says.

About 72 percent of Fresno State students are classified as first generation, meaning they are the first in their immediate families to graduate from college.

Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro, himself a first-generation graduate, had some encouraging words for Guerrero when they first met, Guerrero says. “He said that he’s really proud of me for making it out of where I made it out of, and to just keep on striving forward and be bold and be a great student-athlete.

“He followed me on Twitter, and it was pretty cool,” Guerrero says. “It was after the San Diego State game where I hit that last-second shot to force it into overtime, and President Castro tweeted, “Holy Cezar!”

News of that off-balance 3-point shot with time expiring was also tweeted by ESPN SportsCenter. And just a couple months later, in Las Vegas, it was San Diego State that the Bulldogs beat in a nationally televised game on CBS for the Mountain West tournament championship. Guerrero embraced his teammates in celebration at midcourt, looking up and shouting with joy.

It was perhaps his most memorable moment on the court during the past four years at Fresno State. But ranking right up there with it, he says, will be May 21 when he’s wearing a black cap and gown and a Fresno State student-athlete stole for graduation.

“I have plans,” he says while sitting in the first row of chairs behind the east basket in the Save Mart Center, “of walking right here on this side of the stage and raising my hands and saying, ‘I did it.’”