Colorado guard Askia Booker was surrounded by gang violence growing up in Inglewood, Calif. Driven to avoid that lifestyle, he dedicated himself to the
Colorado guard Askia Booker was surrounded by gang violence growing up in Inglewood, Calif. Driven to avoid that lifestyle, he dedicated himself to the game of basketball. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

With his father nearby filling the car with gas, Askia Booker stood outside of a Chevron station late at night in the Los Angeles suburbs.

Booker, his cousin and his friend were attempting to get something to drink on their way home from a visit to Universal Studios.

"Next thing you know, you see a red Jeep pull up and three guys hop out with hand guns," said Booker, who believes he was 17 at the time.

The men in the Jeep wanted to know who Booker and his friends were, why they were there, etc. Booker's father stepped in and "basically just saved us," but it was another reminder to Booker that he needed a change.

"I don't wish that lifestyle on anybody," said Booker, now 20. "That night was just one of the nights where I was like, 'Yeah, I need to just stick with this basketball stuff because you could lose your life out here.'"

After that night, he rededicated himself once again to the sport he loves, knowing that more time in the gym could lead to a better path.

More than three years later, Booker is far from the streets of Los Angeles. Tuesday he left for Orlando, Fla., where, on Thursday, he and the Colorado Buffaloes (23-11) will face Pittsburgh (25-9) in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Tip-off is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. MDT from the Amway Center.

As it was after his trip to Universal Studios, the basketball gym has always been a safe haven for Booker.

Colorado's junior point guard has lived a unique life that has taken him from the tough streets of Inglewood, Calif., to the fresh air of Boulder.

Growing up, he witnessed violence and crime that many have only seen in movies or on television. On the court, he was told he wasn't quite good enough at times. He's struggled through school and with personal issues. Since arriving at CU, he's earned a lot of fans, but also a lot of detractors. His productivity — which has come and gone at times — has been a target of anxious fans.

Through it all, Booker has always turned to the gym to get him through, and so far he has done well.

"He's had to overcome a lot of things in his life," CU coach Tad Boyle said. "He's a terrific kid. He's a battler, he's tough. He's got a competitiveness about him that makes him special."

Booker was born and raised in Inglewood. His parents — Daniele Ricardo and Toussaint Booker — were never married, but remain close to this day. Booker still leans on his parents, talking to them daily. His parents, as well as older brother Rene Johnson, have been the rocks in his life.

Booker's parents raised him the best they could, but living in that part of the country, it was impossible to shield their son from all the negativity.

"I've seen it all, heard it all — even stuff my mother and my father don't know that I've seen," Booker said. "You see people get robbed, you see shootings. It's a lot of gang violence where I'm from. We just try to stay out of that and avoid it the best you can, but sometimes there's just days where it finds you, and you have to just figure out how you're going to get out and how you're going to survive."

Even as a young child, he figured out that getting into the gym was a way to survive.

"That's when I realized I could probably take it somewhere, and find a way out kind of, and not get involved in all the other stuff that was going on around me," he said. "The way you stay out of that stuff, if you're into sports you better keep your butt in the gym. That's the best place to be."

Through tough times and good times, Booker has always found comfort, confidence and inspiration in the gym.

Two years into high school, Booker wasn't playing nearly as much as he wanted to and got upset.

His team at Price High School was loaded with talent, including Allen Crabbe of the Portland Trailblazers, Richard Solomon of California, Skylar Spencer of San Diego State, Chance Murray of Arizona State and Norvel Pelle of the NBA D-League's Delaware 87ers.

A confident Booker walked into the office of head coach Michael Lynch prior to his junior year and told him, "If I don't play next year, we won't win. He looked at me like I was crazy."

Booker got in the gym and worked harder than ever to back it up. He led Price to a state championship as a junior in 2010. He got them to the state finals in 2011, too.

Soon, he was impressing college scouts, most notably from UCLA and Colorado. It was Colorado's interest that sparked Booker the most.

"Boyle basically just kept it real and told me I was going to have to work for whatever," Booker said. "That's basically what I needed to hear and that's why I came here. I need to work. That's just the type of person I am. I need to be in the gym and I need to get better every year."

At CU, Booker rode a roller coaster his first two seasons. He was a key reserve as a freshman in 2011-12, helping the Buffs reach the NCAA Tournament. Last year, he started all 33 games during another NCAA Tournament run.

It was never a smooth ride for Booker, though. In the classroom, he was what Boyle called an "at-risk student." On the court, he was what fans might have called an "at-risk player." He could spring for 20 points one night in a win against Cal and miss 11 of 14 shots the next night in a loss to Utah.

When he struggled, either in school or on the court, he dealt with it the only way he knew.

"I was so self-centered, I was in my own bubble where I would just come up here (to the Coors Events Center) and shoot my life away," he said. "I'd have homework or probably have a test the next day and I'm up here busting my ass."

During the offseason, good friend Nick Young, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, taught Booker a valuable lesson about all those hours in the gym. Young taught him that the key was not all the shots, it was having confidence in the shots.

"I don't care how hard you work — you can be the hardest worker, shoot 1,000 shots a day, make 1,000 shots a day — if you don't have confidence in your game and who you are, you don't even need to be on the floor," Booker said.

Booker came into this season with more confidence than ever before. Then a stomach virus knocked him out of action for several weeks just before the season began. He got off to a rough start and his confidence dipped a bit.

Then, on Dec. 7, Booker got the jolt he needed. He scored 15 points in a 75-72 win against then-No. 6 Kansas, including the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that won the game.

"That was a big turning point," Booker said.

The other turning point came on Jan. 12. CU's star point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, a fellow junior who is also from Southern California, tore the ACL in his left knee that day.

Suddenly without their star player and leader, the Buffs looked to Booker, who was the most experienced player on the court.

"He's not one to back away from a challenge," Boyle said. "That resonates with his teammates, it resonates with his coaches."

Many doubted whether Booker, a shoot-first two guard throughout his time at CU, could actually lead this team. But, in the 17 games since Dinwiddie's injury, he's done a remarkable job reinventing himself as a player.

Booker now looks to pass the ball as much or as often as he looks to shoot. His rebounding has improved. His defense has improved. As he has gotten better, so have the Buffs, who are 8-5 in their last 13 games.

"It was unfortunate it happened to Spencer, but it kind of opened up a gate for me, to show not just myself, but show everyone else that's watching that I can do everything," Booker said. "I realized that I had to play with the confidence I had going into this year, that I had in the summer. It was just that time."

Booker's maturity as a player has coincided with his maturity as a young man. He's still just 20 years old, but said he has learned from his past mistakes. He's no longer considered an "at-risk" student. Boyle said he never worries about Booker living the night life.

"Now he's turned the corner," Boyle said. "He understands he has to take care of his business. He's done it and he's grown in a lot of different ways. Not just on the court, but off the court."

On the court, Booker is more dedicated than ever before to lead the Buffaloes to wins.

When they lost four of the first five games after Dinwiddie's injury, Booker told Boyle he was tired of losing. Then, of course, he went to the gym, working on his game into the night. He said he's been at the Coors Events Center as late as 3 a.m. in recent weeks.

Booker was dead-set on getting CU to the NCAA Tournament and now that the Buffs are here, he's determined to win. He doesn't care that Pittsburgh is favored, and he doesn't care the winner likely has to play the No. 1 team in the country, Florida.

"I could go play Florida today and do whatever I have to do to win and help my team to win," he said. "But, not everybody thinks like that.

"Where I come from is far more intense than a 40-minute basketball game. Although this is at a very high level, it's not the end of the world. Back home, it could be the end of the world for you. "

For now, his home is in Boulder. Booker doesn't turn his back on his hometown, but feels blessed that he's made it to where he is today.

"I don't want to say I made it out, but I'm not there right now," he said. "I'm in a better place right now. I'm in a good position where I'm playing basketball for a great Division I team and I'm handling my business. It's a good situation."

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.