The most important figures in Cole Preston’s life, he carries on his shoulders.
A tattoo on his left shoulder is a tribute to his father, Rob Preston, who died of brain cancer in 2012, when Cole was in high school.
An illustration of a lion is draped by the words “Rest With Power” and a short verse stretches down Preston’s arm to honor his father.
His left shoulder depicts an angel with Barbara, his mother’s name, written alongside. Psalm 23:4 is written beneath.
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Preston has more tattoos — his birth year, and another that reads “God’s Gift.” He said he likes his tattoos to have special meaning — he’s family oriented and faithful.
“Every day, I feel like I’m playing for my family,” Preston said. “My dad, and my mom, and everyone back home. It’s a really big deal to me.”
Preston, now a senior at Saint Martin’s University and the Saints’ starting point guard, hails from Escondido, California, just north of San Diego.
He played at San Marcos High School before starting his college career at Sierra College, near Sacramento.
That’s where Alex Pribble found him.
Pribble, in his second year at SMU, has been an established name in northern California since his playing days at Cal and Sir Francis Drake High School in Marin County.
When he got hired at SMU, Pribble scanned California junior colleges for recruits.
“I asked a lot of people I trust in that area who the best guards in California were that were still available, and Cole’s name kept coming up,” Pribble said.
Pribble realized quickly that Preston, who transferred after his sophomore season, could fill the role he needed — a mature point guard that could take on a leadership role.
“We threw him into the fire right away,” Pribble said. “He had a lot of leadership responsibilities right out of the gate, and he proved himself early last year to be a capable leader.”
Now, Preston leads the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in assists. He averages six per game — 108 in 18 games — and is ranked 16th nationally among Division II players.
Preston said he’s always enjoyed watching highlights of historically great passers like Magic Johnson and “Pistol Pete” Maravich.
He said he prides himself on making his teammates better and creating easy shots for them.
Pribble marvels at Preston’s ability to control pace and make decisions. Pribble said Preston’s passes — sometimes fun and flashy — are consistently on time and on target.
“He’s got an incredible feel for the game,” Pribble said. “He’s been a point guard his whole life. He understands the flow of the game. He knows when to speed things up and when to slow things down. He’s really an extension of the coaching staff on the floor.”
Preston’s teammates feed off that.
“Cole is just a very elite, high-level player,” forward Brandon Kenilvort said. “He’s the best passer I’ve ever played with, and I’ve played with Division I players and professional players overseas.
“Just the way that he’s able to see the floor and orchestrate the offense is something I’ve never played with before.”
Kenilvort said Preston is one of SMU’s hardest workers and has earned the respect of everyone on the team.
Kenilvort and Preston are also roommates. Pribble appreciates the brotherhood that many of his players have formed.
“That’s the nice thing about here,” Preston said. “It’s a tight-knit community, so it feels like a family.”
He still honors his family back home, too. Kenilvort has noticed how Preston wraps his wrists with tape before games and writes “RWP” on it. He writes his parents’ names on his shoes.
“He’s been through a lot,” Pribble said. “His maturity, it shows out here.”
Preston said his father — who was a quarterback at USC and in the NFL — was his biggest inspiration athletically growing up.
Kenilvort thinks Cole Preston always plays with an extra motivation to make his father proud.
“It was a real tough time for me and my family, but that made me who I am today, honestly,” Preston said.
He talks about playing professionally overseas so he can buy his mother a new house one day, and he said he is trying to make everyone proud.
“To have a kid like that, who’s not only a good basketball player but a great person, he cares so deeply for those around him, and everybody recognizes that,” Pribble said.
“His family and the people close to him at home are so important to him, and he’s really brought in the guys on our team and the people around this community in the same way.”
Pribble said Preston is a great guy to have in the locker room and in huddles. When he plays well, how his teammates play tends to reflect that.
“I felt it was my job to be the leader,” Preston said. “I’m the point guard, so I’m just trying to bring everyone together, get us in our offense, make sure our energy is good every day.”
SMU (11-9, 5-7 GNAC) is seventh in the conference standings with eight games remaining. Six teams move on to compete in the GNAC tournament in March.
Preston said he wants to keep the foot on the gas pedal and play at full speed, after the Saints barely missed the tournament last season.
“I think the biggest thing is we can’t take any day, any practice, any game for granted,” Preston said. “Every day is a new opportunity.”