Athletes Are Handling Their Business On The Court And In The Classroom

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What Vince Carter was once vilified for is now an inspirational movement

The month of May promises three things in particular: Mother’s Day, graduations and the NBA Playoffs.

This post-season we’ve witnessed NBA Playoffs bliss ranging from the play of the league’s MVP Stephen Curry, the playmaking and scoring machine that is the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and the NBA’s Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers gelling at the right time in the hopes of bringing Northeast Ohio a long, desperately awaited and coveted championship.

As impressive as things have been on the court, things have been superbly impressive off it, particularly in the classroom as professional athletes have been returning to school to complete their degrees, and in most cases, promises made to their families.Take retired NBA veteran Derrick Coleman, for example.

Coleman, the first pick in the 1991 NBA Draft by the then-New Jersey Nets out of Syracuse University was 12 credits short from finishing his coursework and on the verge of signing a five-year $15 million contract, something unheard of for a rookie in the NBA at the time. Coming from a family with a large military background, he was the first in his family to attend a major university. To his mother, going to college was a major event and she was not trying to hear anything otherwise. In the words of Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Derrick had some ‘splaining to do. “As parents you always want what’s best for your children as far as education,” Coleman told The Shadow League by phone. “But my mind was made up.”

Although Coleman went to the League, he always promised his mother that he’d go back and finish school. Twenty five years after making that promise Coleman, completed those 12 credits and earned his sociology degree from Syracuse. A fourteen year NBA veteran, Coleman began taking online classes during his second stint as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers in the early 2000s. ”As a basketball player you have idle time on your hands,” he said. “It really wasn’t that hard for me though because I’ve always been an avid reader.”

Not everyone needs a college degree, but everyone needs an education and access to opportunity. When it comes to athletes, many have negative connotations about their academic abilities and accomplishments, especially in regards to athletes of color. Coleman, like many other former pro athletes (of color), have debunked those misconceptions and myths. In fact, the myth can sometimes come off as a double standard. Vince Carter is a shining example of this.

Although Coleman was retired when he got his degree, former Toronto Raptors guard Vince Carter finished his coursework early in his playing career because of a promise he made to his mother. The former NBA All-Star caught hell in the national media when he pulled double duty by chartering a private plane to attend his college graduation at the University of North Carolina the morning before playing in Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals match-up against the Philadelphia 76ers in May of 2001.

With the series tied at 3-3 and the Raptors down 88-87 in the fourth quarter, Carter missed a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer that would have won the game. The Raptors were eliminated despite Carter’s 20 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. This was way before social media existed, but debate broke out as to whether Carter was a poor example of a teammate who let his team down or a shining example of a dedicated, positive and inspirational man. Carter was vilified by some, by those who thought that Carter's graduation walk was the reason why the Raptors lost.


Vilified by those who felt that sports were the most important thing in life.

Despite the criticism, he kept a promise to his Mother and it was obvious that that was what mattered to him. “Vince Carter simply wanted to celebrate his college graduation with friends and family,” former ESPN personality Dan Patrick wrote in his The Pie Hole column. “He wanted to commemorate the culmination of all of his schoolwork."

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(Photo credit: University of North Carolina)

While Carter and the Raptors did not advance to the next round of the playoffs, he had made an impression with the kids, and parents, who were watching him. In essence, he planted a seed that has recently started to bloom and spread across the fields of professional sports.

The Portland Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard had been spending his summers taking classes, finally graduating last month with his degree in Professional Sales from Weber State University.

Stephen Curry used the 2011 NBA Lockout to go back to school, even working on his thesis which analyzed athletes and tattoos. “When I got there [to Golden State] Steph was still at Davidson finishing up,” said Charles Jenkins, Curry’s former teammate with the Warriors. “It was something really important to him.”

These men recognized the bigger picture and understood its importance. It’s a positive message for all kids regardless of skill level and it’s also an inspirational message to adults looking to finish or pursue their education. “You can't make money dribbling a ball for the rest of your life,” political analyst and author Dr. Boyce Watkins said via e-mail.

“Unless you are in that lucky 1%. The message to any kid with hoop dreams is that sports should never be your plan A. It should always be your plan B. There are less than 1,600 professional athletes in the US, but nearly 100,000 doctors, lawyers, dentists, professors and entrepreneurs.”


Like Vince Carter, the Brooklyn Nets’ Jarrett Jack declared for the NBA Draft after his junior season. A star at Georgia Tech, Jack was selected 22nd in the ‘05 draft. Making good on a promise to his mother, Jack got his degree in business management this past December from Georgia Tech. Ironically, Jack chartered a private plane for him and his mother and participated in Georgia Tech’s commencement ceremony on December 13, hours before the Nets tipped off against the Hornets at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s going to be probably the most special moment, if not the biggest moment, of my life,” Jack told New York Newsday’s Rod Boone. “That and getting drafted, they kind of align from my perspective.” The Nets won the game 114-87 and Jack finished with 14 points and 5 assists.

“Jarrett Jack lives down the street from me in Atlanta,” said retired NBA vet and Turner Sports analyst Steve Smith. “You set out to start something and you finish it. I think it’s great. I know the commitment he made to his mom and that’s huge. It sets a great tone for the younger generation.”

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(Photo credit: Shiz86 via Twitter)

The great thing about education is that you’re never too old, or too big, to learn. NFL Pro Bowler Bobby Bell got his degree at the age of 74 from the University of Minnesota after a promise he made to his father in 1959 that he’d complete his education and receive his degree.

After three years as a student athlete, O’Neal left LSU for the 1992 NBA Draft and was selected first overall by the Orlando Magic. Although he was NBA-ready, Shaq promised his parents and college coach, Dale Brown, that he would finish his education.

In 2000, while a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal made good on that promise by graduating from LSU. “We had a deal, you do this now and go back to school later,” his mother Lucille O’Neal, told The Shadow League by phone. “He needed to finish his college education; however, when the opportunity presented itself for him to go into the NBA, we didn’t want him to miss an opportunity when it was presented to him.”

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(Photo credit: LSU)

Shaq’s path to his undergraduate degree included online classes and correspondence with professors through both mail and email. He continued he education by earning his PH.D from Barry University with his doctoral capstone topic being The Duality of Humor and Aggression in Leadership Styles. But Diesel didn’t stop there and turned his attention to his Mother, helping her fulfill her dream of graduating from college as she had pushed him to achieve his. So in 2003, Momma O’Neal, with the help of her son, earned her BA in Business Admin from Bethune-Cookman. And like her son, she furthered her education in 2005 by earning her MA in Organizational Management from the University of Phoenix. “It took 30 years, but I never lost thirst for learning,” she said. “I promised him that I wouldn’t waste his money and he said that as long as I got good grades, he would continue to pay my tuition.”

The bond between Mother and Son in the O’Neal household extends beyond blood and demonstrates that education can be obtained no matter the age or life situation.

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(Photo credit: Barry University)

This trend isn’t just felt on the hardwood, as athletes in other sports are making similar strides. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, on the verge of being the next $100 million dollar quarterback, is popular both on the gridiron and on the campus of Auburn University. After leading the Tigers to a national championship in 2010, Newton declared for the NFL draft and, like the other previously mentioned athletes, promised his mother, Jackie, that he’d finish his coursework.

And he did just that.

Cam graduated from Auburn last month with a degree in sociology. According to the Plainsman, Newton plans to use his degree to open a daycare when his playing days are over. “I think sociology has done so much great for me in understanding people and different attitudes,” Newton said. “Hopefully that pays dividends in the long run.”

Speaking of Auburn alumni, remember Bo Jackson? Well not only does Bo know football and baseball, he also knows the value of education. After a hip injury that hampered his professional sports career, Jackson, the only athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports, went back to the classroom and finished his degree in family and child development, a promise he made to his mother who passed away from cancer.

Now some of you may say so what if athletes are going back to school.

They’re rich, they can do whatever they want.

True to an extent, but in the grand scheme of things it’s much more significant. Similar to competing in games during their pro careers, they’re finishing what they started. You can’t get to the fourth quarter without playing the first half. In an era where domestic violence, sensitive images and off the field violence dominates the sports headlines, it’s refreshing to see positive athletes who are inspiring through their actions outside of the field of play. As sports have become big business, athletes have recognized the need to be more than just an athlete; they must become a brand that lives beyond their playing days, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is through education.

Having balance between being an athlete and how to use the benefits of being an athlete is essential, and the most successful ones have recognized this, a lesson stressed over 60 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In an excerpt from “The Purpose of Education,” a piece he wrote in the February 1947 edition of the Morehouse College student newspaper, the Maroon Tiger, Dr. King stated:

It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.
Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult.
….We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

Education can be attained many ways. Some choose the classroom or the office, others choose the streets or what they see. When it comes to sports, many athletes are choosing the classroom as the way to take the next steps in their career. It also has significance for those close to these athletes and those watching these athletes. And like a championship trophy, once you get that degree, they can never take it away from you.

So it has much more significance than many realize and it impacts many more than seen at first glance.

I know their Mothers would agree.

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