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Sunday, June 9, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rich NBA Players Going Back To School

AP

NORFOLK, Va. - A year after he left Maryland as a stone-broke sophomore to become the NBA's No. 1 draft pick, Joe Smith tooled through his hometown in a $50,000 Land Cruiser to Sociology 110 at Norfolk State's summer school.

Rap music from his CD player blasted out of torpedo-shaped bass tubes and nine speakers as Smith sang along. He left his Mercedes parked in the garage of the new lakeside house he bought for his mom, next to her Lexus.

On the way to the campus this first day of school, Smith passed the concrete courts and run-down neighborhoods he used to roam in search of pickup games before he went off to the University of Maryland.

"Never had my own ball," he said.

Now he has it all, except his name on a college degree. That, too, will come in time.

As 41 college and high-school players make an unprecedented exodus into the June 26 NBA draft, Smith is part of a quiet, almost secretive, but equally large pilgrimage - back to school to get a degree.

Cynics snickered when Stephon Marbury, Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson and others declared their intentions to return to college. But no one should doubt their sincerity too much.

At least 40 NBA players, including other rookie standouts Damon Stoudamire, Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Finley, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace, are going back to school this summer. More are expected to go next year. Shaquille O'Neal is among the more prominent veterans working steadily toward a degree. In the NFL, 351 players went back to college in the past year.

Most of the players in both leagues prefer to go about their schooling in private. Some, like Smith and Juwan Howard, hope their commitment to education will encourage other young athletes to follow their example and not think they don't need a degree just because they're rich right now.

"Obviously, I don't need the money," said Smith, 20. He signed an $8.5 million, three-year contract a year ago with the Golden State Warriors. "But I just want to get that degree to fulfill a promise to myself and my mother. I want to have that paper on my wall. That'd be up there like winning the championship."

Michael Jordan didn't need the money when he went back for his degree at North Carolina a few years after he turned pro. Bo Jackson certainly wasn't hard up for cash when he went back to Auburn for a degree last year. And Emmitt Smith wasn't worried about his financial future when he persevered for six years and finally got his degree from Florida last month.

One of three reasons

Regardless of income or star power, nearly every athlete going back to college cites one of three reasons for doing so: to fulfill a promise to a parent, to show his children the importance of education, or to prepare for a second career after sports.

"Those are powerful motivators," said David Stein, a psychologist and career counselor in San Francisco. "If you feel as a parent that you really want to be a good role model for your kids, and you say, `I better practice what I preach,' that's pretty strong. Or if you have a close tie to your family and say, `My mother worked hard so I could go to school, and if I don't finish I'd really be letting her down,' those are powerful factors. I'm more skeptical of the people who say, `I want to do it because I want a better education.' "

At the steps to Brown Hall at Norfolk State, Joe Smith paused and smiled nervously, pressing a blue spiral notebook against his chest.

"It feels like my first day in kindergarten, like I'm starting all over," he said, looking like a giant version of a schoolboy in a T-shirt, baggy blue jean shorts and size 17 sneakers.

When he entered the small classroom, he sat in the front row and scrunched his bony, 6-foot-10 frame into a plastic chair with attached desk.

"This course is about teaching you to cope in the world," Thelma R. Parker said. She talked about the value of hard and honest work, the influence of family and the differences among cultures. The first homework assignment was to write an essay on "Survival of the Fittest," a subject Smith figured he knew something about after just one bruising year in the NBA.

Many close to degrees

As much a wise grandmother as a teacher, Mrs. Parker sounded almost exactly like Smith's mother, Letha, who lived with him in California throughout his rookie season to make sure he stayed out of trouble. In fact, Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Smith used to sing together in the same church choir.

"I tell my athletes, `Get your lessons now, because at 32 your legs are going to give out,' " Mrs. Parker said, looking straight at her tallest, richest and most famous pupil. "At the same time, make the money. And when you marry someone, you have to find someone who's going to help you keep the money, not take it away."

About 70 percent of the players who enter the NBA and NFL each year do not have college degrees, regardless of how many years they stayed in school.

"Some people might draw a quick conclusion and blame that lack of a degree on coming out early, but that's a fallacy," said Lem Burnham, director of the NFL's player programs. Of the 1,400 players in the NFL this past season, more than 1,000 didn't have college degrees. But early-entry players accounted for less than 10 percent of those.

Nearly a quarter of incoming NFL players each year, Burnham said, are within a semester of earning degrees. Nearly a third are a year or two away, or up to four full semesters.

"Then there's a group, roughly 14 percent, that aren't even in striking range," Burnham said, "and this is not comprised of the players coming out early. It's a reflection of players who were in college who really didn't do anything significant. They may have been taking classes just to stay eligible, and their classes really didn't mean anything toward earning a degree.

"If they went to school every semester while they were in the NFL, they probably wouldn't complete a degree. Some of them are like starting over again as freshmen."

Success stories create illusions

Some players can't read or do simple arithmetic, even after four years of college ball, Burnham said.

"You wonder how that could be," he said. "Somewhere along the line someone let them down and became uninterested in them as people who needed those remedial skills and focused simply on what they could provide as athletes. In a lot of ways, I have a hard time blaming that on the athlete solely, but I think the athlete does have some responsibility for his own condition."

There are plenty of athletes who never completed college or never even started, like former NBA star Moses Malone, and have resisted suggestions to go back to school after long, successful pro careers. But for every Malone, there are thousands of anonymous athletes who wind up with neither a degree nor a pro career.

"My fear of the athletes coming out early is not so much for those athletes themselves, but for the signal that it's going to send to high-school kids, that somehow they're going to be able to beat the 10,000-to-1 odds of making it to the pros," said Richard Lapchick, founder of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports.

"When a Kevin Garnett seems to successfully make the transition, it makes that illusion appear all the more possible for too many more kids. I'm not as concerned about a Stephon Marbury not getting his degree this year as I am about all those athletes who won't have any more eligibility left, have no degree and have no way to have a career in sports."

Left with lunch wagons

There are about 4,500 NCAA Division I basketball players each year, another 10,000 in Divisions II and III, and 60 percent to 70 percent leave without a degree. Only about 30 to 40 college players reach the NBA each year. By their second year, some of those are gone. That's a lot of ballplayers with no degree and no NBA career.

"I know a couple of kids who have lunch wagons around the campus," agent Norman Blass said. "They dropped out of school and then the NBA dropped them, and they don't have anything."

Seven of the 49 early-entry players drafted into the NBA since 1990 are no longer in the league. Another 41 early-entry candidates during the same period were bypassed in the draft. Essentially, they gave up school for a pro career that went bust.

"If a player's not going to be a lottery pick, it's not worth it to come out," Smith said. "They should stay in school and do better the following year, like John Wallace did at Syracuse, and hopefully their stock goes up. There are a lot of guys making a big mistake coming out early this year. Most of them are going to be playing for the minimum, and a lot aren't going to be playing at all."

One player, California freshman Shareef Abdur-Rahim, realized he might be making a mistake and pulled out of the draft a few weeks after his sobbing announcement that he would make the jump. Others may do the same. Many are likely to return to school after they see where they're picked, or if they're not picked at all.

Smith would have stayed at Maryland if he hadn't had indications he would be among the top three picks. He wasn't a brilliant student, just getting by with a 2.2 grade-point average, but he was happy there and working toward a bachelor's degree in criminal justice with the vague idea of a law career someday.

Now, he's switched to a broadcasting major, and is taking six credits this summer in sociology and African-American studies. He plans to transfer back to Maryland next summer and continue working toward a degree there for however long it takes.

NFL careers short

Perseverance runs in Smith's family. His mother left high school at 16 when she had the first of her seven children, then earned her equivalency diploma in her late 30s. She kept up her education, taking computer classes and other courses that allowed her to get better jobs, and raised her children as a single parent.

"You don't want your child to do the same thing that you've done," Letha Smith said. "I didn't want my daughters to drop out of school and have to do maid work. There's nothing wrong with it, but I've done it, so I know what it is. I want them to be better than me. That's what I worked for. That's what I want for all my children."

She displayed her children's and grandchildren's high-school diplomas prominently at the house she shared with her son in California, and she'll put them up in her new home here. Someday she hopes to add his college diploma, the first by a male member of her family.

"I want Joe to be well-equipped to take care of his business, to know what's going on, read these contracts, know what these contracts mean, and learn to talk in public," she said.

The money athletes make now, as spectacular as it seems, may not last a lifetime. In the NFL, the average career lasts four years.

"This is not rocket science," Burnham said. "The players realize that $2 million or $3 million over a couple of years is not going to last for a 40- or 50-year period. You're going to need a lot more than that if you're 29 when you leave this business. You need to be able to make the transition into corporate America and work your way up so that you can approach a lifestyle that you were accustomed to. Not that you will reach it. Most players will never reach the lifestyle they are used to as celebrities and athletes, but at least they can approach that."

Willoughby a sophomore at 39

That's one of the reasons Bill Willoughby, who jumped from high school to the NBA in 1975, is going for a degree at Fairleigh Dickinson. Now 39 and a sophomore who wants to teach someday, the 6-foot-8 Willoughby had a brilliant basketball career in high school in New Jersey, then a vagabond journey through the NBA until he retired in 1984 with a 6.0-point average for six teams.

"People look for that degree when you go looking for a job, even if your name gets your foot in the door," Willoughby said. "I was afraid of going to college at first, starting up at 37. But it's like when I was in pro ball at 18. I was kind of apprehensive then. After a while you get used to it."

In the 10 years between the end of his career and the start of college, Willoughby earned little money working with kids for the Recreation Department in Englewood and Teaneck, N.J., and volunteering for youth groups. He spent much of that time, and $200,000, suing an agent he claimed stole more than $1 million from him. That suit remains unresolved.

"That's what I want to tell kids," Willoughby said. "You got to know who you are, know who you're talking to, and you can't trust nobody. You're from the ghetto, you just got a mother or a father, you're poor, you get a lot of attention, be All-American, and a guy comes and says, `I can get you $10 million. You can get your mom a house and have a car, get a credit card, just go to work.' So you're thinking, `OK, this guy's saying what he's saying, paying bills, putting my money away, my mom and everybody's happy,' and actually he's just stealing."

That caution aside, Willoughby had no regrets about signing a $1.1 million, five-year deal out of high school, and urged other talented young players, like Pennsylvania high-school star Kobe Bryant, to go for the money if it's offered.

Consortium grows

The consortium started by Lapchick in 1985 has grown to 124 colleges and universities that have seen more than 9,254 scholarship athletes, including 2,527 current roster professionals, return to school after leaving without a degree. Of those, a total of 4,039 former student-athletes, including more than 200 current pros, have earned degrees.

The schools in the consortium agree that any athlete who played for them on a scholarship can come back within 10 years to finish a degree at the university's expense. For their part, the athletes agree to give the consortium 10 hours a week of community service to work with young people on social issues.

"When we started everybody told us that these guys don't really care about getting an education, that they're just there as a way station to the pros," Lapchick said. "And people said schools don't care because they're just trying to fill arenas and get television contracts. With the 9,254 going back, that's an obvious breaker of the image that these players didn't care about the education. And the fact that schools have put up, collectively, over $65 million in tuition assistance without any athletic return whatsoever tells me that the schools did care about the athlete getting an education."

Early prescription for failure

The NFL's program began in 1992-93 season and has more than doubled from the 164 players who went back to school that year. That program served as a model for one in the NBA that started this year. The NHL's involvement with the consortium ran from 1985 until 1992, then got lost amid labor negotiations. At the peak, 26 percent of NHL players were taking some kind of course, but only 12 percent had college degrees.

In baseball, where only 16 percent of the players have degrees, there is no involvement with the consortium, just a limited college scholarship program that has to be used within the first two years of playing.

Psychologically, early-entry players run a tremendous risk of problems, Stein said, when they're suddenly thrust into a world of older ballplayers, business people, gamblers, drug dealers and groupies as they travel from city to city. For some players, early entry to the pros is a prescription for failure.

"It can be terrible, absolutely terrible," Stein said. "He's got no background, no resilience to know how to deal with any kind of difficult situation. The kind of orientation they get, that you should do this and not do that when you're on road trips, is just going to fall on deaf ears. The maturity isn't going to be there, and they're going to be susceptible to getting into bad deals with drugs and all kinds of things. Unless they're unusually mature and have a great family background, they're at great risk."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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