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NBA Players Return to College

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by Jonathon Abrams, New York Times

nbaplayerscollegeRussell Westbrook held the attention of an audience and an instructor, a familiar role for an N.B.A. player. Only, fellow students made up the crowd. And he was addressed by a teacher, not a coach.

Westbrook, a second-year guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, walked in late to a history class this summer at U.C.L.A. As the N.B.A. opens its preseason, Westbrook was among about 45 players — 10 percent of the league — who had traded gym bags for backpacks in the off-season.

“The teacher just called my name out: ‘Hey, Mr. Westbrook. Nice to see you. Nice for you to show up,’ ” Westbrook said. “I had to walk all the way to the front and sit on the stage in front of the whole class the whole time. For two hours. I couldn’t go to sleep, couldn’t do nothing. For two hours.”

The N.B.A. union began tracking the classroom migration this year. Debbie Rothstein Murman, the director for career development for the union, said the number was much higher than in the past, although she does not have earlier numbers. For elite athletes, who command seven-figure salaries, returning to college is an investment and a hedge against what can be an uncertain future. Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets resumed classes at Wake Forest, and Westbrook’s teammate Kevin Durant continued working toward his degree at Texas.

A league rule change in 2006 mandates that players be at least one year removed from high school and at least 19 to be drafted. For many players, that meant attending at least one year of college. The rule stopped the influx of players who entered the league directly from high school. But it might have had an inadvertent consequence: some are attempting to finish what they started.

“I had classes with regular students and went to study hall and caught the school bus to the gym,” Durant said. “It was everything I did when I was there before. I’m only two years removed from college and three years removed from high school. Everything came back pretty quick.”

The average annual salary in the N.B.A. is $5.85 million, and players are generally secure in the near term. Their retirement years can be completely different. An estimated 60 percent of N.B.A. players are broke within five years of retiring, and 78 percent of N.F.L. players are bankrupt or under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce within two years, according to a report by Sports Illustrated in March. The magazine also reported that many baseball players struggle financially after retirement.

“It’s not about necessarily needing to work from a financial standpoint, but it’s not the perspective we take with them,” Rothstein Murman said. “Basketball is one of their passions, but they have others. What do they need to equip themselves with their next passion when they finish basketball? Where are they going to make their next marks?”

Professional sports leagues and unions have emphasized education as one way of helping athletes prepare.

Major League Baseball established the Professional Baseball Scholarship Plan in the early 1960s to provide benefits and reimbursement to players, many of whom are drafted out of high school or by their junior year in college. From 1962 to 1999, 69.2 percent of baseball players returned to the classroom, said Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball.

Half of the N.F.L.’s players have college degrees — a greater percentage than in the N.B.A. or in baseball, because fewer football players declare professional eligibility as early. Nearly 100 players went back to college in the off-season, and the league conducts a management program with universities, including Harvard and Stanford. Players receive up to $15,000 for educational reimbursement.

The best basketball players generally depart college when their stock is highest, which often comes sooner rather than later in their university careers. About 21 percent of current N.B.A. players have undergraduate degrees, Rothstein Murman said. Some may not want to leave college early, but feel the responsibility of helping their families with financial burdens.

At the players union’s high school camp, players sign contracts that stipulate they will continue their education should they ever reach the pros before graduating from college.

Some players groaned when Rothstein Murman reminded them of it when they became rookies. The contract is largely symbolic, but some players take it seriously.

The Thunder and the Golden State Warriors each had three players enrolled in summer courses. While some are establishing building blocks for the future, others are fulfilling promises to loved ones or aiming to become the first member of a family to graduate from college.

“I have a younger brother, and it sets an example for him and how important it is,” said Westbrook, who declared for the N.B.A. after his sophomore season at U.C.L.A.

The lectures could be boring, he said, and it took an entire day to write one page of the first paper assigned to him. But he also had the benefit of attending a university where a number of N.B.A. players convened for pickup games. So Westbrook easily shuttled from the court to the classroom. He recently posted on Twitter that he had received all B’s in his summer classes.

Westbrook’s teammate Jeff Green resumed his classes at Georgetown, where he is chipping away at an English degree. One day, he sat near the door when a group of high school students walked past.

“One kid started yelling my name, and it felt weird because I was sitting down trying to pay attention and everyone else in the classroom started looking at me like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Green said. “My teacher handled it well. He just went and closed the door and went about his lesson.”

The obligations of sport and school can sometimes clash. Vince Carter left the University of North Carolina for the N.B.A. in 1998, but kept working toward his degree in African-American studies. In 2001, Carter, then a guard with the Toronto Raptors, had to juggle preparations for a playoff game with his college graduation. After the ceremony, he rushed to Philadelphia to play the 76ers. Carter ended up missing the final shot, and the Raptors were eliminated. Fans and members of the news media questioned his priorities after that outcome.

“People who criticize me for that have something to think about, I think, because that’s an important time in anybody’s life,” Carter said at the time. “There’s not one person who could sit there and say that they would miss their graduation for nothing.”

The distinction held special meaning for Carter. It will as well for Durant, who departed college after one season.

He keeps in mind that his mother, Wanda Pratt, wanted to return to school but was consumed with raising him and his brother.

“To walk across the stage will be just as important as being drafted,” Durant said. “Maybe even more important because that lasts an entire lifetime.”

As will another part of being a graduate: donation requests from the alumni fund-raising office.

Written by Symphony

October 8, 2009 at 8:25 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is GREAT. Hopefully they will use their future degrees in order to be examples to family/friends and secure their (own) financial futures.


    October 9, 2009 at 4:30 pm

  2. The NYTimes article has a link to a Sports Illustrated article “Why Do Sports Athletes Go Broke” which is a great story about athletes like Magic Johnson that was able to succeed after the game is over but also provides many examples of athletes that are not so successful.


    October 13, 2009 at 11:06 am

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