Meeks keeping his promise as he pursues his degree

When the opportunity arose in 2009 for Jodie Meeks to pursue his basketball dreams ahead of schedule, he had two decisions to make: One, did he want to forego his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, and two, was he willing to come back to school over the summers to finish his degree if he left early?

The first one wouldn’t happen without a commitment to the second one, per his parents’ orders.

“Both of them have their degrees,” Meeks said. “They supported my decision to leave school early, but they wanted me to commit to coming back to school. They said they didn’t care how long it took, but eventually they wanted me to get it.”

So, a little more than four years since Meeks declared for the NBA Draft, there he was Wednesday morning walking across Avenue of Champions in a baseball hat and shorts, on his way to class. Trading in the summer spotlight of Los Angeles for the serene streets of Lexington, Meeks is keeping his word by putting a basketball down a handful of weeks every summer for a pencil and a backpack.

“I was so close to graduating after my junior year,” Meeks said. “If I would have stayed in school (and gone to summer school), I probably would have graduated in December. I was very close to graduating, so I figured why not.”

Meeks never played for John Calipari, but he’s taking up Coach Cal’s invite to all Wildcats to come back to school to finish their degree. Wayne Turner and Marquis Estill have done the same.

In his third summer back on campus, Meeks is taking two classes for six credit hours, which will put him just six hours and a summer away from getting his degree from the University of Kentucky. Following in the footsteps of his parents, who earned business degrees, Meeks is going into marketing.

“There’s a lot of stuff that has to do with marketing, including running a business after basketball,” Meeks said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “I’m thinking about doing that. The NBA’s all about marketing and branding yourself, so I’ve seen a lot of good ideas from players and organizations about marketing.”

Meeks was pursuing a marketing degree all along, but his interest has been piqued from his experience in the NBA, particularly in L.A. where the cameras never stop rolling, the spotlight never fades, and the importance of branding yourself can play a big factor in one’s public perception.

“I’ve had some pretty famous teammates in Dwight Howard and Kobe (Bryant), and I look at how they run themselves and how they carry themselves on and off the court,” Meeks said. “The NBA is all about marketing and how you market yourself on and off the court. They carry themselves very well. That definitely trickles down to my degree and in the classroom and how to study for it, but also how to market yourself and carry yourself.”

Jodie Meeks’ 54-point game against Tennessee in 2010 might stand atop the UK record books for a long time. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

Meeks just completed his fourth season in the NBA and his first with the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was a decent season for Meeks, but a humbling one from a team standpoint. After back-to-back playoff runs with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers never fulfilled expectations of a championship, falling in the first round of the NBA Playoffs because of a tumultuous string of injuries.

“It was challenging,” Meeks said. “There were a lot of high expectations for us before the season. It didn’t go as well as we had planned, but I still had a lot of fun.”

Early on, Bryant, still one of the game’s best players, challenged Meeks’ mentality.

Citing a desire for a fresh start after personnel moves in Philadelphia, Meeks signed a free-agent deal with Los Angeles because he felt like it presented the best opportunity for him. The Lakers, having signed Howard and Steve Nash, were stacked, and Meeks envisioned himself as a player who could back up Bryant and provide shots and energy off the bench. But it wouldn’t be that easy when Meeks arrived.

Early on, Bryant took it to Meeks in practice, and he let everyone else know about it. Among the comments Bryant made to reporters in L.A. were: “He isn’t looking too good,” “I’ve been murdering him” and “I’m kicking his (butt).”

Meeks admitted it wasn’t easy when he first got to Los Angeles, but he knew what he was signing up for.

“It was funny because last year my teammate was Andre Iguodala in Philadelphia and he pretty much told me what was going to happen,” Meeks said. “He said he’s not an easy person to get along with. He’s probably going to try to challenge you in preseason, but if you don’t back down and you go back out him and aren’t intimidated by him, he’ll like you for the entire season and he’ll respect you, and that’s pretty much what happened.”

Meeks said his game improved because of Bryant and his competitiveness, and he took the challenge as a badge of honor. If he wasn’t worth the time, Meeks doesn’t think Bryant would have bothered challenging him. Bryant grew to mentor him as the season wore on.

“The fact that he did that showed that he thought I had a lot of potential,” Meeks said. “He told me that actually during the season that if he didn’t think I had a lot of potential to be good and back him up then he wouldn’t have said anything. Preseason he did that. He got the best of me most of the time obviously, but I wasn’t intimidated and played well.”

Still, the season didn’t go as planned for L.A. Every time it seemed like the team couldn’t withstand another blow, another injury happened. The Lakers fought back from a 17-25 record in January, but Bryant’s season-ending Achilles injury just before the playoffs was too much to overcome.

“It was kind of like quicksand,” Meeks said. “The harder you were fighting, the farther down that you would go. It was hard to play in some of those situations, but nobody on our team really made any excuses. We just kept fighting with the guys we had on the court night in and night out. We had a lot of guys hurt on our team this year that had barely been hurt in their careers. … I think we’re very resilient and I think we played very well given the circumstances.”

Even Meeks couldn’t escape the injury bug. Just as the opportunity arose for Meeks to get some extra minutes because of the injury to Bryant, he went down in the first game of the playoffs with a sprained ankle, ending his year. He averaged 7.9 points in 21.3 minutes of action, hitting 122 3-point field goals.

“That was probably the biggest disappointment that I had personally,” Meeks said. “I felt like I had a good opportunity to kind of make a stand and show my game in the playoffs, but five minutes into my first playoff game as a Laker I twisted my ankle. I didn’t really know how bad it was when I first did it, but afterwards and the day after I could barely walk.”

Meeks drew comparisons to his own team’s expectations and disappointments to the ones the 2012-13 Kentucky team went through. While everyone expects talent to come together, gel and succeed quickly, it doesn’t always work that way, Meeks said. It takes time.

“I think people just look at talent on paper,” Meeks said. “We’re not machines. We’re still human and still have to co-exist. There’s a lot of stuff that has to go into that. It’s not always going to work. It was unfortunate that we had a disappointing season and here (at UK), but if people stay patient and give it time to work out, I think it will.”

Meeks said he learned to be resilient. He said the Lakers could have folded when they fell eight games below .500, but they fought through the injuries and naysayers and still made the playoffs. The former Wildcat believes his alma mater will do the same this season and rebound from the 2012-13 season.

“I still watch when I can,” Meeks said. “Most of the times when they play we have games, but I always check SportsCenter or my ESPN app or something. … I still keep up with them and talk to them.”

Of course, Meeks said he still gets stopped and asked about his record-setting 54-point game wherever he goes, including on campus as he takes his summer school classes. Specifics of that game have started to fade in Meeks’ mind, but he’s grateful his family and friends got to share in such a historic night.

“I just remember before the game I wasn’t feeling too well,” Meeks said. “Usually if you’re going to have a good game like that, you’re usually feeling good. Before the game, I actually really didn’t feel that well. I was like, ‘Man, I hope we play well and I hope we win the game,’ and I was kind of on edge about it, but it just happened to be one of those special nights. Hopefully I can have another one soon in the NBA.”

UK’s single-game scoring record holder said it’s easy to keep a Kentucky connection because of how many players Coach Cal is putting in the pros.

“It seems like every NBA team has a Kentucky player on it,” Meeks said. “When I do see somebody that went to school here, I try to reach out to them and speak to them at least for a couple of minutes before the game, especially the rookies that came in this year with Anthony (Davis), Marquis (Teague), Terrence (Jones), Doron (Lamb) and those guys just to make sure they’re OK because I know your rookie season is your hardest.”

Meeks said he tries to reach out to them because he remembers how hard it was for him when he broke into the league. No matter how prepared and how talented a player is, Meeks said the cutthroat business side of things takes awhile to get used to.

“It’s really your first time not playing on a consistent basis for the first time in your career,” Meeks said. “People have different stories, but for the majority of people in the NBA, you’ve really never not gotten to play or not start. I think I still struggle with it at some points not getting particular shots one game or only getting two shots one game and then get 15 the next game. It’s tough to get adjusted to that, but you’ve just got to stay strong mentally, and when your opportunity comes, just be ready.”