The importance of education in the one-and-done era

As many of you know, Derek, Dom and Mychal are graduating this weekend. I’m also very proud and happy for Marcus Camby, who is graduating from UMass on May 12. I’m looking forward to going to Amherst that day to be with him. This exciting time offers me a chance to reflect and think about a number of things, including how important it is to have an education.

Our job as coaches is to create a love for learning. We must promote lifelong learning, encourage young people to have curious minds and to want to read.

In the past, I have spoken out against the possibility of the NBA allowing high school players to be able to go directly to the D-League. My reasons are simple and they have nothing to do with the University of Kentucky. If you want a high school player to become professional, whether it be after their junior or senior year in high school, let them. Draft them into the NBA, which used to be the case.

Congratulations to Mychal, Dom and Derek for graduating this weekend. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

But to ask them to spend a year in the D-League before they can be drafted creates a social dilemma with young ninth and 10th graders. Their choice would be whether they’re going to really challenge themselves academically, or simply say to themselves, “This is too hard and I’m going to the D-League anyway.” The issue is the latter. We must guard against devaluing education, especially in this one-and-done era.

There could be as many as 9,000 or 10,000 kids thinking in those terms. They’re not mature enough to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives when they’re 14 or 15. When you were that age would you have been able to make the right decision – one that would affect the rest of your life?

This isn’t like minor league baseball. They’ll have a year or two to prove themselves and that will be it. And if they don’t make it to the NBA, what are they left with? I’ll add another caveat: What kids are we talking about here? These are urban kids, poor kids, many with single parents, many of whom are minorities. Without that education and that lifelong curiosity for learning, their path and chance at the American dream is almost nil.

In my opinion, the D-League would be better served to prepare those older players already in the league and give those guys second and third chances to breakthrough or have success, which is what they do now. But don’t allow high school kids to forego an education when they’re at an age where they’re not ready to make those decisions.

I also like the direction where most college basketball programs are moving, which is toward lifetime scholarships. If one of our athletes leaves school early for the NBA he can always come back and finish his degree at a later time, which many of our players have done or are in the process of doing. It becomes a great insurance policy if nothing else.

I’m not saying these kids who leave early can finish their degree in a year. It may take them some time, like Marcus, who is 43 and gets his degree this spring. But when I was the coach at Memphis, Penny Hardaway, Cedric Henderson and others came back to finish. At Kentucky, some of my players have already come back to work on earning their degree, and other former UK players have already come back and graduated like Kelenna Azubuike, Jodie Meeks and Wayne Turner. That’s what it’s all about.

What I tell these kids is that when you have an education, it’s a lot harder to rob you and it’s a lot harder to fool you. I also tell them that when they’re older and have kids, it’s hard to tell your own kids that they need to get an education if you don’t have one yourself.

Here at Kentucky, we’re trying to do everything. Yes, we do it on the basketball court, but we want to create community leaders and also want to develop lifelong learners.

Some of these kids come to me with an attitude about school. The story’s been told before, but Willie Cauley-Stein didn’t like school when he got to Kentucky. While he was here, he and I started a book club where we would read a book and share ideas from it. Prior to his third year, Willie and I sat down and talked about his decision to stay in school or enter the NBA Draft. He said he wanted to come back to get better and work on his game, and that he liked school. He liked school? I was so proud. To me, it was like we won the championship. Willie became an All-American, was a lottery pick, and has become a lifelong learner and reader.

I have to say this, because it gets overlooked with anything that is said about Kentucky basketball: We’ve graduated 17 players now in eight years (every kid who was eligible to graduate by the end of their senior year, by the way), including three players who graduated in three years, two of which are playing in the NBA. Our kids leave in good academic standing. They’re in class the second semester because it’s a must if they want that lifetime scholarship. And you know what? They do. We’ve had an Academic Progress Rate, which evaluates a team’s academic eligibility, retention and graduation rate over a four-year period, in the top 10 percent in the country for each of the past three years. It’s what we believe in.

Once again, congratulations to Derek, Dom and Mychal on graduating. I’m so proud of the UK guys for getting it done in four years, but I’m just as proud of Marcus, because it’s proof that this is about making them lifelong learners. Congratulations to them all on achieving an important life milestone that nobody can take away from them.