Jocks are typically portrayed as dumb. Movies and television shows have shown us that they detest school, pouring every last bit of their precious little brain capacity into jumpshots and touchdowns. There are plenty of jokes to be made about athletes who take seven years to get their bachelor’s degrees.
“Hey, a lot of people go to college for seven years,” says Chris Farley’s character in the ‘90s hit comedy Tommy Boy.
“I know,” replies David Spade’s Richard. “They’re called doctors.”
Charlotte Hornets forward Marvin Williams is not a doctor. He’s a jock, and he always has been. In 2004, the 18-year-old was a five-star high school recruit ranked 11th in the country. He was named to Washington’s All-State team and found himself on several All-American rosters, including the most prestigious one organized by McDonald’s. Naturally, he found his way to UNC, where in his first year he teamed up with studs like Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May en route to the 2005 NCAA National Championship.
That summer, after only one season playing college ball, Williams was made the No. 2 overall selection in the 2005 NBA Draft. Being drafted that high meant that the 19-year-old would bank around $10.5 million by the time the rest of his fellow UNC freshmen graduated college three years later. Most people that age would take eight figures’ worth of salary and kiss college goodbye forever.
Williams did not. He continued to pursue his degree.
“It took me 10 summers,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I only had one year of academics under my belt when I left Chapel Hill [in 2005], so it literally took me 10 summers to finish.”
In other words, Williams started his summer courses in 2005 after declaring for the NBA Draft, was then the second overall selection in late June, and went ahead and finished up his coursework before beginning his rookie campaign in Atlanta.
“I didn’t waste any time,” he chuckled, remembering that hectic time in his life. “I know myself well enough to know that if I would have stepped away for just even a semester, it would have been more difficult to go back. So I just hung straight in there and kept going.”
For the next nine years after that first one, he took zero breaks. Not for vacation, not for rest. Every summer he’d go back to Chapel Hill, knock out a couple of classes and do his offseason workouts with the Tar Heels’ men’s basketball team while he educated himself.
“I took no summers off,” Williams said. “My first couple of years when I was in Atlanta, we weren’t making the playoffs and I was able to go to both sessions, which really helped a lot. When we started making the playoffs, I was only able to catch the second session, so depending on how the season went would depend on how many sessions I was able to do in the summer.”
There even were times when Williams would take classes while the NBA season was underway. Plenty of people pursue degrees while holding down a day job, and pro ball players actually have quite a bit more free time than most full-time workers.
“Sometimes when guys would watch movies or sleep on the plane, I was on the back of a plane knocking out a paper or something like that,” Williams said. “As an NBA player, you have a great deal of time. If you ask most guys, they’re usually playing video games anyway after practice. You know, I’d just take a little bit of time, like an hour a day or so, to finish some homework.”
The end result was a degree in African-American Studies from the University of North Carolina. He could have stopped at any point, like in 2009 when he signed a five-year, $37.5 million deal with the Hawks. That contract meant that by 2014, he would have made just shy of $50 million over the course of his career. Somebody with that sort of money doesn’t need to go to college, but it was a labor of pride for Williams more than anything else. For him, and his parents.
“My parents always stressed education growing up, so it was always a very big deal for me to finish college,” he said. “Schooling was always a very big deal in my house. You’re demanded to get good grades and feel like education was important. So instilling that in me earlier kind of made me want to finish my degree later. Honesty, my parents didn’t really worry about me finishing my degree because I think they both knew I was going to do it.”
The fact that Williams was able to stay in shape with a world-class university basketball program every summer made him a better basketball player, as well. Every year there are stories of players who come to camp out of shape and out of focus, but those stories never have been about Marvin Williams. He truly believes his summers in Chapel Hill have had a lot to do with his success in the league.
“Luckily for me, that’s where I trained,” he said. “I trained with the strength coach at UNC. Coach [Roy] Williams allowed me to use their facilities and use their doctors during the summer time and I even played with those guys.
“It was everything. For one, college kids are much more conditioned in the summer time than I would say professionals are. Those college guys are constantly training, they’re always running, and they’re always playing. Pros, after a long season, will take a month or so off to get their bodies back, but then they have to kind of get back in shape. It seems like those college kids are always in shape.”
Plus, having access to all of those facilities and UNC team staff in the summertime allowed him to have close contact to everything he’d need to maintain his focus for the season to come.
“The trainer there was great,” Williams said. “He taught me so much about being a professional—taking care of your body, eating the right foods, stretching, cold tubs—all the very basic things that I think a younger guy might miss because he didn’t go to college. If you come [into the NBA] at 19, maybe some of the younger guys don’t like the cold tub, some of the younger guys don’t stretch, or don’t take care of their bodies that way. Just being with him every single year, I can’t really express how much it’s done for my career.”
All of this, of course, isn’t necessarily common among today’s burgeoning one-and-done stars. More often than not, the top picks in the draft are young men who only attended one year of college, and only then because the NBA’s rules force them to. Williams has seen plenty of them come and go with little concern for their education, yet he tries to do his part to encourage them to get a degree despite their hefty bank accounts.
“Whether or not a young player goes back for his degree kind of depends on how long they were in school before getting drafted,” Williams explained. “If you leave after your freshman year, I don’t really see too many kids that are jumping straight back into it… So I’m going to push for younger guys to go back and get their degrees, no matter how much time they spent in college.”
Earning a degree isn’t as tough as some may think, particularly if one spreads it out over the course of three or four (or 10) years.
“As a 19-year-old freshman leaving college early, you don’t really understand the climb that you have, but it was not nearly as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” he said. “It did take a little bit of time, but I’m constantly encouraging younger guys, especially one-and-done guys, to take a couple classes here and there. It’s just so easy to hop on and do one or two things online, and if you’re heading back—you have four or five weeks during the summer just to get back on campus. It really is not that difficult.”
It will never stop being hard to persuade 19-year-old millionaires to go back to college, but Williams believes with every ounce of his being that an education is worth the struggle, even for the young and wealthy.
“A degree is everything,” he said. “I’ve always been very aware of basketball never lasting forever. I thought I wanted to coach. I don’t think I will anymore, but I still have that option. Having options is what brings a little bit of peace in knowing that I can do things that I want to do. A degree is only going to help me do those things.”
And if Williams, with almost $120 million in career earnings by the time his current contract runs its course, decides to do nothing with his degree, he’ll have earned that. He can play video games, too, if he wants, but more in the way that one has dessert after a square meal.
None of this makes him a doctor, but it does remove him from the “dumb jock” stereotype. For at least one athlete, 10 years of school isn’t a joke. Rather, it’s a testament to the sort of patience and drive that has kept Williams in the league for so long. Here’s hoping it rubs off on some of his younger colleagues.
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