In recent years, Kenny Donaldson gently reminded some of UCLA's former basketball stars that he could help them return to school to finish their degrees. As UCLA's athletics assistant director of academic services, Donaldson hoped that any former Bruins who had left school early to play in the NBA would eventually find their way back to campus and work toward graduating.
Thanks, in part, to the NBA lockout, Donaldson's had a handful of players take him up on his offer this summer. UCLA's American Popular Culture class now has four out-of-work NBA players – Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook(notes), Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love(notes), New Orleans Hornets forward Trevor Ariza(notes) and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Baron Davis(notes) – among its students. In addition, Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Mbah a Moute is taking two classes this summer. Having begun their professional careers, all of the players are paying for their tuition and books.
"When the lockout looked like it was going to be a definite thing, I kind of sat down with each of them and laid out a game plan," Donaldson said. "You don't want to get them back in something that they're not going to be interested in. I presented them with options and they found classes that they thought would be interesting, and are easing back into it right now."
When Ariza first came to UCLA in 2003 from Los Angeles' Westchester High School, he didn't intend to stay long before moving to the NBA. After averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds as a freshman, he declared for the 2004 NBA draft and wasn't selected until the 43rd overall pick in the second round by the New York Knicks. With Ariza acknowledging he was more focused on pursuing a professional basketball career, Donaldson doubted he'd ever return.
Ariza, however, is now again enrolled at UCLA and is considering taking a much heavier course load in the fall. He's still deciding on a major, and if the NBA lockout ends, he plans to take online classes.
"Being a regular student is kind of fun," he said.
Ariza said he is learning more now than as a freshman because he has a "different appreciation" for college. While he is also considering playing in Spain, China or Serbia if the lockout drags into the fall, he is currently focused on his coursework at UCLA.
"I'm really going back for my two sons," Ariza said. "Eventually they're going to realize that their dad fulfilled his dreams doing what he wanted to do and still got his degree. For them to see that will be a great example for them to follow."
Donaldson said former NBA forward Ed O'Bannon has also returned to UCLA, and is expected to complete his degree soon. Two more former Bruins – Denver Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo(notes) and New Jersey Nets guard Jordan Farmar(notes), who is expected to play in Israel during the lockout – have considered going back to school, Donaldson said.
Ariza thinks the lockout could spur players to take their education more seriously.
"We have a whole lot of our lives to live after basketball," Ariza said. "We have to understand what we want to do when [retirement] comes. A lot of us came out [of college] really young, and we have no idea what we want to do with our lives if basketball doesn't work out."
Ariza, Love, Westbrook, Davis and Mbah a Moute aren't the only NBA players who have gone back to school this summer. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Randolph(notes) has rented an apartment in Baton Rouge within walking distance of Louisiana State University. He is currently enrolled in a math class and has signed up to take three classes in the fall. He has no plans to play overseas.
Randolph played only his freshman season at LSU before entering the 2008 draft, where he was selected 14th by the Golden State Warriors. If the lockout ends during the fall semester, he'd like to finish his classes online and return for summer school. A sociology major, Randolph also is considering joining a fraternity and attending LSU football games.
"The students know I'm from the NBA, but it's more fun because I can focus on my schoolwork," said Randolph, who has promised his mother he'd get his degree. "I don't have the basketball distraction. I'm a more focused student now after being in the real world for a couple of years."
Randolph met with LSU coach Trent Johnson about volunteering to help at the Tigers' practices to gain coaching experience. If OK'd by the NCAA, Randolph would like to assist his old team.
"I want to pursue a career in coaching when I'm done playing," Randolph said. "But I have to have a degree to do that."
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