For a lot of African-American boys from poor neighborhoods who can do magical things on a basketball court, college is viewed merely as a temporary way station on the way to the NBA. A ticket out of poverty.

The same athletes whose sweat powers the collegiate basketball industry -- nearly $800 million in annual revenues -- too often never graduate. Only a small fraction make it to the NBA. When their dreams of stardom don't pan out, they are left with no degree and few employment prospects. We've all heard the sad stories of once-promising athletes whose lives took a downward spiral into drugs and sometimes even prison.

NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas' mother, Mary, was determined he wouldn't become one of those statistics.

When Thomas, a college basketball star, left Indiana University -- where he played for the infamous Bob Knight -- in his sophomore year to enter the NBA, she made him sign a contract promising that he would finish his undergraduate degree.

Thomas returned to Indiana during summers to earn his bachelor's in criminal justice with a minor in sociology.

On May 19, he is scheduled to graduate from UC Berkeley with a master's degree in education. Thomas, now a television commentator for NBA TV who lives between Chicago and New York, says he'll return to Berkeley to march in commencement in his cap and gown.


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Thomas has come a long way from growing up in public housing so poor that he sometimes had to sleep in all his clothes because his family couldn't afford heating oil to NBA superstardom and now a vocal advocate for teaching scholarship athletes to put their education first.

What made Thomas, 51, return to college at this stage of his life? A man who is among the select group of 151 players to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since 1959? A 12-time NBA All-Star who led the Detroit Pistons -- known as the "Bad Boys" for their aggressive style of play -- to championships in 1989 and 1990? A former head coach of the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, entrepreneur and television commentator?

"I'm from that generation that believed education was the success model, not an NBA championship," Thomas said during a recent interview at UC Berkeley. "Once I receive a master's from Berkeley, now I'm a success."

Thomas' mother, who died in 2010, was an activist who worked with Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, who was killed in his Chicago apartment in a police raid in 1969. She marched with Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when they came to Chicago.

Thomas says those were his heroes -- not the entertainers in sports and music that children are brainwashed to revere today.

Thomas, who still has his boyish looks and trademark smile, is soft-spoken but forceful about his views on the exploitation of African-American male athletes. Over the years, he says, he has seen athletes shuffled into classes that kept them eligible to play basketball but that didn't lead to graduation.

"If you look at the NCAA Final Four graduation rates for the black male athlete, it's poorer than poor," he said. "There's no excuse for that."

When Thomas took over the lackluster men's basketball team at Florida International University in Miami, he said he stressed academics over athletics, and 19 of 21 team members graduated. However, FIU fired Thomas for the team's dismal performance on the court -- which he says came as a complete shock.

It was at FIU that he discovered a book by UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education professors Jabari Mahiri and Derek Van Rheenen, "Out of Bounds: When Scholarship Athletes Become Academic Scholars." Mahiri and Van Rheenen came to FIU.

Thomas was so inspired by their ideas for motivating athletes to become scholars that he ended up enrolling in Berkeley's master's program. He has commuted and attended class via Skype.

Thomas will receive a master's in education with an emphasis in the cultural study of sport and education.

His focus is the academic achievement of black male athletes from "poor and marginalized" backgrounds.

"I take the approach that you educate first, and the athlete comes second," Thomas said.

That philosophy, unfortunately, doesn't lead to too many NCAA coaching jobs.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin.