Former University of Kentucky basketball star Jodie Meeks to graduate Saturday

lblackford@herald-leader.comMay 8, 2014 

Every summer since 2010, Jodie Meeks has left the glitzy, glamorous life of a professional basketball player to return to the University of Kentucky to take classes toward his business marketing degree.

Despite plenty of uncertainties that exist for college athletes who leave school early, the former UK star said he never doubted that he'd finish his degree and walk in a processional on Saturday with 2,107 other UK graduates.

"For me, once I get my mind set on something, I usually do it," the Norcross, Ga., native said Thursday during a news conference. "When I left school early, I made a promise to myself and my family that I would finish."

Meeks said his summer classes at UK were a welcome getaway from Los Angeles, where for the past two years he has played for the Lakers. "It's quiet, nobody bothers you. ... For me, it's kind of therapy to get away."

Meeks spent three years at UK, where he broke the Kentucky single-game scoring record with 54 points against Tennessee in 2009. He also broke the university's single-game three-point basket record in that game, making 10 three-pointers.

He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, then was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2010. Two years later, he went to the Lakers, and in March he scored 42 points in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Graduation will be a thrill, he said.

"It definitely feels good," he said. "It's gratifying for myself and my family."

It's relatively unusual for an active NBA player to focus on his education. With UK Coach John Calipari's "one and done" approach turning many college freshman into NBA millionaires, star players often don't come back to school.

UK athletics officials say they try to support athletes who want to return for their degrees. They cite recent success stories, including basketball players Wayne Turner and Marquis Estill and football players Andre Woodson, Braxton Kelly, Glenn Holt and Artose Pinner, all of whom have completed UK degrees in the past few years.

Tony Neely, an assistant athletics director at UK, said the university connects former players with the Center for Academic and Tutorial Services, which sets them up with an academic evaluation of what's needed to finish their degrees.

"Sometimes they can take classes online, or sometimes they have to be here, so we try to tailor a plan that will work for the student athlete," Neely said.

In general, UK Athletics has paid for the athlete's tuition and fees, because most of them were on an athletic scholarship that would have paid their tuition had they stayed in school.

"We think it's important for our student athletes to graduate," Neely said. "If he or she wants to come back, we're going to try to help them."

UK's 2014 "graduation success rate," or GSR, for men's basketball is 82 percent, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which puts UK in fifth place among the teams that played in this year's NCAA Sweet 16. (The UK women's basketball team has a rate of 100 percent. The University of Connecticut men's team, which won the NCAA championship this year, has a rate of 8 percent.)

The GSR was developed by the NCAA as a way to account for the vagaries of college athletics, such as students who transfer and graduate from another school.

In 2013, the UK football team had a GSR of 62 percent, according to the NCAA.

Former UK quarterback Woodson graduated in 2012, after leaving UK without a degree in spring 2008. He spent three years in the NFL before returning to Lexington and becoming a full-time student for a year to get his degree in agriculture communications and leadership.

"Obviously, I had to think about getting a job, and it's difficult to find a job without a college degree," said Woodson, who worked for Morehead State University football last year as the wide receivers coach before moving to Louisville while his wife finishes her nursing degree. "None of my family had previously gone to college. I thought it was mandatory to finish my degree. I had pride in myself to make sure I finished what I started.

"It's a great feeling," he said. "For a lot of us who are student athletes, all we've ever known is sports, so to accomplish something else beyond sports can be overwhelming."

Woodson and Meeks said they would tell other players to buckle down and finish.

"One thing I don't do in basketball, or especially in life, is take things for granted," Meeks said. "You never know how long your career will last, but once you have a degree, you'll have it forever."

Linda J. Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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