Dean Tolson returned to the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1984. He was bitter, in a sense a defeated vagabond. Ten years of professional basketball had taken Tolson, a 6'8" center, to exotic places, but at 32 he had little to show for his career.
During his first stop at the Fayetteville campus, in the early 1970s, he rarely opened a book and repeatedly skipped classes. This time around—his mother had challenged him to return to school—he vowed to study until he collapsed. Getting a college degree, he figured, was his only salvation.
Tolson's first year back was draining. Most days he studied for nine hours. At times, the frustration was too much. He would curse all of the coaches who had allowed him to take academics too lightly when he was younger, and he would scream about the teachers who had permitted him to graduate from high school without being able to read well.
"No one knows what it's like to be recognized all your life for something, to be a basketball star—to be somebody—and then, to no longer have that," Tolson explains. "You're a zero.
May 29, 1988
"I affected hundreds of thousands of basketball fans at Arkansas, in the NBA and all over the world. But when my career was over, I was worth $3.50 an hour. That's all. Do you know how much that hurts?"
Four years later, after seven semesters of pain and perseverance, Tolson walked across a gymnasium stage to receive his Bachelor of Science in education. On May 8, at 36, he became one of the oldest Razorback athletes to complete a degree.
Tolson's accomplishment also carried a dubious distinction. Few students had gone back to Arkansas with a worse transcript. He had to overcome 38 credit hours of F's and an abominable 1.43 grade point average (on a 4-point scale). In order to obtain a degree, he had to repeat two thirds of his credits; in all, 83 credit hours. Those courses he had taken to remain eligible to play basketball—golf, tennis, swimming, square dancing, typing and coaching football—translated into nothing but a lot of wasted time.
Tolson's dismal record also meant he had to adhere to rigid academic standards: If he dropped below a C average (2.0) in any one semester, he could be dismissed from Arkansas for a year.
Some university officials tried to dissuade Tolson from returning to school. "It was such an uphill battle," says associate registrar Guy Nelson. "I told Dean several times to start over at another school. With his transcript, he had a better chance of graduating from someplace else."
Donald Pederson, vice-chancellor for academic affairs, says: "Any other student would have dropped out and never gone back to school."
Thanks to the Razor-back Foundation, a fund-raising group for athletes, Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles gave Tolson a full scholarship. Afterward, Broyles wondered if he had made a mistake.
"Dean's first year back, he'd come into my office," Broyles recalls. "He'd say he couldn't do the work, that he needed help. I suggested tutors, and soon after that a $2,000 bill for private tutoring hit my desk. He insisted tutors were the only way he could get his degree. After-hearing that, I never thought he'd be able to graduate."
The sad truth is that Tolson probably shouldn't have been admitted to Arkansas in the first place. His transcript from Central High School in Kansas City, Mo., is filled with courses in metal shop, auto mechanics, printing, cooking, speech and family relations. In science, math and English, he never got higher than a C. He finished with a 1.83 GPA, putting him in the bottom third of his class.
It wasn't until Tolson was a washed-up has-been in basketball, with no marketable skills, that he realized the power of an education. His second go-around at Arkansas was the most difficult challenge he has ever undertaken, but it has given him a clearer perspective on life, one which he hopes to share—his goal now is to coach basketball—with talented young athletes.
"When I become a coach, if I see a Dean Tolson, I won't recruit him," Tolson says. "I'll move on to the next kid. It's not fair to the kid or to the school.
"I will never let an athlete slide through life by taking easy classes or giving him gift grades. I've learned the hard way."
The second of Booker and Melba Tolson's five children, Dean spent his early childhood in Bonner Springs, Kans., 15 miles west of Kansas City. His father worked at the post office. Money was scarce and there was a lot of tension in the household.
Eventually, Melba and Booker divorced. She and the children moved to Kansas City, where she toiled long hours to feed her family. In the morning she was a nurse's aide at Menorah Medical Center; in the afternoon she worked in a clothing factory, sewing athletic uniforms; at night she worked in her kitchen, ironing other people's shirts and sheets.
"Menial tasks are all I've ever done," says Melba, who now works as a home health aide, caring for elderly people. "I only went as far as the eighth grade because my family couldn't afford to buy me school clothes."
To get her children out of a cramped, roach-infested apartment, Melba borrowed money from her mother in 1959 and bought a three-bedroom home. But the only way she could meet the $75 monthly mortgage payment was to put her three oldest children—Bobby, then 9, Dean, 8, and Brent, 5—in the Niles Home for Children, a state-supported orphanage.
"She sat us down on the sofa and said, 'I love you, but I have to do something you won't understand.' " Tolson recalls. " 'You're going away. But don't worry; someday your mama is going to come back to get you. I promise.' "
At the orphanage, Dean fell in with an unruly bunch. He skipped school and loitered around the city, stealing candy from stores, throwing rocks at trains and smoking cigarettes on street corners. He performed so poorly at Attucks elementary that he had to repeat the fifth grade.
"It was a very lonely time," he says. "I felt like I didn't have anybody to love and that nobody loved me."
Tolson found solace in basketball. His uncle, Raymond Hodges, worked as a security guard at Lincoln Junior High, which happened to be across the street from the Niles Home. Every afternoon, perched on the front porch of the orphanage, Tolson waited for his uncle to take down the flag.
"I'd run across the street and help Uncle Raymond fold it," Tolson recalls. "He'd always say, 'Dean, I'll let you in the gym to play basketball.' That was the only thing I had to look forward to."
Just as she had promised, four years later Melba retrieved her sons from the orphanage. Although he was now under his mother's care, Tolson remained a discipline problem and he came close to flunking the seventh grade, but his uncle intervened.
"The principal told Uncle Raymond I couldn't pass unless I took 10 swats on the butt with a board," Tolson says. "Uncle Raymond said, 'Dean, do it for me. I'll take you out for some ice cream afterward.' "
As a sophomore center at Central High, Tolson, now 6'4", had extraordinary leaping ability. In his junior and senior years he led the Blue Eagles in scoring and rebounding, and in his final season he was chosen first-team all-state.
Instant athletic success gave Tolson an inflated ego. He stopped doing his schoolwork. "What was the point?" he says. "I hated every class." He remained eligible because, Tolson claims, his coach, Jack Bush, pressured teachers into changing his star's grades.
Bush denies doing that, and, with a 1.83 GPA, Tolson's high school transcript hardly appears doctored. Bush does say, however, that "a kid Dean's size could've been given a little leniency along the way. Face facts. That still happens today."
When it came time for college, no major school was interested in recruiting Tolson. He didn't have the grades, and he had scored miserably on a precollege exam. But Lanny Van Eman, who was coach at Arkansas, saw Tolson play at a Boys Club in Kansas City and persuaded the school to take a chance on him—with the stipulation that Tolson take remedial courses in the summer before his freshman year.
Tolson's Arkansas transcript shows he couldn't handle college work and did only well enough to maintain eligibility. His grades for most of his semesters in Fayetteville were below 2.0, with one exception—the fall of 1972, when his transcript shows that he had a 2.21 average.
Tolson claims Van Eman made deals with professors every semester to keep him in school. Tolson's proof? "If you can't read or write, how else are you going to get through?" he says. "All-my grades were gifts."
Van Eman denies the charge: "I'm not going to say I never called [professors], but I don't think I ever did."
Tolson describes his four years at Arkansas as "like being at camp." Nearly half his courses each semester involved physical activities. In mandatory study halls, he doodled. He was often so unprepared for tests that he turned them in with only his name written on them. Some semesters he didn't even buy textbooks. "As long as I played basketball, I'd never be kicked out," he says.
Broyles, then the Razorback football coach, says Tolson's theory is on target. "In the '70s, all of us in athletics found ways to take advantage of school rules to keep athletes eligible," he says. "A coach did all he could do to save his job. We just jumped at great athletes. Dean was enrolled in classes only to stay eligible; he made no progress toward a degree. That was within NCAA rules."
Finally, in the spring of his senior year, when Tolson stopped going to classes and got four F's, Arkansas suspended him. "I'd sleep in, eat lunch, then go to practice," he explains. "Then I'd drive around in my car, drink beer, and pick up girls."
The Seattle SuperSonics made Tolson their fifth-round pick in the 1974 NBA draft. He was cut in training camp but rejoined the Sonics on the day after Christmas and lasted the rest of the season. He was cut again in the fall of '75.
Hazleton, Pa., was his next stop. He made $100 a game playing for the Bullets of the Eastern League. In 1976, Tolson popped up with Seattle again. He signed a $45,000, one-year contract. Spectacular dunks made him a crowd-pleaser, and his .566 field goal percentage set a team record.
In '77, Tolson splurged on a $200,000, six-bedroom house beside a golf course in Bellevue, Wash. Two months later, and just six games into the 1977-78 season, the Sonics cut Tolson for the third and last time.
"Sitting in my house, my Mercedes in the driveway, I never felt more empty in my life," he says. "The Sonics didn't even tell me. I saw it on TV."
The Sonics may have done him a favor. To meet his house and car payments, totaling $2,500 a month, Tolson was forced to travel the world, picking up whatever basketball jobs he could. At each spot, the kid from the Kansas City ghetto was introduced to culture, customs, history, language and terrain.
The Tolson travelogue:
•The Anchorage Northern Knights, 1977-78. "When I arrived it was 30 below. At one point, we had daylight around the clock. I remember taping tinfoil to the windows to sleep. I rode dogsleds and snowmobiles."
•Gilbey's Gin team, Manila, 1978-81. "They were calling me Filipino Deano. I ate dogmeat and drank gin.... I attended a lavish party at the Marcoses' palace. In the entry, there were guards with M16s. We feasted on roast pig. I slow-danced with Imelda."
•Carabobo team, Valencia, Venezuela, 1981-82. "I was known as Jirafa—that's giraffe in Spanish. For one game, we had to drive into the Andes Mountains, through clouds, in a rundown bus. There were white crosses on the side of the road where cars had gone over. I saw mountain people, guys skinning cows alive and picking coffee beans."
•Panteras team, Caracas 1982-83. "There were teenage boys, barebacked, with iguanas on leashes. That was their pet. I learned to habla a little espa‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ol."
•A.E.K., Athens, 1983-84. "I lived near a nudist beach.... The Greeks found me a curiosity because of my seven-foot wingspan. My outstretched arms are longer than I am tall."
The odyssey ended in the summer of 1984, when Tolson flew home to Kansas City to visit his mother.
"You've spent every penny you've ever made," his mother said. "I've never asked anything of you. Please do this for me. Go back to school and get a degree. Make something of your life."
"I'm not sure I can do the work," he said. "I've never been a student."
Melba then lost her patience altogether. "You don't know what you can do," she screamed, "because you've never really tried!"
With no roads left to travel in basketball, he decided it was time to get on with his life. Acting on his mother's challenge, he became a student. He diligently followed self-imposed guidelines: Never miss a test or class, always turn in assignments on time, get to know the professors. Still, he struggled, getting mostly C's.
That changed in the spring of 1987. His younger sister Bonnie, who has a master's degree in urban education and is working toward another in counseling and guidance, saw that he had a feeling for history. She suggested he drop his physical education major and take advantage of his travels. Tolson switched to a secondary education major, with an emphasis in history.
"I could relate," he says. "I'd been to almost every place we talked about."
Tolson was also fortunate to meet Marcia Harriell, a 1969 Arkansas graduate with a psychology degree. Divorced and the mother of two teenagers, Harriell tutored Razorback athletes for extra pocket money.
"Dean was desperate," she recalls.
Harriell's first challenge was to figure out how Tolson learned. She had him read his texts aloud, and she paused from time to time to define words or explain concepts. She then discovered Tolson had something of a photographic memory, so she boiled down reading assignments to lists of sentences and words, which helped him focus on the work. Tolson copied the key sentences and words onto an erasable board, studied the material, then rubbed the slate clean. "I remembered everything," he says.
During most of these tutoring sessions, Harriell also forced him to discuss his feelings. Some nights, he'd ramble for hours about broken dreams and lost hopes. Erasing the bitterness, she believed, was a necessary part of the learning process.
Tolson got a C in general psychology, but in the fall of '86 he dropped out of Arkansas to play basketball in Buenos Aires. He needed a break from the intense pressure.
"I thought I would never hear from Dean again," Harriell says.
She was surprised when he phoned in the spring to ask her to be his Western Civilization tutor. She said yes and ended up drilling him in three more courses. To conserve time, Tolson moved into a spare bedroom in her home.
Seven days a week, for as many as 15 hours at a clip, they pored over books at the dining room table. Tolson went days without sleep; Harriell sometimes stumbled into bed about 5 a.m.
Tolson was just too consumed to see anything but the final goal. He became difficult to live with. To memorize Greek names for a course in world literature, he plastered the house with 100 buzzwords on sheets of white butcher paper. He taped the paper to kitchen cupboards, bathroom mirrors and living room walls. To prepare for 50-minute essay exams, Tolson wrote paragraph after paragraph while Harriell kept time with a stopwatch.
Tolson believes Harriell was a godsend. He felt so guilty about paying her only $650 a semester in tutoring fees that last month he painted her house.
On graduation day in Fayetteville, Harriell threw a small party for Tolson. Melba and Uncle Raymond led a two-car family caravan from Kansas City. Tolson's cousin, Donna Madison, followed with Bonnie and a 10-year-old nephew, Brandon. Harriell uncorked a chilled magnum of Asti Spumante and there were toasts all around. At evening's end, Harriell presented the graduate with a custom-made copper etching of his Arkansas diploma. When Tolson saw it, he started to cry.