Mike Smith's journey through the higher education system is not that unusual. He started at one college in 1992, transferred to another after his sophomore year, lost interest in school for a while, went to work and realized he needed a degree. Now, at 25, he is back in the classroom hoping to finish in the spring.
But since Smith started school at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore on a basketball scholarship, his failure to get a degree from that school has made him a negative statistic in a highly publicized and disheartening report on graduation rates.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association study showed that Maryland public colleges failed to graduate within six years any of the 16 men's basketball players on scholarship who entered as freshmen in 1992.
It was a black eye for the state. But a closer look reveals shades of gray.
The NCAA's annual graduation rate summary uses standards that don't account for students who transfer and graduate on time, or leave school for professional careers and return years later to get their degrees.
The players and people who know them give assorted reasons why these students didn't graduate from Maryland schools -- the lure of professional basketball, the crisis of a coaching change, the problem of balancing sports and school, a lack of academic preparation in high school, inadequate academic support in college, ill-advised decisions that young people often make.
But The Sun's review of the recruiting class of 1992 found a number of young men leading successful lives, despite the failure to graduate -- and several players who did receive degrees.
Kyle Locke's degree should have been included in the graduation rate report.
He came to Coppin State College in 1992 on a basketball scholarship and graduated in four years, but Coppin erroneously listed him in an earlier report.
Of the 16 freshmen who were on basketball scholarships at the state's six public colleges, he is the only one who received a degree under the NCAA's standards.
Cameron Nekkers, Coppin State's other freshman, transferred to the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and got a degree in 1996.
Nemanja Petrovic left the University of Maryland, College Park, after his freshman year, transferring to St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, where he received his bachelor's degree in finance and his master's in international business. He is listed as not graduating in the NCAA statistics because the University of Maryland is not on his diploma.
Felton Scott is in the same boat: He played for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County but got his degree from another school in the six years allowed by the NCAA.
Damon Tweedy, who also came to UMBC in 1992, played basketball there, graduated in 1996 and is in medical school at Duke University in North Carolina. He wasn't counted because the NCAA tracks only those on athletic scholarships. Tweedy attended on an academic scholarship.
The Sun talked to 11 members of the recruiting class of 1992 as well as parents, high school and college coaches, and administrators to learn what happened to the players in college and later.
Two are enrolled in college and expect to graduate in May, including Smith, who is majoring in sports management at Towson University while working in community relations for the new minor league basketball team, the Baltimore BayRunners.
Playing for pay
At least five left school without their degrees to pursue basketball. None made it to the National Basketball Association, but they have played for pay around the world.
"You've got to take care of your family," said Mario Lucas, recruited by the University of Maryland. He's played in South America since leaving College Park. "The opportunity to play [professionally] doesn't come around every day. My intention was to come back for summer school, but I can't turn down jobs."
The lure of professional play has never been greater because of the expansion of opportunities, mainly overseas. Ventures like the International Basketball League will start play this year in Baltimore and seven other cities in this country.
"Since we started this place in 1984, we've said that playing professionally was a 1-in-10,000 dream," says Richard E. Lapchick, who directs Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
"But with all these international leagues, that's changed. It's a well-paid job, and for an adventurous young man -- or woman, as there are a growing number of women's leagues -- it's a pretty good experience, a way to spend a few years abroad."
Lucas would agree. He estimates he has made between $150,000 and $200,000, mainly free of taxes, with his living expenses often paid by the foreign teams. Had he received his degree and used it to work with children, as he intends to do one day, Lucas says he would have made far less.
And he probably wouldn't have learned to speak fluent Spanish.
"It's been a great experience," said Lucas, who underwent knee surgery in the spring and is rehabilitating at his home in Memphis, Tenn. He acknowledged that the injury has led him to lament leaving Maryland 19 credits short of his degree in family studies.
Lucas' classmates who played with him during his four years at College Park left school to play professionally. Duane Simpkins spent two years in Europe before returning home to pursue a career in broadcasting. He works for an Internet company. Exree Hipp played in Brazil for two years before joining the Harlem Globetrotters last year. Johnny Rhodes is also with the Globetrotters, after playing briefly in Taiwan.
"They say, 'Coach, I'm going to make $100,000 playing overseas.' What are you going to say?" asked Maryland coach Gary Williams. "Some kids are going to be successful without their degrees, others need a degree. It's a national problem; it's not just a state of Maryland problem. Once a kid's eligibility is up, he's out of your control."
Ralph Blalock says he left Towson University to play professionally about one semester shy of his degree. He plays for the Newcastle Eagles in England.
"I didn't take advantage of everything I needed to," Blalock said of his college years. "They tried to get me to graduate. I went off and did my own thing."
Many players recalled the difficulty of trying to balance college basketball and classwork.
"People fail to realize how much pressure there is on college players at big-time programs," said Simpkins, who played for the Terrapins after graduating from De- Matha High with a B average and an SAT score of nearly 1000. "It got bigger than we even thought it would."
Neither Hipp nor Rhodes could be reached to comment, but Hipp's mother made it clear that she wasn't happy with the experience her son had at Maryland -- on or off the court.
"I'll give Maryland credit for one thing," said Hipp's mother, Albertha. "They introduced him to the real world."
Lucy Rhodes doesn't harbor any animosity. Her son came to Maryland as a marginal student and wound up making the honor roll his senior year. But he, too, fell short of getting his degree.
"Basically, I can't think of anything they [Maryland] didn't do that they promised," she said.
But Claire Swinson, mother of UMES player Corey Snowden, was not pleased with her son's time at that school.
"He would call me and say, 'I can't do this,' " said Swinson, of Franklin Park, N.J. " 'I'm not encouraged to study. I'm not encouraged to go to class. I'm only encouraged to put the ball in the hoop.' His whole outlook about school and about basketball, it was like this huge wet blanket went over it."
Snowden faced one of the major stumbling blocks for these students -- a change in coaches.
Recruited by interim coach Bob Wilkerson, Snowden arrived in Princess Anne a stranger to coach Rob Chavez, the first white coach at that historically black college. They never hit it off, Snowden said.
In January 1994, midway through his sophomore year, Snowden said Chavez essentially asked him to leave.
Chavez said: "All I know is that when I talked to Corey he knew it was going to be very difficult for him to play much in our basketball program. If he wanted an opportunity to play, it was probably going to be someplace else."
A few community college classes later, Snowden said he is not closer to earning a degree. He has worked odd jobs in Edison, N.J., and runs the shipping department of a photo company.
Jim Meil, a Towson assistant in 1992 who is at Wagner College, said that when colleges change coaches, players can get lost in the shuffle.
"Kids build a relationship with coaches," Meil said. "One of the major reasons you choose a school is the coach, and change there does impact a kid tremendously. You would like to think a kid's interest in getting a degree supersedes that. Sometimes it doesn't."
A coaching change was also behind Scott's decision to leave UMBC. He played for two years and was academically ineligible his third.
"By the time I was bringing my grades back up, the coach that recruited me had gotten fired," Scott said. "Apparently the administration forgot to tell the new coach about me."
UMBC officials say that it wasn't working out for Scott academically or athletically, so they helped him transfer to a school nearer his home in Florida.
"I think it was clear that he would be better off closer to home," athletics Director Charles Brown said. Scott transferred to Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Fla., and graduated in 1998. He said he works as a counselor in a juvenile home.
Though he had academic problems, Scott does not complain about the help he received at UMBC, where his favorite professor was a remedial reading instructor. "They treated me fairly," he said.
Some athletes or their parents complained about academic support. The three scholarship freshmen who entered UMES in 1992 -- Smith, Snowden and Aaron McKinney -- said that such support consisted mainly of study halls that were little more than chaotic parties.
UMES athletics Director Hallie Gregory said the school did its best during the early 1990s to give athletes academic support on a limited budget and that this year four tutors will be added with NCAA academic enhancement funds.
The problem was probably worst at Morgan State University, where Desi Jackson and Kevin Young were basketball scholarship freshmen in 1992. A dispute between the football coach and academic adviser ended up in court. The adviser was replaced midway through their freshmen year. In disarray, the program was later put on probation by the NCAA.
"I fault not having something in place in academic advising, someone to let the teachers know that the team is going to be on the road," said Lynn Ramage, Morgan State's only full-time assistant coach during the 1992-1993 season.
Jackson left after one semester and moved home to Springfield, Mass., where he ran afoul of the law. He was convicted of assault and battery in 1994, and later received a suspended sentence for a rape conviction.
Young was academically ineligible for the start of his sophomore season, transferred to Bowie State and is at Glenville (W.Va.) State, where he said he expects to complete a degree in criminal justice in May.
But Gregory and Chavez of UMES made the point that whatever the situation with coaching or tutoring, the responsibility for graduation lies with the players.
"It's very, very sad that [the graduation rate for 1992 recruits] is like it is," said Chavez, who became the coach at the University of Portland in 1994. "I think if you look back there may have been things we could have all done differently, but the time I was in there I felt we worked very hard.
"[But] a person's education is ultimately their responsibility. Whether they are paying for it themselves or whether a university is paying for it, the ultimate responsibility of receiving an education in the world falls on that person."
McKinney, a 6-foot-6 guard who followed Chavez from Oregon -- and stayed after Chavez returned to Portland -- was doing well academically though he said the demands of the basketball program caused him to fail his favorite class, a business law course.
"I was into it, and I liked it," McKinney says. The professor told him that he should take it after the season, but he didn't.
But, after missing two shots in the last 13 seconds of his final game, a close contest with Delaware State in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament opener, he took off.
"It was spring break time," McKinney says. "I said, 'I'm going home and I'm not coming back.' "
UMES has a program to help recruits who have played basketball four years complete their degrees during a fifth year, but McKinney didn't take advantage of it, Gregory says. "I almost begged him to stay."
McKinney flirted with playing professionally for two years, going to tryout camps and playing in a semiprofessional league, but he never made it.
A new outlook
McKinney, 25, says he's found his calling, working with emotionally disturbed children. He said he has taken classes on and off at Portland State University and that he hopes eventually to complete a degree.
"I felt like I was a good basketball player, and I thank God for blessing me with these opportunities and college," he says. "I feel like God is pushing me to something greater."
But Chavez mourns McKinney's abrupt departure.
"He was there for four years, and he definitely was capable of graduating," Chavez said. "For him not to graduate, that hurts."
Smith faced problems his sophomore year, around the time Chavez left. His mother was ill and he wanted to be closer to home, so he transferred to Towson. Though he had come out of Baltimore's St. Frances-Charles Hall with a 3.4 grade point average, his academics suffered. "I guess you would say I wasn't focused at the time. I wandered off awhile."
Terry Truax, then head coach at Towson, and assistant Meil regret that their players in the 1992 recruiting class didn't graduate. Blalock left one semester shy of a degree, and Truax said Baltimoreans Quintin Moody and Stevie Thomas were within a course or two of completing their degrees. Neither could be reached to comment.
But some of the players, such as Smith, said they appreciate the value of a diploma.
Simpkins is one, now that his professional basketball aspirations have passed and he needs a degree for his broadcasting work. He said he left Maryland about 30 credits short, mainly because of a parking ticket scandal that resulted in his suspension from the team for three games his senior year. He said he is negotiating with the school about the $4,500 he owes for tickets so he can enroll in classes.
"From the time I found out I was being suspended, I stopped going to class," Simpkins said. "When I look back in retrospect from an adult standpoint, I'd say a lot of the responsibility has to fall on the students.
"But you're still dealing with young boys who do need guidance. It's easy to lose focus. A lot of people aren't focused, not just players, but administrators as well."
If the NCAA proceeds with plans to link scholarship allotments to graduation rates, colleges will not be penalized for players who turn professional early or transfer, as long as they leave in good academic standing.
That proposal came from a blue-ribbon Working Group, which took 10 months to study college basketball and propose changes that would address low graduation rates and attrition. The group also proposed that the eligibility of new players be certified after one semester, instead of annually.
"That will make a big difference," said Charles Harris, a member of the Working Group and the commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. "Right now, student-athletes have to pass 24 credit hours a year. In the future, new players will have to pass 12 hours in their first semester."
Hitting the books
Colleges have been criticized for keeping players eligible instead of getting them a degree, but that was not a problem for Locke, by the NCAA's standards the state's lone graduate from the 1992 class of recruits.
Locke prepped at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia. He performed a candid assessment of his talent during his junior year at Coppin State and realized the NBA was not in his future. Since he got his degree, he's worked for FILA, a sporting goods company with headquarters in Sparks.
"I think every kid who goes into college dreams of playing pro ball, be it in the NBA or wherever," Locke said. "I went in with the expectation that I would hopefully play somewhere, but at the same time I knew that my education was important. When I first came [to Coppin], guys who had completed their eligibility three years earlier were still in school.
"I was going to make sure I got my degree in four years. The last thing I wanted to do was stick around campus. I wanted to close that chapter of my life and move on."
Kyle Locke, Randallstown; earned business degree, 1996; FILA representative. Cameron Nekkers, Ontario, Canada; earned general arts degree, 1996, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada; works for a casino.
Exree Hipp, Los Angeles; no degree; plays for Harlem Globetrotters.
Mario Lucas, Memphis, Tenn.; no degree; plays in South America.
Nemanja Petrovic, New York; earned business degrees at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia.
Johnny Rhodes, Washington; no degree; plays for Harlem Globetrotters
Duane Simpkins, Fort Washington; no degree; works for an Internet company.
Desi Jackson, Springfield, Mass.; no degree.
Kevin Young, Glenville, W.Va., enrolled at Glenville State College.
Ralph Blalock, Newcastle, England; no degree; plays for Newcastle Eagles.
Quintin Moody, Baltimore; no degree.
Stevie Thomas, Baltimore; no degree
Felton Scott, Florida City, Fla.; earned business degree from Edward Waters College in 1998; counsels juveniles.
Aaron McKinney, Portland, Ore.; no degree; works with emotionally disturbed children.
Mike Smith, Baltimore; enrolled at Towson; works for BayRunners.
Corey Snowden, Franklin Park, N.J.; no degree; shipping department manager.
Sun staff reporters Kate Shatzkin, Don Markus, Christian Ewell and Bill Glauber and staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.