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Basketball only a foundation for House

By Brian Burnsed
NCAA.org

Basketball rescued Larry House.

Then basketball got in his way.  

The sport, played on hard streets and under soft light in high school gyms, provided a welcome escape throughout a trying youth. It brought him to a serene college campus away from cold city winters. It propelled him across an ocean to a new world he never dreamt he’d see. It fed him. It put a roof over his head. It kept the lights on. 

But as it gave him so much, it simultaneously clouded his vision.

“Basketball was my main focus growing up,” House said. “I never really took school as seriously as I should. I did just enough to get by. As long as I was eligible, I was cool.”

After shining at Milwaukee’s Bay View High School, the game brought him to Colby Community College in Kansas. There, he became the school’s second all-time leading scorer, catching the eyes of Division I coaches eager to lure the powerful, 6-foot, 4-inch guard to their gym, where the high-flyer would electrify crowds, repeatedly powering dunks home over befuddled defenders.

He did just that at Creighton, hitting more than half his shots and scoring 11.1 points per game as a senior on a team that would crack the nation’s top 10. He started alongside Kyle Korver, now an NBA sharpshooter. House, too, had dreams of the NBA. He was a razor’s edge from hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars, he thought; school simply didn’t matter. 

“Larry was a typical kid who thinks, coming from a background like he did, ‘Basketball’s my ticket. I don’t care about anything else. The degree is not that important to me,’ ” said Steve Brace, Creighton’s assistant athletics director for internal operations. “I had to make sure he was doing his work…He was, what we call, motivationally challenged.”

Nonetheless, House took the requisite amount of classes required by the school, even walking in Creighton’s 2003 commencement. But he’d failed some classes, and hearing his name called at a graduation ceremony was an empty honor – he hadn’t officially earned his degree in sociology. One more semester of diligent study stood between him and that degree. The NBA had passed him by in that summer’s draft, after all, so finishing school would’ve been prudent. But his eligibility, and his scholarship, were exhausted. Basketball still beckoned.

Opportunities to play at lesser, obscure, levels – in the ABA, USBL and CBA – awaited. He decided he wouldn’t abandon basketball after it had carried him so far. Subsequent tryouts with the Seattle Supersonics and Milwaukee Bucks were unsuccessful. Still, basketball was all he knew.

He jumped to the Harlem Globetrotters, which was entertaining but didn’t placate his competitive desires. So he ventured to Europe, playing professionally in Romania and Germany, where he averaged 26.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game one season, dominating lesser foreign foes. But life was lonely and strange. He’d met a woman, Cassondra, back home in Milwaukee before he ventured to Europe. He missed her.

“When you go over there for about eight months, it starts wearing on you a little bit and you do get a little homesick,” he said. “And that’s probably another reason why I didn’t stick it out. If I had stayed overseas and kept going, I probably could be over there making a pretty good living, but I was tired of it.”

After a brief stint with a small pro team back in the U.S., House was finally ready to say goodbye to the sport that had given him everything while distracting him from everything else. It had taken him places – places he didn’t necessarily want to go. Now, after more than six years as a professional basketball player, he’d carve a new path. 

He and Cassondra had a baby daughter and married. He began coaching basketball at camps and mentoring troubled youths, advising them to work diligently, to get educated, to go to college and to finish it.

But he hadn’t, and that hypocrisy gnawed at him. It weighed down upon him every time he stressed that education was the key, knowing he’d neglected his own for basketball.

“I knew it was something that was eating at him and he wanted to finish it,” Cassondra said. “And five months apart wasn’t going to kill us.”

House returned to Creighton in August 2011, eight years removed from the last time he’d lowered his athletic frame into a wobbly college desk. Four classes and five daunting months separated him from a degree and the potential for a steady career off of the court and a stable life for his young family.

His schooling would be paid with an NCAA grant. He earned enough from Creighton through a work-study program to cover his housing costs, leaving him to pay only for his day-to-day expenses. Nearly a decade after working with House, admonishing him to put in the needed effort in the classroom, Brace would once again serve as House’s advisor.

“I told him flat out, ‘Larry, I’m not going to chase you around. At this point it’s up to you. If you don’t get it done, this is your last chance,’ ” Brace said. “He really took the ball and ran with it. He deserves the credit because he was a completely different student than he was during the first stint. He was willing to do what it took.”

House leaned on professors and advisors when he returned to Creighton, and classes came easier to him than they had when basketball was the centerpiece of his life. One course, however, nearly derailed the pursuit of his degree. A statistics of sociology class that he’d failed before once again proved complex. Brace said House’s professor was initially wary of his student’s ability to understand the material, but House’s relentless determination won the professor’s respect and a passing grade in the course.

“It’s just like basketball,” House said. “Say a guy can’t really shoot and he keeps working at it and he’s able to knock down his shot. It was the same thing with this class. He can’t do it, but if he keeps working at it he’s going to get it. When I passed that class, it felt like a ton of bricks had lifted off my shoulders. If I can pass that class, I can do anything.”

Back at home in Milwaukee, Cassondra shouldered parenting duties alone while maintaining her career selling real estate and insurance. House made a point to talk to his wife and daughter via Skype every day. She said her husband’s successful return to campus – he passed all four classes – made her sacrifice well worth it.

“There’s no slacking there,” Cassondra said. “I was really proud of him.”

House returned to Milwaukee in December, degree in hand. He skipped what would’ve been his second commencement ceremony to attend training at the Milwaukee Police Academy. Still, in his absence, Creighton President Timothy Lannon mentioned him by name when addressing students and parents, lauding House for his decision to return to school.

Ironically, after years as a professional athlete, it was House’s body, not his mind, that betrayed him as he sought a new career. House passed initial written exams at the police academy, but fractured his kneecap during the physical exam. He’d re-aggravated a basketball injury he hadn’t rehabilitated diligently enough. Nonetheless, Cassondra still thinks that a police or coaching career await.

As his body heals, he continues to teach basketball camps and to mentor Milwaukee youth through the type of unforgiving city life he’d once grown accustomed to. Basketball, he once thought, was his only way out. Now, the college graduate knows otherwise. There’s another way, he tells them. He has lived it.

“I see kids talking to other people and other people can’t quite get to them,” he said. “Once I talk to them, they see some of the things I came from and I how I transformed my life, and they take that and they start doing well themselves. I really get joy out of that.”

 

Worth the wait

More than 10,000 NCAA student-athletes who left college early have returned to school to finish their degrees since the advent of the Academic Progress Rate.

That trend was fueled when Division I as part of its academic reform effort in the last decade approved a “delayed graduation point” that provides teams with an “extra” point in the current APR calculation for every former student-athlete, dating back to 2003-04, who returns to campus and earns a degree. Allowing what is essentially the restoration of a point lost when a student-athlete left without graduating, the policy is intended to encourage schools to find former student-athletes who left close to a degree and help them earn their diploma.

The decision to go back is mutually beneficial. The student-athlete benefits by having the reminder of his or her education subsidized by the school via work-study and through the NCAA Degree-Completion Award Program. A student-athlete who returns to school and successfully completes a degree benefits the school by earning the delayed graduation point that counts towards an institution’s APR score.