By Brian Burnsed
Octavia Blue had endured enough.
She finally gave in when the Achilles tendon came unmoored and the knees perpetually swelled and the body pleaded for a respite from the barrage of sharp elbows and hard screens.
“I had so much to do physically just to prepare to play a game,” said the former Miami (Fla.) standout who went on to play three seasons in the WNBA and nine overseas. “After games I would be in so much pain.”
Only a few years past 30 – with the only career she’d known slipping away – what was next for Octavia Blue? After all, her vertical leap and offensive rebounding acumen mattered little on a résumé.
And there was one crucial bullet point, perhaps the most vital, missing on that document – college graduate.
She was only two classes away from filling that void when her name was called and the course of her life was instantly altered. The WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks selected her 15th overall in 1998. Though the league had been alive for a mere season and its future was still uncertain, an opportunity to play professionally in a domestic league tantalized Blue.
The first games that year would be played in May, leaving no time for Blue to finish the two electives she’d need to complete her sociology degree that summer. So she packed her bags and flew across the country to her new life.
That flight to Los Angeles became a decade-long sojourn, making stops in Houston, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Poland and France. When she returned to Miami a decade later, those two classes she’d left behind were still waiting.
“You’re making a decent amount of money playing overseas, and you’re not going to want to go to a minimum-wage job because you don’t have a degree,” Blue said. “I wasn’t going to let two classes keep me from having a good, solid career.”
Passing those two classes, seemingly a small feat when measured against the accomplishments of a lifetime, were immeasurably important to Blue. Without spending several hours back in class in the summer of 2007, the door she yearned to walk through most after her body failed her – coaching – would remain forever shuttered. Instead, she burst through.
Her lifetime spent in basketball started when she wouldn’t dare touch a jump rope. In middle school, the self-described tomboy found little pleasure in the seemingly frivolous exercise practiced by other girls in her physical education class. So she turned elsewhere, drawn to the iron cylinder that hung so far above her head. Her gym teacher took notice, tutoring her in the basics. Soon, the lanky eighth-grader was making layups and had earned a spot on her school’s team.
In high school, Blue sprouted. More than six-feet tall, athletic and fast, she drew letters of interest from Division I schools across the country, unaware of which programs were successful and which were also-rans. She settled on Miami because it was close to home and she’d enjoyed watching a few games there in person. The full scholarship gave her access to a college education, which she approached with the same diligence as she did her sport.
“You couldn’t play if you didn’t focus on the academic side,” Blue said. “It was pretty much an even balance at that time.”
She averaged 15.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game throughout her career. Her scoring spiked as a senior when she averaged 19.2 per game, best on the team, including a career-best 40 points against Florida Atlantic.
Though such impressive numbers earned her a spot in the WNBA, she needed additional income. To maximize earning potential, her summers in the WNBA bled into winters spent playing overseas. There was no time to let her body heal or to finish those two elusive classes.
Her life abroad was as joyous as it was difficult. She relished playing in Israel for five seasons, living alongside many other American players in a culture that embraced them. Conversely, in Turkey, she felt isolated, regularly drawing wary stares from locals.
Her most trying moment came during a frigid night in Poland. As she drove to the basket, she was certain someone had kicked her in the heel, but no whistle blew. As she admonished the referee for the no-call, she realized no defenders were near.
She wasn’t kicked – her Achilles tendon had snapped.
If she had chosen to return to the United States to have surgery, where she felt safest, her Polish team wouldn’t have covered the exorbitant medical expenses. So she agreed to be cut open in a strange land, far from her friends’ and family’s comforting reach.
“I didn’t want to have surgery there,” Blue said. “I was freaking out.”
After surgery, she returned to Florida to devote herself to rehab, but her dedication waned. She yearned to keep playing – for two decades, she’d known nothing other than basketball – but her body begged her to quit.
“Any injury like that toward the tail end of your career, it’s very hard to be motivated to do all the rehab to come back and play,” said her longtime agent and friend Stephanie Stanley.
So Blue reached out to Miami to gauge the possibility of finishing those last two classes. She had to pay her way, but she was offered a job working in the school’s athletics department as she took the electives over the summer.
While there, she encountered Miami head coach Katie Meier, who was drawn to the former Miami star’s work ethic off the court. After wrapping up the classes, Blue embarked on her coaching career, landing an assistant job at St. John’s (N.Y.). Meier was staggered that Blue was able to garner a position at such a renowned program so early in her new career. And though Blue had left, Meier yearned to have her back in the fold – she simply didn’t have any openings at the time.
“I was very impressed by her,” Meier said. “I just always kept my eye on her.”
When an assistant position at Miami opened up this May, Meier jumped at the chance to recruit Blue. She spent a year at St. John’s and then three more working at Georgia Tech before Meier finally invited her back home. Blue’s return to Miami is a crucial step on her road to her new goal – to become a Division I head coach. The school was a springboard to her first career. Now, she hopes it’ll do the same for her second.
“You can’t get hired as a college coach at a Division I university unless you have a degree,” Blue said. “I knew when I was ready to start a career, I was going to need mine.”
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.