Sister Rose Ann Fleming remembers the tall kid who sat in the back of class in the mid-1980s – the one who would ask if he could step into the hall for a drink of water, then never come back.
When coaches called Fleming to ask how their student-athletes were performing in class, she reassured a swim coach and a soccer coach. Then the men’s basketball coach called. “I thought, ‘I just can’t keep this to myself,’” she said.
Fleming calls the student “Donnie” in her new book, “Out of Habit: My Life as Xavier University’s Unlikely Point Guard,” written with Ohio-based writer Laura Pulfer. He was the first of hundreds of Xavier men’s basketball players to be tutored by Fleming, and in her book she details her belief that every student can achieve academically, regardless of past successes and failures in the classroom.
A member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Fleming became Xavier’s academic adviser in 1985. Since then, every men’s basketball player who reached his final year of eligibility at Xavier has earned his bachelor’s degree. In 1991, then-Xavier head coach Pete Gillen named Fleming the team’s Most Valuable Player. In 2000, she was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“The people at Xavier talk a lot about her persistence,” said Pulfer, Fleming’s co-author. “She speaks with such respect. That’s what they can see – that she would never give up on anybody and always believes in her student-athletes.”
Fleming is responsible for the academic advising for all teams but is not afraid to acknowledge that men’s basketball is her top priority, partly because those athletes face so much external pressure to perform.
“I just always felt that if these students were coming here on a scholarship and believing in us and coming to play for us,” Fleming said, “they need to know how important it is for them to have the degree they want.”
As for Donnie, his disappearing act stopped after Fleming spoke up to the coach. “I called him up and said, ‘Is everything all right?’” she said.
Why did you have to tell the coach? Donnie asked. Why did you have to leave my class? his professor said.
“Because I’m so afraid,” the student replied, “that you’ll call on me.”
They met twice a week in 7 a.m. tutoring sessions. He passed her class but failed others and was declared academically ineligible. “All of the sudden it was in the papers that this young man hadn’t passed and couldn’t play,” Fleming said. “I realized for the first time the pressure these athletes are under.”