UT's Wayne Chism: 'A Great Volunteer'
A dozen schools that made this tournament graduated less than 40 percent of their players the last time anyone counted, including Maryland, where I teach, which anchored the bottom of the list with an 8 percent graduation rate for its team.
Then there is the collusion that allows players to make a mockery of the purpose of college by not flunking out the first semester in order to play as freshmen before immediately splitting for the NBA.
It all makes watching big-time college basketball a little like walking through a peep show; you wind up with a great need to cleanse yourself.
Fortunately, this March, there is a way to sanitize yourself, and it isn't in the unexpected run Ivy League champion Cornell made. Instead, it is immersing yourself in the story of Wayne Chism and the Tennessee Volunteers.
Chism is the senior star for Bruce Pearl's club that advanced to meet Michigan State on Sunday for a ticket to the Final Four. Chism is most easily recognized by the halo style in which he sports a headband six feet nine inches off the ground. He should be better known for what he's done as a college student since arriving in Knoxville, Tenn., four years ago from some small Tennessee town Bolivar.
"Wayne was not prepared for success in college academically," Pearl said pointedly Saturday. "They [Wayne's instructors] knew it. Wayne knew it."
In some ways, Chism's narrative is stereotypical. He's a 22-year-old black man who told me Saturday he didn't know his dad and was reared by a single mom, Ernestine Perkins, along with an older brother and younger sister. He was a good enough high school basketball player to get offered a scholarship to college, even though most everyone doubted his ability to make it through.
"I was a kid who wasn't supposed to make it," Chism told me Saturday with a shrug of his shoulders.
There the stereotype happily ends.
"Wayne absolutely rolled up his sleeves and understood that he was challenged in the classroom early on and was so accepting of the help and the tutoring and the assistance," Pearl said. "He spent 10 times as much time on his class work than any other student that was sitting next to him."
He also found time to help those off the court and in 2008 was named to the Southeastern Conference's Community Service Team for his good deeds. He pledged the historically black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, whose motto is "culture for service and service for humanity."
The result is that Chism has become as outstanding a soon-to-be graduate of Tennessee as the university will produce. He is expected to graduate on time this semester with a degree in Africana Studies and already completed enough credits for his minor in consumer health. Chism is also projected by NBADraft.net as a late second-round draft pick in this summer's NBA draft. Maybe it is a blessing that Chism's basketball skills haven't been so prodigious that they lured him to try the NBA too early, which would have cost him all that has nurtured him in college.
And along the way Chism set the Tennessee men's basketball record for games played and won, for NCAA tournament games played and this weekend helped carry his school as far as it's ever been in the national tournament. When he and his teammates fell behind a couple times late in the second half on Friday against Ohio State, Chism put them on his back with baskets to forge back ahead and help seal the unprecedented victory.
Chism, seen clowning around with his teammates (photo right), even took over leadership of the team earlier this season after it suffered the loss of several players to drugs and weapons arrests.
"The reason why I get sometimes emotional about Wayne is because I have so much respect for how far he's come," Pearl explained. "Wayne is a fraternity brother. Most student-athletes don't have time for anything beyond books and basketball. Maybe a girlfriend. But Wayne, he's a frat boy, because Wayne loves brotherhood and he loves friends and he loves the connections.
"And so Wayne has gotten a lot out of Tennessee, and obviously Tennessee has gotten a lot out of Wayne," Pearl continued.
"Wayne was my first big recruit. He was the first guy that said yes before we had ever accomplished anything.
"And so it's a great, absolutely great story. And it's a story that is important because so many of the rules profile student-athletes into this group who can make it, and this group who can't. And Wayne was profiled into one of those groups that can't."
But there Chism sat Saturday afternoon at his college coach's side four years after he arrived at Tennessee, which was four more than he was expected to survive there. And beside Chism and his coach were four Tennessee basketball players who weren't supposed to have gotten so far either, at least not on a basketball court. They all were one more win from making it to the Final Four, the ultimate validation of Chism's basketball career so far and Pearl's decision to recruit him when so many others didn't see in Chism then what he has become.
"Wayne proved them wrong," Pearl said. "He broke down all the stereotypes. And so I'm really proud of him for that. He's been a great Vol, a great Volunteer."
Wayne Chism has been more than that. He's been a great college athlete. He's been what college athletics ultimately are supposed to be all about, which is building young men and women for our future, not ripping them off for selfish benefit.