Drew Gooden made a solemn vow in front of a room full of reporters on April 19, 2002, at Kansas’ Hadl Auditorium, adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse.
“I am not giving up my college education. I WILL get my degree,” Gooden said forcibly after announcing plans to leave KU after his junior season for the 2002 NBA Draft, where he was chosen fourth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches’ co-player of the year, who led the country in rebounding during KU’s 2001-02 Final Four campaign, was repeating a pledge he’d earlier given to some individuals close to him.
“I looked (former KU coach) Roy Williams, my mom (Ulla) and dad (Andrew) square in the eye before I entered the draft and left school early. I promised them I’d finish my degree. At what point I didn’t know,” said Gooden, who now knows.
He’s happy to report that he completed work on his Communication Studies degree this past December and will walk down KU’s Campanile Hill during graduation ceremonies on May 14.
“It’s something I said I was going to do. I was a man of my word and finished it off,” the now 35-year-old Gooden said in a phone interview. “It took me 14 years to graduate. It was a helluva senior year.”
Gooden, who lives in Orlando, Fla., is technically an NBA free agent, still available to sign with any team if wanted for a playoff run. For all intents and purposes, the man who last played for the Washington Wizards in 2015-16, has hung up his sneakers after 14 productive seasons and reported estimated earnings of about $60 million.
Saddled with some free time before landing a job in the basketball operations department of the NBA last September, Gooden completed a final KU online course in December — a course that made him an official KU graduate.
“I almost fainted. I got a little emotional. It’s one thing to say you are going to do it, it’s another to follow through with it,” Gooden said.
Gooden received the good news concerning completing his degree requirements from Scott “Scooter” Ward, KU’s associate athletic director academic and career counseling.
“Oh my gosh. It was pretty awesome. He and I cried on the phone together,” Ward said. “It’s been such a pleasure to watch this. He never slowed down. One class here, one there. He stuck with it. This may be my favorite story in terms of everything I’ve been involved with in my job. His perseverance was spectacular, an amazing effort. He deserves all the excitement and accolades.”
Ward — he has worked in KU’s athletic department since 2003 — said Gooden stayed in touch each year via phone or email as he crossed class after class off his list of required courses.
“When you leave school and are stable at that level financially, it would be easy to not be as invested (in classwork). He’s been fully invested in doing it. It’s a credit to him,” Ward said.
“Drew fulfilling a promise to his mom and getting what he wanted is pretty special. The timing … right after a long career in the NBA, him already working in the (NBA) front office, now he gets his college degree at the same time.”
Gooden said part of the reason he continued progressing toward a degree was his correspondence with Ward.
“The real reason I graduated … I didn’t want all the times Scooter went to the top of the Hill (to check on Gooden’s credits on campus) for me to go down the drain,” Gooden said. “He talked to professors and kept me engaged. I give him so much credit. He stayed on top of things for me, guided me in the right direction, helped me stay on course.
“We always knew how many courses I had left,” added Gooden, who noted he took a combination of online classes as well taking three different summer courses on campus three times.
“When I finished my last class I said, ‘Scooter are you sure I’m finished? Are you sure I don’t need any more?’ It was an unbelievable task and I could hardly believe I was done.”
Gooden — who said he would don his cap and gown in front of family members, including his soon-to-be 4-year-old son Andrew IV on graduation day — revealed that a key to his graduating was staying on campus and finishing his coursework second semester his junior year.
“I was projected to be a high draft pick. A lot of guys, once they know they are declaring for the draft, they pack their bags and start training for the draft and workouts,” Gooden said. “I didn’t do that. I finished classes for the semester and continued classes that summer.”
“If I promised my mom, family and Roy Williams I’d finish school, what was it going to look like if I was leaving right there? You could have called my bluff on that. I wanted to show school was important to me. I was able to finish then. I was able to finish now.”
Gooden — his work for the NBA includes meeting with front office personnel from the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks and Houston Rockets regularly — said he already has discovered how valuable a degree can be.
“I’ve noticed in applying for jobs you must present a résumé. One thing that’s important to have on a résumé is ‘completed degree’ under ‘education.’ The next step is a Masters,” Gooden said. “If I was a little more proactive I could have my doctorate by now.
“Absolutely,” he added, asked if he hoped his story would encourage other players without degrees to work toward them. “This is real. It’s reality. It can be done. Such a small portion of our life is playing basketball. There’s a huge portion of life after basketball and that’s your career. You have to be prepared to have the tools after basketball.”
Gooden will celebrate his life after hoops — and his degree — on KU’s campus in May.
“I don’t think I’ll know too many people in my (graduating) class,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll bring a tear. I might. I was emotional when I graduated high school. Almost 20 years ago I cried. We’ll see if it happens. It will be a rewarding day.”