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Canisius basketball program plays at an up-tempo pace in classroom

May 22, 2010 - Tom Parrotta laid out his demanding academic acceleration path for the Canisius College men's basketball program starting with his first recruit: attend both sessions of summer school each year and you finish with four years on the court and a master's degree. Four years later, guard Frank Turner has his master's degree. All six of the juniors on this year's team - Julius Coles, Elton Frazier, Robert Goldsberry, Rishawn Johnson, Greg Logins and Tomas Vazquez-Simmons - have their bachelor's and plan on getting their master's degrees in four years as well.

Student-athletes graduating in three years is not unprecedented - former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar (Miami) and former Turner-Carroll guard Leonard Stokes (Cincinnati) did it - but what is extraordinary is the number of players doing it at Canisius. In a time when NCAA schools are in an endless mission for academic reform, the school has raised the bar.

"No. 1, a lot of the credit has to go to Canisius for having the academic structure and resources in place for them to succeed," Parrotta said. "Second, the credit has to go to the guys. If they don't take the academic part of it seriously they would never be at the point where they are now."

. . .

Turner has been the program's on-court leader and classroom pioneer, but the latter role makes him uncomfortable. "I'm kind of a humble guy and people are telling me, "You started this and people are looking up to you,' " said Turner, who graduated with a master's in sports administration last week. "It hasn't settled in yet." Turner has been bucking the odds his entire life. His mother lived in one Atlantic City project and his father another but Turner was raised by his grandmother in Bungalow Park.

He ran with a tight group of friends who always supported him. "I never had those friends who tried to get me to do bad things," Turner said. "I never had anyone who tried to get me to smoke or drink and I had friends who did it every day." But when he entered high school he began hearing that he wasn't good enough to play varsity basketball, that at 5-foot-10 he was too small. "They said I wouldn't be any different from any other Atlantic City athlete, which was to get a lot of hype but end up failing out of school and doing nothing with my life," Turner said. "I remember people saying I wouldn't play Division I basketball."

He not only played, he excelled, leaving Canisius with more than 1,700 points, 600 assists and 500 rebounds. Turner will continue proving doubters wrong by playing overseas. He's had interest from teams in Germany, France, Italy and one from Belgium, where former Canisius forward Darnell Wilson is playing. Just as he did with his basketball career, he saw what was in sight academically, attacked and finished strong. After his last game at Canisius, Turner whispered to Parrotta, "That's pretty good stuff. You told me I'd graduate with my master's four years ago and you kept your word."

"No," Parrotta said, "you kept yours."

. . .

There are parts of White Plains mean enough to break your heart. Rishawn Johnson calls White Plains home. "White Plains has its suburbs and every place has its 'hoods and ghettos and that's where I'm from," Johnson said. "A lot of people there weren't always the best people to be around." Johnson lived on Ferris Avenue, a free throw away from the notorious Lexington Project, and one of the most dangerous streets in White Plains. When he was younger, White Plains' hard edge started digging into Johnson.

"It gets bad," he said. "Things are getting better but when I was in sixth grade through 11th grade, things were getting bad and I started hanging out with the wrong crowd." Johnson hung out with sets from both the Crips and the Bloods. Johnson said he never sold drugs but he started hanging with those who peddled destruction. He could have easily ventured down that path had it not been for lessons learned by his father, Richard, and older brother, Richard, Jr. His father spent two years in prison for conspiracy to distribute crack and at 16, his brother began a 7-year stretch for armed robbery. As he watched his mother, Lisa, hold the family together, Johnson vowed he wouldn't suffer a similar plight. He is the first person from his family to earn a college degree.

Johnson is giving up his final season of eligibility at Canisius and hopes to attend either Division II C.W. Post or Post University (Conn.) next fall and pursue a master's degree in
education and instructional design and technology. "Obviously I had some people pave the way for me," he said. "But I feel I've paved the way for someone else in my family. I went past my bar that was set. It almost feels like I'm on top of the world."

. . .

Elton Frazier was 13 years old when his teachers at T. Aaron Levy Middle School in Syracuse had had enough: They sat him in a room and informed the youngster he wasn't worth saving."Every teacher was giving up on me," Frazier said. "They were saying, "Push him through, he'll never get the work.' " Disgusted by what she was hearing, Frazier's resource teacher stood up and said, "Elton I'm ... not ... giving ... up ... on ... you."

"I'll never forget her," Frazier said.

She believed Frazier's was a soul worth saving, but he had to uphold his end. Frazier was outwardly aloof but inwardly wanted to thrive in school. But if he didn't comprehend the work he would grow frustrated and shut it down. He was hurt by what the teachers said but it served as a challenge to excel in school. "To see all these teachers that I see every day, that I talked to a lot, to see them give up on me - I just wanted to prove them wrong," Frazier said. The more he tried and the more questions he asked, the easier the schoolwork became. His resource teacher provided approval. Frazier's grades improved tremendously but whenever he regressed, his mother, Gloria Martin, clamped down by yanking his favorite possession: basketball.

"I was supposed to play high school basketball when I was in eighth grade, but my mother said, "No basketball without grades,' " he said. "That motivated me, too. I wasn't happy at the time but I'm glad she did what she did."

The last time he was home, Frazier ran into the lone teacher at Levy Middle School who didn't give up on him. Frazier told her he was graduating in three years and she smiled. He hugged her and said, "Thank you."

"Without her," Frazier said, "I would have given up."

. . .

Tomas Vazquez-Simmons thought Parrotta's summer school pitch was a recruiting ploy geared toward his mother and planned on spending his summers in his native Rochester. Then he arrived at Canisius and realized Parrotta was serious."I was 17 and I was like, "Man, I have to forfeit my whole summer every year,' " Vazquez-Simmons said. "My mother put it into perspective for me: I would be getting my degree in three years and get an early start on my master's."

The first two summers were difficult because he loved being home. Vazquez-Simmons rarely got into trouble and was usually over a friend's house or part of the Mind, Body and Soul Program at the local YMCA which ran until 9 p.m. "There wasn't very much time to run the streets," he said. He enjoyed his time as a freshman at Canisius but missed his friends.

"I used to tell them I wouldn't be home until the end of the summer and I'll be home for about three weeks," Simmons said. "But if you want to come to Buffalo I'm always here. It was hard." Looking back, Vazquez-Simmons calls the decision to attend summer school the best he's ever made. "It definitely prepares you better for the future," said Vazquez-Simmons, a sociology major. "It's great to have a bachelor's but nowadays jobs require further education than that."

Vazquez-Simmons' first field of choice is professional basketball and then, "network like crazy," to find a job when his playing career ends. Summers away from Rochester aren't so unpleasant anymore. "People ask me all the time when am I coming home," he said. "I tell not anytime soon."

. . .

There was a time when Robert Goldsberry would have preferred to be known as Robert Smith, Joe Cool, anything but Goldsberry. Goldsberry, the youngest of four children who excelled in academics and athletics, was having difficulty bearing the weight of expectations as a high school freshman. His parents were teachers at the Tipp City, Ohio, school and he constantly heard about his siblings achievements.

"I was done, I didn't want to be part of it," he said. "I just wanted to stay under the radar and just get things done. It was nerve-racking to have people watching me to make sure I was doing the right thing." He wanted to play varsity as a freshman but the coach, Matt Pond, wouldn't allow it and they bumped heads.

"After that I just didn't want to do it," Goldsberry said. "I didn't want to live up to the expectations my family put forth. But that's why I wanted to come to Canisius, maybe not so much to be out from under the radar but to find out who I am."

One sister, Ashley, played basketball at Findley University in Ohio, and another, Lindsay, played basketball at Bowling Green. His brother, John, played at UNC Wilmington and now plays professionally in Germany.

Goldsberry's grandfather, Alonzo, played in the NFL and his father, Frank, played football at Ball State. Goldsberry's uncle, Brady Hoke, is the football coach at San Diego State. Goldsberry's father demanded excellence, especially from his youngest. "He's a tough dude," Goldsberry said. "Nothing is good enough for him but if you try hard, I guess he will accept that. He's never satisfied. He was very close to his father and he's always felt that you should never want to disappoint your father."

Even today when his father attends games, there's friction.

"I ask him how did I do after the game and he'll say, "Oh, fine,' " Goldsberry said. "There's always something you can do a little bit better, which is somewhat normal. But he and I have definitely bumped heads."

But by graduating in three years and leaving Canisius with a master's, Robert and Frank share a special bond. They will be the only two members in the family with a master's. "We never agree on anything except golf," Goldsberry said. "Now, finally, we have something we both can agree on."

. . .

When Greg Logins was at Sodus High School you could pencil him in for 20 points and five boards, but the only college offers he received were from Division III schools. While he thrived on the court, he struggled with the ACT and SAT. After going through what he called a hard process, he learned he suffered from test anxiety.

In hopes of gaining more exposure for an athletic scholarship and to improve academically, Logins enrolled at The Kent School, a prep school in Kent, Conn. Logins took college level courses at Kent while learning how to balance basketball and academics. Logins was better prepared to tackle the rigors of college because of his year there.

"It changed me a lot," he said. "I went to a prep school to better my education and work on my SAT scores. I finally got through that hump and was able to come here."

Logins took an economics course last semester that will be credited toward work on his Sports Administration master's degree, which he will receive next May.

"It's all online so I will have plenty of time in the gym to work on my game," he said."It's all about getting better."

. . .

Julius Coles grew up in East Harlem more concerned about staying alive than graduating from college.

"You have the gang bangers, the drug dealers, everything an urban city has to offer," Coles said. "You have your crack heads, gun shots. "My group of friends, of maybe the 10 of us growing up, I'd say only one other one went to college. The others dropped out, some are selling drugs. They got caught up in the street life."

Coles stayed away from trouble at the local Boys Club, where he swam and played ping-pong in addition to basketball. "That kept me away from all the bad things that were going on in the neighborhood," he said. He was raised primarily by his mother, Sonya Pittman, and grandmother. Coles' father, Julius, Sr., was in jailed for 19 years for murder and gun possession. He wasn't released from the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon until his son's freshman year at Canisius.

"He wasn't in my life, but I talked to him and visited him," Coles said. "I kind of knew what was going on."

Through the Boys Club, Coles earned a scholarship to Blair Academy. Shortly after accepting the scholarship to Blair, one of his closest friends, Brandon Shackelford, was arrested for selling drugs.

"We both dreamed of going to prep school playing basketball, going to college and playing professionally," he said. "After that happened I was like, "Man, I don't know.'" His mother convinced him to attend Blair but he had difficulty adjusting. Blair is located in Blairstown, N.J., a town of 5,747 that is 98 percent white.

"It was terrible," he said. "The work was way advanced and the socioeconomic status - there was a big gap between me and the other kids. It was a predominantly white school and the other kids didn't understand where I was coming from. All they knew [about Harlem] was what they saw on TV. I had to deal with those stereotypes."

During a holiday break, Coles returned to Harlem with the intention of staying when he ran into Shackelford, who was out of jail. They had a long talk.

"You're living the dream," Shackelford said. "This is what we dreamed of doing. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Just because things aren't going well, stick with it."

Coles followed his friend's advice, which was a good thing. Earlier this year two of his friends from East Harlem got shot. One was killed by a wound to the head and the other was hit in the leg.

Coles feels blessed that he didn't become another statistic. "I thought I was only going to finish high school," he said. "Now to finish with a bachelor's in three years is something I have over my peers."

. . .

Parrotta is turning into an academic madman. Four years ago the three-year plan to graduation was merely on paper; now it's reality. Getting a four-year degree in three years at Canisius, "should be a layup," he said, so now he's trying to reach even higher. Two players on the roster, sophomore Gaby Belardo and freshman Reggie Groves, will be at the school for five years, Belardo because he transferred from South Florida and Groves because he missed nearly his entire freshman season with a knee injury. Parrotta wants to raise the bar higher. "We could be talking about doctorate programs with them and when we start talking about doctorates then it's a real story," he said. "I don't even know how long that takes but that would really be something."

Through perseverance, seven young men have already proven anything's possible.

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