Ex-NBA star seeks to be educational role model

April 21, 1991|By Peter Finney Jr. | Peter Finney Jr.,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- Dick Barnett -- Dr. Richard Barnett -- could have written his doctoral thesis on the "fall back, baby" jumper, the ungainly but deadly shot that became his trademark in nine years and two National Basketball Association championship seasons with the New York Knicks.

"He was one of the most awkward-looking basketball players I've ever seen in my life," comedian Bill Cosby said Wednesday at a news conference. "One arm went south, and the other arm went north, and the head went sideways. I'm glad we had other role models."

Being an educational role model is what Barnett, 54, is all about these days. Barnett received his educational doctorate from Fordham this month, and he has established a program designed to invigorate the learning process by capitalizing on the built-in celebrity of professional athletes.

"They're role models, whether they like it or not," Barnett said. "We want to utilize professional athletes in a systematic manner. It's not just an athlete going into a school and giving a talk. That's what we call an event. People feel good for the moment, but the athlete never returns again. This is a program. The athlete is a turn-on model to stimulate interest."

Under Barnett's plan, athletes and other "positive role models from private industry" would work with youngsters beginning in the fourth grade, because "we believe that's when they're most impressionable."

"Let's say Dick Barnett makes a speech," Barnett said. "That becomes part of a lesson plan. The students have to talk about it. Who is Dick Barnett? That takes a historical slant. Let's research who that person is. They'll write essays about that person. They've got to talk about it and write about it.

"It can be a continual process, either in person or on videotape. With technology today, Magic Johnson can sit down and talk to a thousand classrooms at one time."

Why athletes?

"Sports is on television 24 hours a day," Barnett said. "They have young people's attention. There's considerable power."

Barnett is seeking corporate sponsors to finance the program. Cosby said attacking the learning problem earlier would lead to fewer stories about the educational failures of big-time collegiate athletic programs.

"These kids [in college] take 'general studies,' " Cosby said. "Every time an athlete drops out of pro ball, even if he wants to go back to his own school, he doesn't have any credits. We are joking if we think the kids running up and down the court are in line with the kids who have been in the stands for five years. We are not preparing athletes to be anything other than cannon fodder."

When Barnett left Tennessee State in 1959 as the No. 1 pick of the Syracuse Nationals, he was two years shy of a degree. He got his bachelor's degree at Cal-Poly while playing for the Lakers in the 1960s and got his master's in urban public policy from New York University in 1973. He says most pro athletes lack degrees because they lack focus and goals, not intelligence.

"One day, this intoxication and being mesmerized by the drama of sports is going to end," Barnett said. "I played basketball all the time, and I really didn't care about school. But I'm sitting here right now. People grow as they become older."

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