A Surprising Road To Higher Ed For An Austin Toro

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

>> Read more Ken Rodriguez Articles | Contact Ken

Michael Joiner
(John Paul Sommer/Toros Photo)

Michael Joiner cuts a different profile in the NBA's Development League. He's got one eye on the ball and the other on life beyond the rim.

Yes, he was excited to start the season in the Austin Toros' new Cedar Park Center home. And yes, he was happy the Toros got two Ws over the Rio Grande Vipers this past weekend. But Joiner, a 6-foot-7 forward with three-point range, may have been more excited about a package being mailed to his parents' home in Stedman, N.C.

Joiner is expecting a diploma from The University of Phoenix: a master's degree in management and human resources. He completed his last class in October, finishing his online course work with a 3.02 grade point average.

"The thing I want now is to take part in a commencement ceremony," Joiner says. "My family wants to see me in a cap and gown."

Michael's parents, Vincent and Priscilla Joiner, have already attended one commencement exercise. In 2004, their only child graduated from Florida State with a bachelor's degree in political science. Six years later, their son has what both of them have: a master's. "Education is first here," says Priscilla, an elementary school principal. "It always has been."

When Michael began graduate school, he thought about a career in human relations. He also thought about pursuing law school. But time and basketball and schooling have made him re-think his options. If everything falls into place, Michael says, he'd like a job in basketball player development.

"I love seeing guys develop and play basketball the right way," he says. If that doesn't work out, he would embrace a career in human resources. Higher education gives him multiple options.

At Seventy First High School in North Carolina, Michael could leap and dunk and blow opponents away with his three-point shooting. But long before he became Mr. Basketball in North Carolina, he became a bookish student with interests that ran from reading poetry and singing in the church choir to studying the arts and visiting libraries.

"I used to read to him before he was born," Priscilla says. "He's very diverse. Michael can fit in any situation and have a decent conversation with many people.'

In high school, Michael stood out for more reasons than his height. He was, for example, a member of the Math Club and another club whose members moved pieces across a game board.. At an early age, Michael learned from his father how to play chess. "Not only does that improve your thinking skills," Priscilla says, "it teaches you patience."

Priscilla uses the term "well-rounded" to describe her son. She remembers that Michael tutored his high school basketball teammates in math, sometimes between games at the Joiner household. "At Seventy First, I wanted to be smart and I wanted to be cool," Michael says. "I wanted to surround myself with individuals who took education seriously."

Now here he is, a D-Leaguer waiting on a second diploma. How did Michael get from FSU to the University of Phoenix? Well, he heard that the D-League was offering scholarships to three winners of an essay contest. "You had to write a two-page paper on why you wanted to continue your education and what you would do with (the degree) once you got it," he says.

Michael wrote that he loved to help people. He described an internship at a law firm in South Dakota while he played for Sioux Falls, and he explained that he wanted to serve others, either as a lawyer or as a human relations specialist. Then came a congratulatory phone call, and Michael enrolled at the University of Phoenix.

He studied before and after games. He wrote papers in the airport. He received lots of puzzled looks from his teammates. "I heard everything from, 'What are you doing?' to 'I wish I could do what you are doing,' to 'Man, you are crazy,'" he says. "At times, this was tough. It was like playing in a difficult basketball game. You have to keep pushing, keep fighting."

Other ballplayers have completed college while playing pro hoops. Bruce Bowen earned a bachelor's degree in communications while playing for the Spurs. Shaquille O'Neal received his undergraduate degree in general studies while playing for the Lakers. But few have been able to complete post-graduate work and manage a pro career at the same time.

Michael Joiner stands out for another reason: He didn't have an NBA contract to bankroll his schooling. At 29, Michael Joiner is one smart ballplayer. Maybe he stays in basketball after he retires, and maybe he goes into human resources. Whatever the case, he managed to get two degrees without plunking down a dime for tuition.

Who would have thought a D-Leaguer would literally write his own ticket into graduate school? The father who taught him to play chess smiles. The mother who took him to libraries beams.

Their son has proven he can write his own future.