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Q&A: Ex-NBA player Dean Tolson on overcoming illiteracy, his career and more

Tolson, who played 3 NBA seasons, aims to help those struggling with illiteracy via his new book.

Dean Tolson has a unique story to tell. It began when he opened the door at five years old, finding Wilt Chamberlain on his doorstep.

That surprise encounter inspired him to become a basketball player, even as he spent time in an orphanage and his family struggled with poverty. He became a star, earning a scholarship to the University of Arkansas, then getting drafted to the NBA, playing for three seasons before beginning a successful basketball career internationally.

At the same time, he could not read. Passed through the educational system because of his talents as a basketball player, he battled illiteracy into his adult life. 

In “Power Forward” — which releases on Oct. 3 — Tolson details his pursuit of education, sharing the stories of his life and career along the way.  

Tolson still holds the record for the highest rebounding average at Arkansas, ahead of future NBA players Bobby Portis, Daniel Gafford and Jaylin Williams. In his senior year, he averaged 22.5 points and 13.2 rebounds per game.

After being drafted in the fifth round, he went on to play for Bill Russell with the Seattle SuperSonics, butting heads with the legendary coach, who preferred a methodical approach to embracing the fast break. 

He traveled the world, from the Philippines to Venezuela to Greece, and was christened “The International Basketball Vagabond” along the way. He prepared to go to war in Vietnam but avoided it after a military officer finally took note that he was 6-foot-9.

He overcame pain, addiction, racism, crime, political friction and betrayal, building lasting friendships and connections. 

He faced his struggle head-on, returning to college to continue his studies. He learned to read, to do advanced math, and walked away with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, graduating magna cum laude at age 57. 

In his memoir, Tolson hopes to share a powerful message for anyone fighting their way through adversity to pursue their education: you can do it too, and the rewards are worth every step of the struggle.

Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited.

Why did you want to write this book and share your story with the world? 

The reason I wrote the book is to help struggling students across the United States realize the importance of graduating from high school and college and making a contribution to our country, our communities. 

I hope that people understand what it is that I’ve accomplished, and they pass that along through generations.  

My mom and my dad did not (pass that understanding of learning along) to me, because they were uneducated. They never encouraged studying in school. 

I figured out how to do it for myself, and I have something that can help other people figure it out now. I’ve been trying to tell this story for 40 years — and I’m just now getting it told. 

Were you concerned about your difficulties with reading while growing up? When did the concern crystalize for you? 

I really didn’t recognize this until I was 32 years old. My mom approached me, insisting — ‘you can’t read or write or do math. What do you intend to do (after your basketball career)?’ That’s what got my attention. 

When I was growing up, education was sold as a myth — not as a benefit to students and kids. I’d go to the schoolhouse every day, but not engage in the academics and curriculum — study habits. I never did that throughout my whole academic career: K-12 and my first four years of college.  

You dealt with a tremendous amount in life. What kept you going through the difficult times? Where does that resilience come from? 

My motivation and drive were failure. Imagine, playing at every level, high school, college, NBA and international basketball — and you mark yourself down as a failure in life. Wow — what are you going to do with that? How do you fix that? That’s the question. Whatever I had to do to fix that failure, I did it. 

I was the biggest loser in education, and now I’ve become the number one, biggest advocate for education. 

Along the way, there were a few figures that reached you in life: Frank Broyles, your former coach and the legendary athletic director at Arkansas. Marcia Harriell, who tutored you when you returned to school. Why were they able to reach you? 

Harriell usually worked for the athletic department, tutoring a variety of athletes. When she met me, she decided ‘Hey, this guy has something special,’ and she tutored me alone for the next four years. 

(That individual attention) was the first specialized education and tutoring that I ever had in my entire life. She dialed in, tuned in and zoned in on my every shortcoming to make sure I graduated from the University of Arkansas.  

How I learned was through repetition and association — sounding the words out, writing them down over and over again. Repetition, just never quitting or giving up. It’s the same as playing in the NBA. If you’re going to make the team, you never can give up — you’ve got to beat these guys, playing every night. 

I transferred that same intensity to the classroom, and that’s how I graduated. 

What advice do you have for students who are struggling? 

Number one, they can do it. And, when I found out I could do it (and succeed academically), it started to become fun. I didn’t realize it could be fun! 

People need to focus on what they like to do. Once they focus on what they like to do, that will encourage them to do what they need to do.  

I didn’t like school, but I did like success – that’s how I made it to the NBA. However, if you don’t like anything, then more than likely, you’re not likely to do anything. I found out, when I tried, I liked going to school, I liked reading. Until I did it, I had nothing. 

How has education changed your life? 

I finally learned who Dean Tolson really was inside. Growing up, I was basketball Dean Tolson, “the International Basketball Vagabond.” 

Now, I’m Dean Tolson, the defined, educated individual, with valuable experience to share. 

Describe your game in a few sentences. 

I was one of the coldest customers to pick it up. I scored 12 points in 60 seconds in an NBA game in 1975 — no man has ever scored seven baskets in 60 seconds. I was 20 years ahead of my time. 

The way the game is played today, it is strictly transition basketball. There’s no more slow-it-down, set it up, get it inside to the big man. It’s windshield wiper-style basketball, and I was a windshield wiper-style player back in 1974. I was worth a point a minute in the NBA, and I never got to prove it. 

(Editor’s note: Tolson averaged 21.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes with the SuperSonics from 1975-78. In 80 NBA games, he played 8.5 minutes per game.)

I participated in the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1976-77. I was a fancy dunker: I liked to show off, do dunks that other folks couldn’t do — with a 48-inch vertical at 6-foot-9. I could take off outside the paint from anywhere. I played above the rim all night. 

Who was the best player you played with? 

Spencer Haywood. Spencer Haywood and Bill Russell were the two stars for the Seattle SuperSonics, with Fred Brown the next man in line. 

Bill Russell really wouldn’t let you run? That surprised me, given the Celtics’ success on the break during his playing career. 

They called it “controlled up-tempo game.” Russell brought the Boston Celtics’ philosophy when he came to Seattle, and that philosophy was quickly fading out in the modern game. He brought in a player by the name of Tom Burleson, who was 7-foot-4 — a set-it-up, slow-it-down big man. 

Later, they tried to run again, but didn’t have the personnel. I was playing with Willie Norwood, Mike Bantum, Bob Love, whose career was at an end — these guys were not fast break players. I only really got to play when they brought in Dennis Johnson and Bobby Wilkerson. 

What does your career mean to you, looking back from this vantage point in life? 

I’m the first NBA player to overcome full-blown illiteracy and graduate, and then go back again, and graduate magna cum laude with a master’s degree. No other athlete has done that in the history of America. That’s how I feel about it. 

I never thought this journey would happen this way. I thought I’d end up on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” every two or three months, slam-dunking on somebody. The education trumps my basketball career. It became more important to me than playing on any level, to graduate from college, to get a master’s degree.  

I had dreams of the chancellor handing out diplomas to students — that when he called my name, he’s going to snatch it back and I’d never get it. Dreams. I want kids to understand that feeling that I felt — that moment when they put the diploma in my hand. 

It’s the most serious thing in life that I know of. People are homeless, hopeless, destitute — they’re doing many things to survive. 

It’s not just me. Anybody can do it. I’m illiterate! How do you take a master’s level statistics course, make an A in it, without ever taking a math class in your life? It was paramount. It was paramount that I prove that ordinary people can do it — especially these kids, because they’re smarter than all of us. 

What will committing to pursue education do for people? 

It will enhance their lives behind their wildest dreams. They will be able to count on it, whatever they did, whatever track record they set for themselves. 

How do you feel about being here, able to tell your story? 

I believe this is my calling. That’s how I really feel, me being the first person to do this in this society as a professional athlete. They should make a motion picture of this, so it can reach more and more people. 

The educational system in America is falling short of success. And I think it’s just a matter of getting people’s attention to fix it. (The importance of education) finally got my attention, so I fixed it. That’s all it is. 

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Learn more about Dean Tolson, his career as a public speaker and basketball player at