When Isiah Thomas graduated from college, he was too busy to attend the ceremony. It was May 10, 1987 and his job prevented his presence in Bloomington, Ind. Isiah's mother, Mary – to whom he'd promised he would get his degree six years earlier when he'd left Indiana University after two seasons to join the Pistons – walked instead that day.
Her youngest son couldn't walk, but he danced – a memorable jig under the basket at the Pontiac Silverdome to celebrate a one-point playoff win over Atlanta and move the Pistons within a game of the Eastern Conference finals.
One of his teammates that day, Rick Mahorn, will walk this weekend at Hampton University, completing his degree 35 years after leaving for the NBA. As it was in 1987 for Isiah, it will be Mother's Day when Mahorn becomes a proud college graduate.
He only wishes his mother, who died in 1993, could be there to walk with him. It was her inspiration that led Mahorn, all these years later, to finish the final 12 credit hours needed to earn his degree in liberal arts.
"She started it. She was 16 when she had my older brother," Mahorn said. "But she wanted to graduate high school. She went to night school and she graduated six months before he did. It was inspiring to me."
It was only when his own kids started taking their college degrees that Alice Mahorn's inspiration moved the youngest of her four children to finish what he started at Hampton, which offered him a college scholarship after Mahorn came late to basketball as a high school student growing up in Hartford, Conn.
"When my kids started getting their degrees, it was time," he said. Two daughters, Moyah and Alexandria, are Oakland University graduates. A third daughter, Jordan, walked last Saturday at the University of Michigan – "my chemical engineer," Mahorn calls her. A son, Derrick II, graduates from Rochester High next month and heads off to Oakland in the fall.
A third influence for Mahorn came from seeing another Pistons peer, Earl Cureton, finish up his degree at the University of Detroit Mercy recently. Both Mahorn and Cureton are genuine ambassadors for their community, often rolling up their sleeves for civic projects and mentoring children and young adults.
What better way to put meaning to the message of education's importance than the example of completing his degree even after a successful NBA and post-playing career in broadcasting?
"It's the importance of fulfilling a dream that you started – that's the thing to me," Mahorn, 56, said. "You start something, you complete it and then you move forward to other people and pass it along."
A gentle soul who completed the Bad Boys, teaming with Bill Laimbeer to add an element of intimidation to the physical marvels of a group led by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Mahorn's stock in trade as a player might have been rebounds and hard screens but his post-playing career is awash in assists. Nobody has more well-earned friends in basketball than Rick Mahorn.
And his example is already rubbing off. Some of the teammates at Hampton, moved by his dedication to completing his degree, have gotten to work on finishing their own. Concurrent with his graduation ceremony on Sunday is Alumni Weekend at Hampton. The class of '80 is holding its 35th reunion. It will have a proud new member there to celebrate.