By: Talia Bargil
An NBA career, millions in the bank, and a growing family never sidetracked Raja Bell from finishing what he started. In fact, nothing did.
So when the 35-year-old guard made the ceremonial graduation walk this past summer at Florida International University, he earned one of his sweetest and most memorable victories of all-time – a college diploma.
“It’s a real achievement. I missed college graduation my first time around, so it was really cool for me to experience it this time,” said Bell. “And it feels really good to finally be able to say that I’m a college graduate!”
Following two years at Boston University and two more at FIU, where he scored 965 points in two seasons and led his Panthers to a Sun Belt Conference tournament title, the 6’5” guard set out to pursue his NBA dream with five college classes left on the table.
“I’m fully satisfied with the decision I made at the time. For a player like me, that window of opportunity to make it to the NBA was so small, and I had to take it when it was there. For me it worked out.”
But the St. Croix native didn’t embark on his pro basketball career before making a promise to his family and himself that he would, in fact, earn his degree at some point.
“I come from a long line of educated folks, and I did not want to be the one that broke that,” he said. “It was always something expected of me, and you could say I was pushed and prodded to get my butt in gear.”
About six seasons into his NBA career and after numerous discussions with his NBPA career counselor Rich Rinaldi, Bell decided it was time to get back in the classroom, so to speak.
“It never seemed like the right time. But when my wife and I were starting a family, I realized it was very important as a father to be able to tell my kids that I graduated college. And I thought it would be hypocritical for me to tell them about the importance of school if I didn’t finish it myself.”
Chipping away class by class, Bell took four of his remaining courses online through FIU, which he says was an adjustment.
“I took a couple classes during the season. I was so used to playing, and out of school for so long, that I wasn’t accustomed to doing that anymore. I had to really concentrate and carve time out for class and studying.”
And with just one class left last summer, he faced quite a challenge – calculus. FIU did not offer the course online, so he took it through University of Phoenix.
“Taking calculus was tough and a big commitment. But like anything, when you can see the finish line, it gives you more gas in your tank. I buckled down, got the tutoring I needed and was able to knock it out.”
Full of pride for himself and his school, Bell chose to participate in graduation day and pick up his long-awaited degree in recreation and sports management in person.
“So few players make it pro out of FIU, and I wanted to show my support and show them it really meant something to me. It was my way of thanking all of the people who advised me along the way,” he said. “And I wanted my family to be there watching…my mom, dad, sister, wife and my three boys were all in the audience! Everyone was congratulatory, it’s a real achievement.”
Bell, whose 12-year NBA career has included stops with the Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Bobcats and Golden State Warriors, is now armed with a valuable piece of paper that can open many doors.
His advice for fellow NBA players thinking about completing their degree?
“Just go and do it…there’s never a perfect time. Once you get back into it and get your legs under you, it’s easier than when you were first in school,” he said. “The NBPA is great with their support and making sure you have what you need to be successful. You have so many people willing to help you while you are playing, so just go and do it.”
“Trust me, it’s really rewarding to be able to say that you graduated.”
And that’s a feeling no amount of money can offer.