By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
PHILADELPHIA –If there were a non-athlete or coach who could give you some insight on the good, the bad and the exploitive nature of college athletics, Stephen Satell could.
He’s seen it up close.
From 1989 to 1992, Satell was a tutor for the University of Massachusetts basketball team when John Calipari was the team’s head coach. During that time, UMass was an up and coming college basketball program whose rise to national prominence came with a stint on NCAA probation.
Satell’s book, “Trying to Make Things Right,” is a fictionalized account of his time at UMass, the relationships he had with the players he tutored, and his relationship with Calipari, who is now the popular, yet controversial head coach at the University of Kentucky.
The story itself is a compelling coming of age tale focused on four central characters– Ka-Shawn, Tutor, Magic and Coach– and the parts they played in the rise of a college basketball program. It’s a story of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions and how that road can get even rockier when ambition trumps all.
The point of the book is to show that everyone benefits when the “scholar” part of the phrase “scholar athlete” is emphasized, said Satell, a doctoral candidate in Temple University’s African American Studies program. If the same things that make a successful athlete, things like teamwork, intensity, concentration and a knowledge of the fundamentals, are applied to academics, success is a given, he said.
“I want to get people to understand that those things can transform into academic success,” Satell said. “Using the same energy that coaches use to recruit players can also be used to helping bridge the gap between universities and poor communities.”
Satell, who is white, grew up in Philadelphia and lived among African-Americans in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods and in Ch. He said he enjoyed his time working with Black athletes and helping them navigate academia despite coming from impoverished school districts.
“When you look at urban schools, you look at education that’s set up to fail,” he said. “This was a different situation. I happened to have the expertise to make it succeed in an institution where I had the opportunity to do something for a minute where a university can relate to a community.”
How the athletes in the story overcame their academic challenges to become successful on the court and in the classroom is what Satell hopes people take from his book.
“The fiction writer gets inside the character and that was what I thought I had the expertise to do. To relate the different struggles that are personal and universal,” Satell said. “I wanted to bring my experiences into fictional characters.”
During his time at UMass, Satell successfully tutored student-athletes who were admitted to the university under the NCAA’s Proposition 48 because they didn’t have the minimum SAT scores or grades to play right away. Those students have to sit out their freshman year of school.
“We were getting top players and the reason we were getting top players like Donta Bright and Marcus Camby was because other schools simply could not take them,” Satell said. “What we did we were able to get them to be very successful with school. We earned the right to get those students.”
The program maintained an academics-first focus until the Minutemen made their first NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance in 1992, Satell said. Although the team lost to the Kentucky Wildcats, it was a taste of success.
After that, Calipari’s priorities changed. The “scholar” had been removed from the phrase “scholar athlete” in favor of an almost maniacal focus on basketball, Satell said.
“Once Calipari had made his reputation on the basketball court, he no longer needed to recruit to the academics,” Satell said.
“The rules went out the window and the integrity went out the window. There was a big emphasis on support and the academics. That’s what was very unique.”
Oddly enough, Calipari’s teams UMass and Memphis had to vacate their appearances in the Final Four because of NCAA violations. At Memphis, the school was placed on probation because another student took the SAT in place of star guard Derrick Rose, now a guard with the Chicago Bulls.
At a time when the integrity of college athletics is under constant scrutiny by fans, school administrators and the media, “Trying to Make Things Right,” is a unique work of historical fiction that explores the good, bad and the ugly of college athletics.