DURHAM, N.C. -- Gerald Henderson has achieved many things throughout his athletic career, but his proudest moment may well have come in early August when the five-year NBA veteran completed his final class at Duke to earn his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology.
Henderson practically floated across the practice floors in the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center shortly after the final class before lacing up his sneakers for an afternoon workout. And who could blame him?
“It means a lot to come back and get my degree,” said Henderson. “I spent a lot of time here at Duke. I had some great times playing basketball, but academically, being at a prestigious place such as Duke, leaving early, and being able to come back and finish what I started is a great thing that’s very important to me.”
The journey that began with the signing of a National Letter of Intent in November of 2005 had reached a new pinnacle nearly nine years later. In that time, Henderson has developed into a starting guard on an NBA playoff team, while also spending the offseason back in Durham working towards his degree.
Henderson's basketball career at Duke came to a close following the 2008-09 season when the Merion, Pa., native elected to bypass his final year of eligibility after averaging 16.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game while earning All-America and first team All-ACC accolades. He was selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats to remain in the state of North Carolina and stay on course to honor a promise he made to himself and his parents.
“Coming back and getting my degree was definitely special to me,” Henderson said. “When you start school, when you’re very young, the plan is to graduate college. Regardless of what my other plans were with basketball, it’s important for me to finish out the plan. I knew when I left my junior year, I promised my mom that I would go back and get my degree. She knew it was very important to me. That’s something that was important to me, because I don’t like to lie to my mom.”
It is one thing for someone to say that will come back to finish their degree. It is another thing for an NBA starter in the middle of a three-year $18 million contract to maintain the commitment to follow through with that promise.
“Before class even started, I saw [Gerald’s] name on the roster for the class, and I was thinking, ‘there’s probably a hundred reasons why he doesn’t need to be here right now, but there’s only one real reason for him to be here, and that’s to finish up his degree at Duke,’” said George Grody, a visiting Associate Professor of Markets & Management Studies at Duke. “It shows me what that really means to him. When I saw him in class on the first day, I said to him, ‘As an alum, I just want to let you know how much we all appreciate you coming back to get your degree.’ Duke alums are very proud of our student-athletes. His response was, ‘Well, I want to be like you.’ I kind of looked at him strangely, because he’s an NBA player and probably making good money. I asked him, ‘What do you mean?’ and he said, ‘I want to be an alum too, and I can’t really be an alum until I graduate and get my degree.’ That was really impressive to me. It shows how much it really means to him.”
Even more impressive from Henderson was the way he seamlessly integrated himself back into the Duke student body. In the walk across campus from Cameron Indoor Stadium, he not only took time to talk to other students, he also exchanged greetings and shared casual conversation with construction crew workers, grounds crew members and pretty much any other individual on his route.
“He interacts with the students, just like if he was one of the students,” Grody said. “He’s in class all the time. He participates. He works with the other students when we’re doing group work. He has a great relationship with the folks on his team, especially one of the students who is a foreign student who works for a company over in Japan. He’s over here this summer to take a business class. Seeing the two of them interact is a lot of fun.”
Henderson finished his degree as a non-traditional student, and although he may not be able wear a cap and gown at graduation (as it takes place during the NBA season), he can now add Duke graduate to his list of career accomplishments.
“I think it comes down to why folks come to Duke as student-athletes to begin with,” Grody said. “They know they can come to Duke and be at the pinnacle of both academics and athletics. I think whoever comes here, that means a lot to them. Seeing that it meant enough to Gerald to come here and not just have NBA player after his name, but also graduate of Duke, I think that means a lot to him. It means a lot to all of us in the Duke community. It shows how much he really values the input of Duke and giving back to Duke and how much that Duke degree really means to him.”