RALEIGH — Seeing his name on the bulletin board as an honor roll student makes Rodney Purvis prouder than scoring 30 points for his high school basketball team.
When grades are released, he double-checks the board in the hallway at Upper Room Christian Academy to make sure his name is there.
"I just don't want to be known as a basketball player," Purvis said. "I want to be known as the total package: 'He's a good kid, he's got good grades, he's an A/B honor roll student.' "
The Raleigh senior is considered one of the nation's best high school basketball recruits and has signed to play for N.C. State next season. His on-court résumé is replete with accolades, yet his work in the classroom has become a central part of his effort to succeed in college.
Since he was diagnosed with a learning disability in eighth grade, his mother, Shanda McNair, said she and her son have put in as much, if not more, time developing him as a student as they have developing his athletic gifts. Along the way, Purvis has been supported by a network of educators, coaches and tutors that includes a former college player, a college coach and an educator who's also the mother of a current Duke player.
"This is the most confident I've been," said Purvis, who has a 3.2 GPA.
Thousands of athletes enter colleges each year facing pressure to excel in their sports while remaining academically eligible to play. For many, the system of academic support at universities such as N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke is a lifeline that keeps them in school and on their teams. For some, though, that system is not enough.
McNair, 38, and Purvis were wary of the stories about top-level athletes who either never qualified for college or failed to maintain eligibility once admitted. Or even worse, those who just got by.
"That's something I never wanted to happen to me," Purvis said.
Work off the court
ESPN.com ranks Purvis the 16th-best basketball player in the nation. The 6-foot-4 guard is considered a top-level collegiate prospect who has a chance to play in the NBA.
Purvis follows in the footsteps of Raleigh basketball stars such as 2010 No. 1 NBA draft pick John Wall. He has made the circuit of elite camps, and his decision to attend N.C. State was a coup for new basketball coach Mark Gottfried.
Still, Purvis is more likely to play multiple years in college than complete one season and bolt for the professional league, as Wall did. He must cultivate his game, and he wants a degree.
During a Sunday morning August workout at Hoops City U in Durham, Purvis dribbled low through his legs, then sprang in the air for a 20-foot jump shot. Then he dropped down for 10 push-ups.
His two-hour workout was exhausting, but so is his academic preparation, McNair said. Over the years, he's had in-home reading tutors and after-school math tutors. Most recently, Purvis took a three-day SAT Prep course, scoring above and below 900 on practice exams out of the possible 1600 on math and critical reading.
Purvis' learning disability, which affects his reading comprehension, has made academics challenging. But James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said students can develop strategies to succeed.
"Learning disabilities cut across income levels, race, ethnicity," he said. "They are life-long disorders. So they do not go away. But they can be well-managed. And some will say overcome, if students receive the right kind of instruction and most helpful kind of support in school."
A grandmother's help
A former basketball walk-on at N.C. Central, Shanda McNair envisioned football or basketball paving a way for a free college education for her son.
McNair gave birth to Purvis while a sophomore in college, and for his first nine years Purvis lived with his grandmother, Valeria McNair, in Plymouth. His father died in 1993, shortly before Purvis was born.
Shanda McNair's mother helped raise Purvis while McNair earned a degree and established a career - first in education, then in sales. Purvis learned to play basketball on a dirt court behind his grandmother's home.
He and his cousin took turns aiming at the rim they received one Christmas. His grandmother bought a light for the court.
"We just played all day long," Purvis said.
Shanda McNair lived in Durham while her son was young. She visited him on weekends.
By the time Purvis turned 10, he had moved with his mother to Raleigh. He joined Garner Road and Lion's Park sports programs, showing a knack for football.
"He was a better football player," said N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton, Purvis' godfather.
An early setback
Shanda McNair watched her son's athletic skills blossom as an eighth-grader at East Millbrook Middle School.
He also seemed to be on-track academically. Despite some difficulties completing multiple-step math word problems, Purvis' grades seemed to indicate he was an average student; McNair prepared to enroll him at Ravenscroft, a private school in North Raleigh.
But the enrollment process at Ravenscroft would stun both mother and son.
Purvis was denied entrance to the school when he failed a placement test, which revealed previously undetected learning problems.
"That was very important data," said McNair, who then had Purvis tested by Wake County schools. "It was definitely eyebrow-raising."
Purvis was diagnosed with a learning disability in reading comprehension. After three months of testing and evaluation, East Millbrook officials created an Individualized Education Plan.
Testing showed Purvis had difficulty with word definitions, sentence assembly and understanding spoken paragraphs. It was determined that his receptive language skills were slightly below average and that problems with vocabulary, making inferences, interpreting and analyzing written information might affect classroom performance.
Purvis took the news hard and became concerned about the stigma associated with learning disabilities.
"It kind of kills your drive," Purvis said.
"It really makes you question yourself. ... You're all amped up to be a freshman in high school and then you get hit with something like that. It's like, 'I'm not really ready to go back to school. What are people going to think of me?' "
His mother's plan
McNair quickly grew from concerned parent to advocate. She crafted a plan for her son.
"Everything in life is about preparation," she said. "It makes no sense for you to walk into a university not prepared. So I went all out for the sake of making sure he was equipped with everything he needed going into college."
His mother talked with him about repeating the eighth grade, even though he was eligible to advance. She decided he needed to strengthen basic skills.
"When she told me that I was like, 'What? That's crazy,' " said Purvis, who said he broke down in tears.
"I just wasn't ready to do that," Purvis said. "You don't have to listen to what people say, but in eighth grade you're going to think about stuff like that. 'Oh, he flunked this grade.' ... Once I did it, everything was smooth sailing. I just went with the punches."
Purvis repeated the grade and was reclassified to the class of 2013, but eventually was placed back in his 2012 graduating class. He had made an agreement with his mother that if he closed academic gaps, he could move to his original grade.
Knowing the needs
The family invested in private tutoring and private school to help Purvis achieve his goal of playing elite college basketball, but also to make sure he'd have options if basketball did not work out.
With basketball the formula was simple: practice, join high-level AAU teams, attend the best camps.
Purvis emulated that routine with academics.
McNair monitored and managed his education plan, asking assistance from those in the public system and others such as Doreen C. Kelly, Ravenscroft's head of school.
Kelly, whose son Ryan attended the private school and plays basketball for Duke, offered encouragement, advice and support. Kelly served on a recent NCAA panel for mothers of Division I athletes. She occasionally speaks about students balancing academics and athletics.
"The best thing any parent can do is to be an advocate and understand your own child's educational profile," Doreen Kelly said. "And what their strengths are and what their needs are. There's no shame in knowing what their needs are. You do it on the court all the time, right?"
A smaller school
Unable to attend Ravenscroft, Purvis enrolled at Upper Room Christian Academy in Southeast Raleigh.
The school, founded in 1998, only housed kindergarten through eighth grade at the time Purvis arrived. McNair decided to take it one year at a time and found the religious-based curriculum and staff met their needs. The student-to-teacher ratio was much lower than in public schools - nearly 8-to-1; there are 54 students in grades 9-12.
"I didn't want him around people who were movers and shakers, who were going to put a basketball program before academics," McNair said. "I wanted him to be around people who were grounded, people who were going to make him take academics serious."
Purvis soon learned that sports were low on the school's list of priorities. The team went 23-18 last season; so far this year, the record is 4-5.
"We don't deal with Rodney as an athlete," Upper Room coach Avie Lester said. "It was a pleasant surprise to see how talented he was, but our main goal has always been: You maximize your potential as a student."
Lester graduated from Roxboro High and played basketball at N.C. State from 1986-90. He majored in history.
His goal is for students to attend college whether they play sports or not. The school's principal follows the same approach.
"I want to know if he did his homework," said Jojuana Long, Upper Room high school and middle school principal.
Going to State
McNair taught Purvis to advocate for himself.
He learned to sit in front of the class, to ask questions and re-read directions until assignments are clear. He's taken classes - Spanish I and II, English I, II, III, U.S. Government, Algebra I and II and Biology - equivalent to those students in public schools take.
"Just because you have a learning disability does not mean you cannot learn," McNair said.
Lester said Purvis has grown from an introvert to the type of student who asks for help. He has received extra assistance from teachers, who help him through trouble areas. "He's not going to sit there and not understand," Lester said.
"He sees that his mother is not constantly talking to me, (principal Jojuana) Long or his teachers about basketball," Lester added. "It's always: How are you doing academically? That makes his focus different."
McNair said her son is a very capable student but, like any teen, he sometimes veers away from the books. He's a videogame junkie and is constantly on a computer viewing YouTube sports highlights. She is all business, constantly in his ear about his academic and athletic goals.
Purvis plans to major in sports management at N.C. State. He might want to coach in college someday.
Before he enrolls at N.C. State, his transcripts must be approved by the NCAA Eligibility Center and the school.
Carrie Leger, director of academics and student services at N.C. State, said student-athletes with learning disabilities receive support from her office and the school's disability services office.
Trying the SAT
On Nov. 5 and 7, Purvis completed the SAT. He was granted more time for his disability by the College Board, the organization that administers the test. He has not received his results.
In preparing for the SAT, Purvis took a course taught by Joseph Aicher, a former football coach and political science professor at N.C. Central.
Purvis took the practice test three times and his scores fluctuated. Aicher said Puvis worked with purpose and "tried very, very hard."
"He didn't score badly," Aicher said.
Purvis dreams about playing in the NBA. But he has other things on mind.
"I'm going to get my degree," Purvis said. "I really want a degree because that's something no one can ever take from me. And it can definitely take me a long way."