Barry Saunders

Saunders: Dereck Whittenburg helps students score an education

N.C. State director of player development Dereck Whittenburg, right, laughs with director of operations Jeff Dunlap during practice for the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball East Regionals at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday, March 26, 2015. The Wolfpack will face Louisville on Friday.
N.C. State director of player development Dereck Whittenburg, right, laughs with director of operations Jeff Dunlap during practice for the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball East Regionals at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., Thursday, March 26, 2015. The Wolfpack will face Louisville on Friday. Raleigh

There is still debate over whether what Dereck Whittenburg launched that night in 1983 was a shot or an assist.

There is no debate over what Whittenburg is launching now: it’s definitely an assist, one that will help a lot of students who might not know a basketball from a kumquat. It might also become his defining legacy, even more than winning an NCAA championship at N.C. State University.

The Whittenburg Foundation, started this year by Whittenburg and his wife, Jacqueline, is providing scholarships to students at his alma mater and Shaw University. One of the main requirements is that recipients not be athletes.

“I’m at a time in my life where I’ve been around elite athletes for 30 years. They don’t need any (financial) help staying in school,” he said. “I want to play now to my other passion, education, and help students who really need financial assistance. I’m in a position now to do that, and it’s perfect for my new title.”

That title is associate athletic director for community affairs and student support at NCSU. Until this season, Whittenburg was an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team. “I’m closing the chapter to coaching and opening the chapter to serving my university and the kids,” he said.

One of those kids is Lawrence Johnson of Brooklyn.

Johnson, a freshman sociology major at Shaw, said the $5,000 he received from the foundation “will go to my tuition, to bring that down. I’m from a single-parent home, and my mom is trying to put me through school and take care of my little brother.”

Johnson and seven others from Shaw and NCSU were to be honored at a ceremony at Marbles Museum in Raleigh on Wednesday night.

Whittenburg and his board, in creating the criteria to receive the moolah, recognize what many others don’t: even when there is money to get into college, there is often no money to stay there. As an alum of HBCUs and someone who had to drop out for a semester to work, I can attest that many of my friends – some of whom were brilliant students who might otherwise have invented the cure for something – were forced to drop out and never return because their parents ran out of moolah.

As an alum of HBCUs and someone who had to drop out for a semester to work, I can attest that many of my friends – some of whom were brilliant students who might otherwise have invented the cure for something – were forced to drop out and never return because their parents ran out of moolah.

They couldn’t just hit up family members – as Mitt Romney brilliantly suggested struggling college students do – for an education-continuing loan.

I can’t speak for other schools, but at HBCUs – many of which are perched precariously on a ledge over which lies extinction – if you owe, it’s out the door you go.

That’s not a knock against the schools, just an acknowledgment of the reality that results from too little government and alumni support.

A recent Harvard study showed that the U.S. has the highest college dropout rate – just 56 percent of students are graduated within six years – among industrialized nations. That same study reported that college costs have sextupled since 1985.

A spokeswoman at Morgan State University in Baltimore said in a published story that many of the students who drop out there owe less than $1,000. A confederate of mine dropped out, never to return, because he owed $300. Last I heard, he was a mall security guard. An honorable gig, no doubt, but I’m guessing he earns less – and pays less in taxes – than he would had he become the doctor he wanted to become.

The Whittenburgs and everyone else who try to keep kids in school deserve gratitude and support.

For the record, Dereck Whittenburg contended – with a laugh that included a wink – that what he launched in that championship game “was a pass. Always a pass.”

Perhaps it was, but some teammates might say that what Whittenburg, who never showed an aversion to hoisting a shot, is doing for deserving students is his first undisputed assist.

I’d say it’s also his biggest.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

Want to help?

To find out more or donate, go to www.thedwfoundation.org.

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