Finishing touches

Adams completes long trek with degree from BC

By John Powers
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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When Burnett Adams walked into his first class a couple of years ago and saw monitors and keyboards, he figured he had wandered into the wrong place. “I thought it was a computer lab and I turned around and walked out,’’ he said. “The professor came behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m looking for newswriting.’ And she said, ‘Young man, you’re here.’ ’’

Adams, who was 48 when he returned to Boston College to finish up his undergraduate studies, no longer was a young man and the campus he’d returned to had changed dramatically since he’d first turned up in 1979 as a hotshot recruit from Elizabeth, N.J.

Roberts Center, where he’d played basketball for four years, was gone, replaced by Conte Forum, the Eagles’ winter palace across the street. There were students from 93 countries. “It felt like I was a freshman all over again,’’ Adams said. “Everything was different.’’

Except that this time Adams wasn’t on scholarship. He had played on BC’s superb varsities of the early 1980s, which reached three consecutive Sweet 16s and produced six players for the NBA and seven for the Varsity Club Hall of Fame. He’d gone on to play professionally in Europe and South America and had performed for the Harlem Wizards. What he hadn’t done was earn his degree, even though a correction to a Globe story claimed that he had.

That was what prompted Adams to return to the Heights in the autumn of 2009 to finish what he’d started three decades earlier. What began as an attempt to correct his academic record ended a year ago this month with Adams in cap and gown, clutching his diploma. “All the credit goes to him,’’ said BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo, who helped facilitate Adams’s return. “It was especially rewarding because Burnett had been out for so long. What he did deserves commendation.’’

When Adams enrolled the Eagles were a program on the rise. They’d won 21 games just two years after consecutive losing seasons and they’d just joined the Big East. The point-shaving scandal from the 1978-79 season, which sent one player to jail and implicated one of Adams’s teammates, had not yet surfaced. Adams quickly established himself as a shot-blocker on a team that reached the NCAA regional semis when he was a sophomore.

By then, though, he’d concluded that he and the program were mismatched. “Even though BC was a good school for me, I made a mistake as far as my basketball skills were concerned,’’ said Adams, who thinks that Syracuse or Texas, his other options, would have been better. But when coach Tom Davis offered him a transfer opportunity, Adams refused. “I said I started here, I want to stay here,’’ he said.

Adams played for two more tournament teams, performing alongside Michael Adams, John Bagley, and Jay Murphy, but after Gary Williams succeeded Davis in 1982, Adams felt shunted aside and began drifting academically. His plan was to take his final four courses during the summer. “Finishing school was always in the back of my mind,’’ he said, “but sometimes life’s path will take you on different routes.’’

Sending a message The path first led him to Portugal and Spain, where Adams felt reborn as a basketball player. “They only allowed one American per team at the time and you had to do everything,’’ he said. “You had to score and you had to entertain and they weren’t very tolerant if you didn’t produce right away. I saw many players leave after one or two months. But the more I stayed over there the more I enjoyed it.’’

Adams learned to speak fluent Portuguese and improved the Spanish that he’d learned in high school. He played in Argentina. He performed for the Wizards. Then, at 35, he left the game behind and went back to New Jersey. He managed outlets for Foot Locker and Footaction. He moved to Vermont and worked as an activities director in the Burlington suburb of Winooski, establishing a teen center. Then his path went south to Atlanta and Orlando, where he worked as a security manager.

By 2006, Adams decided it was time to go back and finish his course work. The lack of a diploma, he’d reckoned, had cost him roughly $1 million in wages and undercut the message he had been giving to young people. “I wanted to validate what I was saying,’’ he said. “How can I do that without a degree? How am I going to tell a kid that you have to get an education? I wanted to have something behind what I was saying.’’

Didn’t you already graduate, a college friend asked him? The 1999 Globe story that contended that no African-American basketball player had graduated from BC during his time there had been amended to name five players who had, Adams among them. When he received the transcript, Adams noted that it listed him as having failed Evening College courses in 1986, when he was playing overseas.

After contacting DeFilippo to clear up the discrepancies, Adams voiced his dismay about the issue in a Globe story. But he still wanted to return and get his degree. “I was very surprised when he came out with the article,’’ said DeFilippo. “Then I was surprised that he wanted to come back.’’

Adams was apprehensive about returning. “My major concern was the BC community,’’ he says. “How were they going to view me?’’ But his initial meeting with DeFilippo eased his concerns. “We both acknowledged that mistakes probably were made on both sides,’’ said Adams. “What ended up happening was one administration cleaning up the mess of another. At the same time I have to take responsibility for not completing my education as I wanted to.’’

Return to the Heights DeFilippo said that he never doubted Adams’s resolve. “His Boston College degree was extremely important to him,’’ he said. “Burnett was willing to make any sacrifices he had to in order to be able to do that.’’

So Adams sat down with Ferna Phillips, then-director of Learning Resources for Student-Athletes, to map out a plan. Because he’d switched majors from sociology to communication, Adams still had to take three core courses plus an elective and he needed to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average to graduate. He also needed to do it while working full-time for Securitas at State Street Bank. “I initially wanted to do all four at one time but I think they were a lot wiser than myself,’’ said Adams, who ended up taking two courses in the fall and two in the spring. “They knew that there would be an adjustment period.’’

The campus had expanded, with new buildings everywhere. The student body was far more diverse. And the academics were more rigorous. “The courses I took were extremely tough,’’ says Adams, who signed on for newswriting, investigative journalism, computer-mediated presentations, and philosophy. “I can assure you that BC does not pass out degrees. I worked harder that year than at any point when I was in college.’’

Adams spent four hours a day just commuting from Roxbury to Chestnut Hill, taking a bus to Dudley Station, another to Brookline, the trolley to Cleveland Circle, and the shuttle to campus. He would work the overnight shift, grab a few hours’ sleep, go to class, then head back to work, where he’d use the spare moments to study.

“Sometimes you would doubt yourself,’’ he said. “I guess I’ve gotten more religious. I’d say please God give me the strength and I can do this. I knew what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I’m going to get this done.’ ’’

The difference between then and now, Adams said, was the quality of academic support. “I can assure you that if we would have had the resources that these kids have today, results would have been different regarding graduation rates, especially for African-Americans,’’ he said. “BC gave me everything I needed to succeed. I can’t say enough about the support that I got. I would tell any athlete who’s considering Boston College that if you want a proper blend of academics and athletics and a support structure in place, it’s there.’’

It took 27 years and his mother, who died in 1991, wasn’t around to see it but Adams received his degree at BC’s ceremony inside Alumni Stadium, walking with his fellow Arts & Sciences graduates. “It was surreal,’’ said Adams, who didn’t find out his final grade until three days before commencement. “It’s something that I’ll always cherish. It took me about three or four months to realize that I had graduated.’’

There was closure there and a fitting symmetry.

“My life has come full circle,’’ said Adams, who would like to work as a program director of a nonprofit community organization or at his alma mater. “I started here and I ended up here. I hope I can serve as a beacon for other athletes. No matter how long it’s been, you can come back.’’

John Powers can be reached at