When former Shocker basketball standout Jerome “Fridge” Holman left Wichita State in 2004, he was one semester away from graduating with his degree.
At the time, academics were not Holman’s top priority. He was chasing a professional basketball dream and found it with a brief career overseas. But the money and the fame came when Holman earned a spot on the traveling AND1 Mixtape Tour and played under his streetball name “Circus” for years.
But when his playing career was over and it was time to join the real world, Holman quickly discovered he would need a degree to help provide for his girlfriend and their two children, Braylen and Major.
Some 14 years later, with help from former WSU coach Mark Turgeon and WSU academic adviser Gretchen Torline, Holman returned to earn his bachelor’s degree and officially became a graduate of Wichita State University this past December. He recently posted a picture of himself with Torline reminiscing on his journey back to college more than a decade later.
“I come from a place where nobody has a college degree,” said Holman, a Brooklyn native. “Basketball saved my life, but then you grow up and realize the importance of academics. Now I hope (the degree) can help change my life.”
‘I had no choice but to lock in academically’
Holman was a basketball star growing up in New York City. He was an unstoppable scoring force on the court and his name was soon all over recruiting websites.
His profile only grew in high school when he attended St. Patrick across the Hudson River in Elizabeth, N.J. He played with future NBA players in Al Harrington and Samuel Dalembert for a program that also produced current NBA star Kyrie Irving. Holman verbally committed to Miami (Fla.), which then played in the Big East, and was ready to be the go-to star there.
But Holman never played for Miami because he couldn’t get the necessary SAT scores to be eligible to play Division I basketball.
“I know for a fact academics held me back,” Holman said. “I was being invited to the ABCD camp, getting ranked 12th in the country, but I didn’t take care of business in the classroom. I really didn’t have any guidance growing up. In my neighborhood, we came from nothing. I was in the streets a lot and I had to make a lot of decisions on my own. I didn’t really have parents that were on top of me to study or asking, ‘Where are your books?’ It was just basketball, basketball, basketball.”
Miami placed Holman at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. Holman excelled on the court, but his struggles remained in the classroom. When the Miami coaching staff that recruited him was fired, Holman was left without much interest from high-major teams because of his academic struggles.
But Tad Boyle, who was then an assistant under Turgeon, believed in Holman’s talent as a point guard after watching him play for Trinity Valley in a postseason tournament.
“I remember he went up to our coach and asked him about me, and my coach told him my transcripts were garbage,” Holman said. “But (Boyle) didn’t get scared off. He wanted to work with me. I trusted him, even though I didn’t even know where Wichita was on a map.”
Boyle helped place Holman at Butler Community College, where he never saw a single minute on the basketball court. Holman had to pay his own way with the sole purpose for his short stint in El Dorado to improve his grades and learn how to become a student. In his year there, Holman worked closely with Butler academic adviser Heidi Perez to get back on track.
“That was the first time I buckled down and locked in with school,” Holman said. “It was one of those deals where you tell yourself you have to do it and then you do it and it feels really good. That year at Butler, I can’t believe it, but I went to class every day and did my homework. Heidi really helped me and it was the first time I really had any structure in my life.
“I felt like I had no choice but to lock in academically. That year at Butler really helped turn things around for me at Wichita State.”
‘It’s hard to preach it if you haven’t done it’
Holman was one of the most popular Shockers of the last two decades. He had a fun nickname — “Fridge” — and a colorful game with New York City brashness.
During his senior year in the 2003-04 season, Holman averaged 10.4 points and 5.3 assists, while posting the sixth-best assist rate in the country. He helped lead the Shockers to a 21-11 record, their first time topping 20 wins in 16 years.
“He wasn’t a horrible student, but at the time he had aspirations of playing in the NBA,” said Gretchen Torline, WSU’s director of athletic academic services. “I knew he would do very well (with basketball), but we all know that it ends at some point. It’s hard for these guys to understand how hard it is to come back and finish when they leave and grow up and then you have to provide for a family. That’s why I push them so hard to get their degree when they’re here.”
Torline knew how close Holman was to a degree, so she kept in touch with him over the years and would pester him about returning to school. It wasn’t until 2011 that Torline heard back from Holman.
The Shockers were on the start of their rise to national prominence and had reached the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament, which were to be played in Holman’s backyard at Madison Square Garden. Holman asked if he could sit next to Torline at the games. The two connected and devised a game plan for Holman to return to Wichita.
Turgeon, now the coach at Maryland, made a phone call to help place Holman in the classes he needed at WSU in that fall 2011 semester. Holman finished most of the courses he needed, but a question remained about a final class. He finally was able to resolve the situation this past winter and officially graduated.
After the birth of his second son nearly two years ago, Holman said he was more motivated than ever to graduate.
“When you have kids, you get that superhero feeling with the way they look at you,” Holman said. “It was something where I wanted them to look at me and say, ‘Wow, my dad is awesome.’ My oldest is 7 now and he’s going to be a ball player, but he’s also going to be a great student. I’m even tougher on him because I know what it’s like to take the long way. I don’t want that for my son. It’s hard to preach it if you haven’t done it yourself.”
‘Better late than never’
Holman has remained in Wichita since and is now the head coach at Next Level Prep, which operates out of Next Level Hoops Academy in Bel Aire.
It’s a basketball academy for players like Holman who may not have been academically eligible coming out of high school and need one more year to prepare academically before realizing their Division I dreams. The team is in its second year and Holman enjoys working with players who he can relate with.
“I know academics was never my strength,” Holman said. “I was so locked into going to the NBA and that’s why I wanted to be a coach. I want to help teach kids the importance of academics. I’m so strict with grades now that you would have thought I was a perfect student. But I learned from my mistakes and I want to help others not follow in the same path.”
Holman is a rarity.
According to Torline, men’s basketball players who do come back to finish their degrees typically do so in the year after they leave WSU. It’s almost unheard of for a player who had been gone for nearly a decade and living as far away as New York City to return.
But that’s what made the reward of picking up his degree even sweeter for Holman.
“I’ve never seen anybody so happy,” Torline said. “He called every day wondering when he could pick up his diploma. When he finally was able to pick it up, he was so elated. He came running in my office and was jumping up and down like a kid. It was the best. He was so proud to be a graduate.”
Holman joked on his Instagram caption that he was picking up his Master’s degree, a poke at the 16 years it took him to earn the degree. Torline sent the picture to Turgeon, who sent back how proud he was.
“He could have gotten a Ph.D. for as long as it took him,” Torline said, laughing. “He worked long and hard for this, though. It was a long and arduous road for him, but he worked for it and persevered and I’m so very, very proud of him. When I sent the picture to Mark, I wrote, ‘Well, it’s better late than never.’”
For Holman, the journey back to Wichita was more than just about the degree.
It was a challenge to himself to see if he could overcome the odds, a test to see just how much he had matured, and more than anything, he wanted to prove to himself he could finish something he started.
“I think through this whole thing the biggest thing I learned was to take responsibility and ownership,” Holman said. “I used to blame my parents for not going to the NBA because they weren’t around. It was hard for me growing up all the time without any family support. I struggled a lot with that throughout my life. But I learned to stop blaming others and now I’m locked in to being the best father I can be to my two. I’m going to make sure they’re two good young men in life, whether or not basketball is a part of that or not.”