His Game on the Court Was Flashy and Fearless.
A 6’9” Leaper, He Was Living His Basketball Dream “Above the Rim” in the 1970s.
But Seattle Supersonics Legend Dean Tolson Didn’t Win His Championship in the NBA.
He Won It in the Classroom after a Life-Long Struggle with Illiteracy.
Undergraduate Degree. Master’s. Magna Cum Laude. A Life of Learning.
His New Dream: To Pay It Forward. This Is His Inspirational Story.

In the 1970s, everyone knew the name “Dean Tolson.” At 6’ 9”, he was the high-flying University of Arkansas product who would put points on the board in bunches and could rebound against the best big men in the country. Yes, on the night of the NBA Draft in May 1974, when Dean was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics, everyone knew his name, but no one knew his secret.

Dean was illiterate.

This fall, readers will get the opportunity to recognize one of the truly unique narratives in professional sports with the release of “POWER FORWARD: My Journey from Illiterate NBA Player to a Magna Cum Laude Master’s Degree” (Lyons Press, October 1, 2023), Dean’s remarkably moving and impactful memoir releasing this October. Draft night was just the start of this inspirational story.

Dean’s childhood in Kansas City was underscored by poverty, abuse, omnipresent gang violence and an uncertain home life which hit rock bottom when he and his brothers spent five years living away from his family at a local orphanage after his loving mother had suffered a breakdown. In those years, he wondered if he’d ever see anything familiar again, or feel safe. But Dean is a survivor. And at every stage in his youth, “survival” meant nothing more and nothing less than dominating on the basketball court, that magical place where real life couldn’t interfere and nothing else mattered. Basketball was his one constant. In turn, Dean’s NBA dream would become his obsession. One day he’d do something special. Something that mattered.

As he continued his rise on the basketball court, he stagnated further in the classroom. Everyone knew he had learning issues but promoted him nonetheless because he was needed for the next season and then he would become someone else’s problem. That continued all the way through his senior year at the University of Arkansas, a school that would change the trajectory of his life forever, but not in the way he thought it would when he first matriculated there in 1970.

When Dean was drafted in the fifth round by the Seattle SuperSonics in that 1974 NBA Draft, he believed that with his childhood dream accomplished, everything else would fall into place. He was wrong. After three mercurial seasons in Seattle—where he earned a reputation for being explosive and flashy and for perfecting his trademark slam dunks—his NBA dreams unraveled. It was the ultimate irony. He had made it to the pinnacle of pro sports, but somehow felt like a failure. He gave his blood, sweat, and tears to the NBA, and he felt like they simply disposed of him and moved on. And while Dean struggled to hang on to his professional basketball dreams for a few seasons as an international basketball vagabond—playing in places like Venezuela, The Philippines, and Greece—he often found himself spiritually broken as both his game and his body deteriorated.

In his darkest professional hour, his mother pleaded for a new direction and asked a simple question that would serve as a catalyst for a new phase of his life: “Have you ever tried to learn to read and write?”

POWER FORWARD also covers:

    • The impact of his early interactions with his Aunt Eula May’s boyfriend—Kansas University basketball star Wilt Chamberlain
    • That his father was physically and verbally abusive to his mother and remained absent from their household
    • His frustration in the classroom would often result in misbehavior and his acting out
    • How the Black Panthers invaded his high school in 1968 and triggered weeks of riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
    • His multiple interactions with gangs and gang members in Kansas City, including an attempt to murder Dean at a public basketball court when he was in high school
    • How he made first-team All-State his senior year and became the top basketball player in Missouri
    • Dean’s admission that he did not take his own ACT and SAT entrance exams; a decision that he struggled with and ran contrary to his core values
    • The culture shock of starting at the University of Arkansas as a 6’ 9” black kid at a mostly white school in a racially charged era
    • His draft into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and his misadventures as a soldier throughout the 1970s
    • Dean’s terrible GPA and academic record while at Arkansas; he was skipping classes and just wasn’t engaged with anything that wasn’t basketball
    • His final college game versus Texas A&M when he scored 45 points and had 16 rebounds and the Arkansas basketball records that he still holds to this day
    • The deadly car accident he was in as a passenger the summer between his freshmen and sophomore years which resulted in a bout of viral spinal meningitis and six brutal spinal taps
    • How he was both the first player from Kansas City to be drafted in the NBA, and the first from the University of Arkansas
    • His difficult negotiations and difficult relationship with SuperSonics head coach and general manager, Celtics great Bill Russell
    • How he competed in the first ever NBA dunk contest
    • How an education would have helped a lot when it came to negotiating and navigating the politics of the NBA
    • He got cut from the SuperSonics for the fourth and last time in 1977, just 24 days before he would have become vested for his NBA pension
    • The plight of NBA players in the game’s periphery struggling to keep their dreams alive
    • His suspicion that basketball’s coaching fraternity had blackballed him for whatever reason, leaving him without a second act in the NBA
    • His many anecdotes from his basketball journey after leaving the NBA, which include a slow dance with Imelda Marcos in Manila and a prison shakedown with the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Memphis
    • How his mother forced the issue of a lifestyle change by hiding his plane ticket, passport and contract for another season playing abroad
    • How Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles insisted that the university give Dean a second chance at a diploma and helped get him matriculated him once again in 1984
    • Dean’s long and often painful process of learning how to read and write
    • The phenomenal efforts of his incredibly supportive college tutor, Marcia Harriell Rachel
    • The five-page story celebrating Dean’s second attempt at Arkansas that ran in the May 12th, 1988, issue of Sports Illustrated
    • How he received a key to the city in Tacoma for his numerous talks with at-risk children
    • The terrifying traffic stop in Tacoma when twelve police officers surrounded his car, one with a 9 mm handgun pressed to his head
    • His long struggle with his addiction to painkillers, which he finally faced under a program for retired NBA players, where he also fixed his torn ACL, his ailing back, and his hernia after years of wear and tear
    • His legacy at Arkansas with his retired jersey hanging from the rafters at Bud Walton Arena; his induction into the university Hall of Fame; and the inauguration of the Dean Tolson Comeback Scholarship Award presented to an athlete on a scholarship who can come back and earn their college degree.

Dean’s unapologetically frank memoir grants readers a new perspective from the first pro athlete to ever overcome illiteracy, go back to college, and then graduate with honors with a master’s degree magna cum laude. He doesn’t shy away from some of the poor decisions and ugly truths of his early years, as he was a mischievous, hard-headed kid who never appreciated education at any point of his young life. And when you are illiterate, every day is filled with challenges and frustrations and in Dean’s hardscrabble youth, he didn’t have the kind of mentors who really cared about the man he would become. They only cared about the player on the court.

But—as on the basketball court—his inner strength and competitive nature took over when he returned to Arkansas for that second chance that few receive. Dean made a total commitment to his studies, owning up to his old mistakes, blocking out distractions, and vowing to his mother and to himself that he wasn’t going to squander this opportunity. And he thrived. He found learning to be liberating, exhilarating, and his creativity blossomed into something he had never fathomed before. He’d grown so much, earning his undergraduate degree, and then returning to Fayetteville for his master’s degree at age 53, graduating in the top tenth of his class. Magna cum laude. His heart overflowed.

In the end, Dean doesn’t want “former NBA player” to be the first line of his obituary. He wants his legacy to be greater than that. He wants to be remembered as someone—once rudderless save for a dream—who helped the people of this world, no matter their age or circumstances. In POWER FORWARD, Dean freely shares his own hard-earned lessons and reminds kids what the benefits of education are and that it’s never too late to find a worthwhile purpose in your life. Dare to dream.

And then pay it forward.

“I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

—Robert Frost

About the Author

Byron “Dean” Tolson was born in Kansas City, Kansas on November 25, 1951. He overcame a childhood of poverty, illiteracy, and five years in an orphanage to become an NBA basketball player. He was drafted from the University of Arkansas by Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell, by then the general manager and head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, in 1974, where he played for three seasons. At the age of 53 he returned for three more years and graduated with a master’s degree in education and magna cum laude honors. In 2007, he was inducted into the National Scholars Honor Society in Chicago, Illinois. For the past thirty years he’s been a professional motivational speaker on the subject of “Better Your Best and Bring Out the Best in Others,” delivering more than three hundred speeches everywhere from top universities to private membership clubs and corporate organizations.

About the Book

POWER FORWARD: My Journey from Illiterate NBA Player to a Magna Cum Laude Master’s Degree

Author: Dean Tolson with Lindsay Harrison
Publisher: Lyons Press
Release Date: October 1, 2023
Details: Hardcover / 240 pages / $28.95
ISBN: 978-1493076895

Click here to Buy the Book

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