For Rick Mahorn and mom, a cap is never too late

The tassels hung from the top of her bedroom lamp. Four of them belonged to her children. One of them was hers.

Alice Faye Mahorn dropped out of high school when she was 16 to give birth to a son. Three more children kept her from returning. But she vowed she would earn her diploma before any of her kids got theirs.

And so this single mother in Hartford, Conn., cleaned houses to support her family and went to night school classes after making the kids dinner. She did this for years, whenever she could clear the time.

And finally, true to her word, several months before her oldest son walked across a stage, she did it first, because she felt a mother should set the example.

“She wore her cap and gown,” Rick Mahorn recalls. “It was a big deal because education was so important for her.”

Her tassel went on the lamp. Rick’s older brother’s followed, then his two sisters’ and finally his. One by one, they were hooked together where Alice could see them before falling asleep and upon waking up.

But Rick had a chance to add one more — a college tassel, the first in his family.

He came close.

“I was recruited to Hampton Institute (in Virginia) for football and basketball,” he says. “I went for four years. Originally, I only went for the education, but when I got the chance to play in the NBA, I still had about 12 credits to go.”

He left. And didn’t go back.

A Bad Boy in the NBA

Of course, Mahorn did do some other things. He was a second-round draft choice of the Washington Bullets. Became a league celebrity as part of “McFilthy and McNasty” with Jeff Ruland (and later just as infamous with his Bruise Brother, Bill Laimbeer). And of course, as Pistons fans remember well, Mahorn won an NBA championship with Detroit’s Bad Boys team in 1989.

His mother rooted him on. But deep down, she still wished he had graduated from college. She wanted that tassel on her lamp.

“I’ll go back,” he told her.

“You promise?”

“Yes, Mom.”

We all think our mothers will be there forever, and the things they harp on, they will harp just as long. But in 1993, a few days before Christmas, Alice Faye Mahorn suffered a massive heart attack and passed away at 57. Mourners at the Hartford church celebrated her spirit and generosity. Rick attended with some NBA colleagues (he was then with the New Jersey Nets) and among the accolades given his departed mother, he heard about her love of learning.

“That was so important to her,” he says. “A single mom. We were on government assistance most of our childhood. She didn’t want any of us to have to rely on that. She insisted on education.”

He instilled that idea in his own children, three of whom already have college degrees. But while Mahorn obviously did well enough as an NBA player, the idea that he hadn’t earned his diploma weighed on his mind.

Then, four years ago, he saw a story about Earl Cureton, the former Piston, who went back to the University of Detroit Mercy to get his degree, and presented it to his 94-year-old mom.

“To see the smile on his mother’s face that her baby boy got his degree,” says Mahorn, now 56. “I would have loved to have given my mother that feeling.”

A weekend trip to Virginia

And so he made a call to his old school, now called Hampton University. He found out his status. And in between his duties as a Pistons broadcaster, he did online classes, first one, then another, working in hotel rooms, at home after dinner, quietly, the way his mother had done her own extra-hours studying.

And today, wearing a gown that will admittedly use a lot more fabric than the average graduate (Mahorn is 6-feet-10) he will walk with the class of 2015 — a mere 35 years behind his original group — and be recognized as a Hampton graduate with a bachelor of arts degree.

His family will be in attendance. And in many ways, so will his mother. Maybe not in a seat. But in everything it took to get there, and everything he will do that follows, because studying may stop, but teaching and learning never do.

Alice Faye Mahorn knew that. Her youngest son does, too. He plans to put the tassel once meant for her lamp on his own lamp instead. You know what’s already there? All the graduation tassels of her grandchildren.

If there’s a better Mother’s Day present than that, I don’t know what it is.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com.

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