‘Finishing strong’: Gray Collegiate basketball coach continues mission to earn degree

Bethea shined in his early 20s on Allen University’s basketball team in Columbia. By his senior season, one word altered his path -- cancer.
Updated: Feb. 14, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - It’s a Wednesday afternoon inside Gray Collegiate Academy.

Boys basketball head coach Dion Bethea quietly sits at his desk. His eyes are gazing intently at his computer screen as he’s waiting for War Eagles’ practice time to roll around. While he waits, he works.

Bethea’s office display showcases his hard work and many team accomplishments since his arrival in 2014, including three consecutive state titles.

“When you look in this office, you see everything on the wall,” said Bethea. “The only thing missing is that degree.”

The degree missing from the wall is his undergraduate.

“I’m sitting helping my players get in school and go to college,” Bethea added. “I’m on them about finishing and finishing strong, and then I didn’t finish.”

To understand why Bethea was unable to reach his finish line, we need to look back on the journey.

Bethea shined in his early 20s on Allen University’s basketball team in Columbia. By his senior season, one word altered his path on the court and in the classroom -- cancer.

“It was not a guarantee chemo would work,” Bethea said.

In 1997, Bethea was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, which is a type of blood cancer. He spent six months receiving treatment.

“I was praying every day,” Bethea said. “My friends and family were praying for me to get through it.”

Bethea completed his treatment and went into remission. Instead of returning to school to complete his degree, he opted to pursue his calling.

“It was always racing in my mind,” Bethea recalled. “It could have gone the other way. Did I have the opportunity to live my best life? I always said something to myself, once it did get into remission, take advantage of life and live it to the fullest.”

With the support of his loving family, Bethea did just that. He built great relationships. Bethea experienced tremendous opportunities, working at Michael Jordan basketball camps and coaching kids.

Even though the 45-year-old climbed the coaching ladder successfully, he felt the weight of not earning his college degree.

“Coach [Patric] Simon always told me, you’ll have to come back one day and get it because it’s so important that you have it,” Bethea emphasized. “It’s not about you finishing first. It’s about you having an opportunity to finish.”

The message from his old college coach stuck with him. The pandemic were all living through gave him time to reflect on it. He thought about his wife and two daughters, and their future without him earning his degree.

“Basketball has been unbelievable for me,” mentioned Bethea, “but I needed to focus on myself and take care of my family.”

Once a secret, Bethea openly shares his pursuit to reach his finish line. The War Eagles’ leader is thankful for the support from his family, players, and Gray Collegiate.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Bethea said as he smiled. “It’s a lot of work. My wife has done a great job making sure I get it. I’m super excited to have the opportunity to walk across a college stage at the end of it.”

Through a partnership with Allen University, Bethea works toward completing his undergraduate degree at Benedict College in Sports Management. He has two semesters to go.

He hopes his return to the classroom resonates with his players because it’s never too late to finish what you started to create a better life path.

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