Los Angeles • Raja Bell called the tune: He marches to the beat of a different drummer. Always has, always will.
But that does not mean the Jazz guard cannot hear other songs. As Bell has grown older, he has learned to appreciate different perspectives and different tunes. That evolution has served the 34-year-old, 11-year veteran well on the court. And it is about to bring his life full circle off it.
Bell is one mathematics credit away from obtaining a degree in sports management from Florida International University. It has been 11 years since he was a Panther. Eleven years since he dropped his focus on school and picked up the dream of making the NBA. But with the help of the university and men's basketball coach Isiah Thomas, the Jazz guard is expected to soon finish what he started.
"I understand there are people that it means something to," Bell said.
Those people are his parents. Bell's mother was an elementary school teacher. His father was a physical education coach before becoming the associate athletic director at the University of Miami. After a few years of gentle reminders from his dad, Bell has finally heard the music. Balancing NBA life with occasional online courses, the Miami resident has knocked out all but one of his remaining classes during the last two years.
"We are proud of everything that Raja Bell has done both academically and athletically," FIU Athletic Director Pete Garcia said. "It's great to see an athlete of his caliber understand the importance of a college degree."
Bell acknowledged he did not always comprehend the magnitude of what he initially walked away from, referring to himself as a "silly" kid who grasped the present but missed the future.
"I did well in school [when] I wanted to. I always had high scores," Bell said. "But it was one of those things where my focus wasn't there. I just didn't put a lot of stock in it."
A college degree also slipped through the hands of Jazz guard Sundiata Gaines, who is three classes short of a diploma from the University of Georgia. Gaines said he plans to return to school, though, and wants to become only the second person in his family to graduate from college.
"The thing about the NBA is, you're only going to play for so many years," said Gaines, who is fighting for a roster spot with Utah. "You've got to figure out what you want to do with your life beyond. To have that in my pocket going into whatever future I'll have, I think that means a lot for myself."
Bell's pursuit of and Gaines' desire for an identity outside of the game rang true with Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who said far too many players end up shellshocked when basketball leaves them behind.
"When you get through playing, sometimes it's a pretty rude awakening," Sloan said.
Bell is attempting to avoid the post-NBA wake-up call.
"Ultimately, I'd like to be able to look somebody in the face if they asked me and tell them that I did it," Bell said.
Jazz at Lakers
P At Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Tipoff • 8 p.m.
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 6-0, Lakers 2-3
Last meeting • Jazz, 99-94 (Sunday)
About the Lakers • Kobe Bryant scored 19 points against Utah during the third quarter of Sunday's game. He did not practice Monday. … Luke Walton, who is recovering from a strained right hamstring, ran through a full workout Monday.
About the Jazz • Deron Williams, Francisco Elson and Jeremy Evans are probable. … Rookie Gordon Hayward led Utah with 26 points during a win Sunday over the Lakers. … Al Jefferson is shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 86.4 percent from the free-throw line.