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Winter commencement 2023: A day of stars, from the classroom to the NBA

December 17, 2023 By Doug Erickson

NBA All-Star Michael Finley told graduates at UW–Madison’s winter commencement Sunday that he wasn’t always a star on the court. Early on in high school, there was no hype around him.

“Back then, I was just an average player,” Finley told the Kohl Center crowd, adding that he didn’t have the raw talent to skip any steps. “When I was a freshman, I played on the freshman team. When I was a sophomore, I played on the sophomore team.”

That taught him a lifelong lesson.

“The fast track isn’t always the best track,” said Finley, a Badger basketball legend. “You can miss something valuable that way. I learned about patience and humility — that growth doesn’t come when everyone is watching but by how hard you work when nobody is.”

Finley, who is now assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks, served as keynote speaker Sunday. Every graduate in attendance received a mini-basketball signed by him.

The university conferred degrees to 1,966 students (1,459 bachelor’s degrees, 387 master’s degrees, and 120 doctoral degrees). Just more than 1,300 of them took part in the ceremony at the Kohl Center. Total attendance, including graduates, was 7,738. The ceremony was livestreamed so that friends and family from around the world could watch.

A man wears graduation robes.

Thamer Alsadun at the ceremony. Photo by Doug Erickson

Among those who traveled the farthest to attend Sunday were Abdulmajeed Alsadun and Hessah Almarshed, who flew 7,000 miles from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to see their son, Thamer Alsadun, earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Thamer witnessed snow only twice growing up. Now he loves skiing and snowboarding at Tyrol Basin, and he’s developed strong opinions about cheese curds. His favorites: the Nitty Gritty restaurant and the Curd Girl food truck.

“I can’t even begin to think about all the things I’ll miss here,” said Thamer, who will be returning to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco, the country’s national oil company. “This has been such a wonderful experience.”

After the ceremony, Thamer was planning to take his parents to the Nitty Gritty.

In her remarks, Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin said that while every graduating class is special, the Class of 2023 had the distinction of earning degrees on UW–Madison’s 175th anniversary.

To honor that history, Mnookin shared a story about a student who came to Madison almost 80 years ago to study mechanical engineering, and who is maybe the only Badger ever portrayed by an Oscar-winning actor in an Oscar-winning movie — astronaut Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13.” Lovell and his crew had to save themselves after an explosion crippled their spacecraft.

“Working together as a team — working in ways that Jim Lovell learned to work here at UW–Madison — they did the impossible, just as you will do in your own journey that commences today,” Mnookin said. “Some will tell you that the problems facing our world and our planet are impossible to solve. So my message to you today is simple: Don’t believe it. Do not be deterred by what others have labeled impossible.”

Mnookin also gave a shout-out to another famous Badger, this one in the audience Sunday: NBA star Devin Harris, who returned after 20 years to earn a bachelor’s degree in history.

Two men smile and talk.

Old friends Finley and Devin Harris connected at the ceremony, where Finley was the speaker and Harris graduated. Photo: Althea Dotzour

In an interview, Harris said it was incredibly meaningful to be back at the Kohl Center where he once played, and to have Finley, a mentor, give the charge to graduates. Although Harris, of Dallas, Texas, finished some of his coursework online, he flew to Madison many times this past semester to attend his History 600 class in person. He felt like a true Badger again.

“They had me truckin’ up Bascom Hill,” he said. (Only one student ever recognized him in class, he said.) Harris turned in his last paper Friday night and was joined Sunday by about two dozen family members, including his wife, parents and kids, who were hoping to experience a Wisconsin snowfall while here.

Student speaker Jnae Thompson, who earned a bachelor’s degree Sunday in African American studies, shared how she called her father crying after receiving a three out of five on her first reading quiz in the first week of her freshman year. She was devastated, and graduating felt very distant, she said. She leaned on her Jamaican family values to find the resilience to continue.

“Like many of you, I have come a long way since my first reading quiz, and somewhere along the way, I began to feel empowered by what I was learning and the work I was doing to understand more about myself and what it means to be a student,” she said.

Thompson pulled off a big surprise for her parents Sunday — she didn’t tell them she would be on stage as the student speaker until right before the ceremony. “I thought I’d be less nervous that way,” she said.

In his closing remarks, Finley offered this advice to graduates: “Resist the temptation to become something or someone you’re not. Focus on becoming the best version of yourself. At minimum, it’ll save you a lot of time and heartbreak. But more importantly, it’s the way to win and help the world around you win, too.”

Someone takes a cell phone photo as a family poses together with a person in graduation robes.

After the commencement ceremony, a proud graduate poses for a photo with family. Photo: Althea Dotzour