By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – 5-4-3-2-1. Swish.
Afternoon after afternoon, shot after shot, over and over again.
It may seem like a classic childhood routine to dream of and act out making the game-winning shot, but for Scotty Thurman, the play that he rehearsed in his backyard for all those years in Ruston, La., turned out to be preparation for the biggest moment of his life.
“It was kind of crazy to be put in that situation in 1994,” Thurman said. “Growing up in Ruston, I was always in my backyard shooting the ball, trying to find a way to be the hero. I would do the countdown 5-4-3-2-1 and shoot it, and make it as many times as I could. All that dreaming, my hopes and prayers allowed me to reach my goal.”
Thurman’s game-winning shot against Duke in the 1994 NCAA Championship game is still, all these years later, remembered as the most famous shot in Arkansas basketball history. With 51 ticks left on the game clock and the shot clock expiring, Thurman sank a high-arcing three-pointer from the right wing to break a 70-all tie and give the Razorbacks the lead for good in that title tilt.
“As I reflect back on it, it was probably a lot bigger than I thought it was then,” Thurman said. “I had always wanted to play on CBS and play in the national championship, so to be able to do that was huge. Living in Fayetteville, it’s hard to live it down because everyone talks about it every time they see me. It’s a blessing to know that for a lot of people, that big shot is something they take with them as one of the greatest moments that they will ever have.”
Fast forward to the present. It’s Wednesday morning in Fayetteville and Scotty Thurman is hard at work on the University of Arkansas campus.
He’s not practicing his game-winning shot, but just the same, he is helping current Razorback basketball players prepare for the biggest moments of their lives; that moment when it is time to hang up the sneakers and focus on their professional careers off the hardwood.
As the program’s Director of Student-Athlete Development, Thurman wears a variety of hats all geared towards helping the current squad members develop as well-rounded individuals who epitomize the phrase “student-athlete.”
“I’m the liaison between the academic support staff and the men’s basketball team,” Thurman said. “I monitor class schedules and study-hall times and make sure they know what they’ve got coming up. We have a student-athlete development curriculum here in all sports and I’m in charge of working to get our guys involved in community service activities, life skills events and a variety of different seminars.”
Thurman is in charge of implementing and scheduling a handful of different programs that will help prepare them for careers outside of basketball. His first-hand experience gives him a great deal of credibility in letting the players know what to expect once their collegiate careers have ended.
“I share with them some of my life experiences,” Thurman said. “I was a guy who wanted to play in the NBA and it just wasn’t happening. I had just as much success as some other guys who played in the NBA, but there were just no guarantees. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming and wanting to play in the NBA, but let’s say that does not happen. What we focus on is the next step. I try to help guide our guys to make good choices outside of basketball.
“We do a lot of different life skills,” Thurman continued. “We have a career-assessment program where we try to help them pick their major based on their strengths so that they aren’t picking something and decide to change it in a year or two. We have resume workshops, financial literacy workshops, media training and character enhancement. I’m here to try to help create the complete experience by sharing with them my own life experiences to try to help enhance their lives.”
Thurman knows that everyone on the Arkansas team aspires to become a professional, and he tries to help them understand that just because their basketball careers may not continue doesn’t mean they can’t be a professional in their lives.
“We have a slogan that Chancellor [Dave] Gearhart shared with the campus: ‘You’re going to go professional in something,’” Thurman said. “Most of our guys think that means being a professional basketball player. But pro doesn’t necessarily mean basketball. You could be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or an architect. I provide them statistics on guys in the NBA over the years. What schools have they come from? What kind of money do they earn? Kids think all basketball players earn millions of dollars; they forget about the guys making the league minimum of $400,000. That’s still a lot of money, but when you’re in that environment with people who are buying a new car every other month, it’s not going to seem like that much. You have to understand that not everybody makes 20 or 30 million dollars.”
In their daily lives on the Arkansas campus, the players, Thurman knows, feel a sense of pride and importance because they wear the Razorback uniform. But outside of a college environment, being a basketball player might not hold as much of a status as the student-athletes might think. He wants them to understand that they need to be prepared to function in the business world as well.
“There is such a small percentage of the world that is concerned about basketball,” Thurman said. “The main thing is being able to conduct yourself appropriately in public and with people outside of basketball. I want them to be as well rounded as they can be. If you’re just a ballplayer, then when you walk away, you don’t know how to do anything else.”
No one expected much from Scotty Thurman.
The Razorbacks had been to the NCAA Final Four in 1990 and made an Elite Eight appearance a year later, winning 30 or more games in each of those two seasons. Nolan Richardson had strung together a great deal of success in his short time in Fayetteville, but maybe this class consisting of Thurman, Corliss Williamson and Craig Tyson would just be a rebuilding one.
“Our freshman year, a couple guys redshirted and we had a chance to see a lot of success that the older guys had,” Thurman said. “Nobody really expected much from us and that year we were ranked 44th in the nation in the preseason. By Christmas time we were among the top 12 in the country.”
That 1992-93 squad, which began its season outside the top 25, knocked off No. 8 Memphis and No. 9 Arizona to earn a No. 12 national ranking by mid December. Thurman said that group of Razorbacks were able to be successful largely because of their work-ethic and their determination to defy the odds.
“It was huge because we put a lot of time and effort into becoming better players,” Thurman said. “Getting up at 6 a.m., we were thinking it was punishment, but it really prepared us and gave us a great mindset. We were out to prove something. We wanted to show people that while they were asleep, we were working hard to get better. Coach Richardson always told us that if the other guy is sleeping and you’re up getting better, than you’re going to be better than he is. We kind of took that as our approach. It was a tribute to all of the things Coach taught us and a tribute to the kind of guys we had who were willing to put in the time and effort to come together as one.”
The next season was when the Razorbacks would string together a 31-3 record and claim the program’s first and only NCAA Championship. As special of an experience as the national title was for Thurman, he says that it is the relationship with his teammates that he will cherish forever.
“It’s an experience that not many people get to go through,” Thurman said. “What we went through is bigger than basketball because the relationships still remain. I still talk to those guys and we remain in contact to this day. Those relationships that you form in the locker room remain. They were your teammates and they’re still your teammates. I really cherish those relationships.”
Thurman concluded his Arkansas career following his junior year, a season in which he led the Razorbacks back to the NCAA Championship game, before they fell to UCLA in the final. Thurman averaged better than 15 points per game for the third consecutive year.
He finished his Arkansas career with 1,650 career points, 434 career rebounds and shot 46.4 percent from the field for his career. He still currently ranks No. 10 on the school’s all-time career scoring list.
It seemed certain that he would be a first-round draft pick in the NBA. But it didn’t happen. In fact, he wasn’t drafted at all. Thurman would have to head overseas to continue his basketball career. He spent the offseasons in the United States, earning his college degree in 2003 from Philander Smith College. He got married and now has two children, Scotty, Jr., and Romani.
“After I played here, I went overseas and played for over 11 years, but it was only eight full seasons,” Thurman said. “As my son started to get older, I would pick and choose what seasons I played. My last three years, I played abbreviated seasons and focused on other things at home, and played ball to supplement my income.”
Thurman said the opportunity to play overseas was just as valuable from a cultural perspective as it was from a basketball standpoint.
“I played in Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Jordan, and I was fortunate to be able to see so many different countries,” Thurman said. “I saw places that most people only see from watching CNN. I had a chance to experience it myself and it was a complete different education. I got to meet so many other people abroad and it was such an amazing experience.”
Following his basketball career, Thurman served as the director of real estate for Cypress Properties in Little Rock before getting bitten by the basketball bug again. He wanted to find a way to get involved both with teaching the game and with helping develop complete student-athletes. Thurman got his start coaching junior high school basketball and teaching eighth grade speech communications at Episcopal Collegiate School.
Thurman never expected to be back in Fayetteville working at the University of Arkansas, but when he saw a job posting for an assistant coach position at his alma mater, that piqued his interest.
“Initially it started off with me just trying to find a way to get involved in some capacity,” Thurman said. “There was an assistant coach opening and I applied for that, but the coaching staff didn’t feel that I would necessarily be the best fit or most experienced, coming from a background of coaching high school and AAU, so they filled it with someone else.”
But Thurman remained in contact with then-head coach John Pelphrey and the Arkansas basketball program. He would speak to the team, help players decide on a career path and serve as a general mentor for the team’s student-athletes.
When a new position on the staff opened up, Pelphrey immediately telephoned Thurman.
“Coach Pelphrey remembered me from me talking to the guys and the staff and helping them with whatever they needed to do,” Thurman said. “He reached out to me and said that he had a new position and wanted to know if I wanted to be a part of it. We talked about it and it ended up working out for the best.”
Thurman feels that his new job offers the best of both worlds. He has a career that allows him to do what he loves and allows him to live the perfect community environment for his family. He now spends his time sharing the values he learned with Arkansas’ current players.
“Growing up in Louisiana, I was very fortunate to have both parents at home and they always instilled in me that I needed to work hard and be more than a basketball player,” Thurman said. “Having a coach like Coach Richardson allowed me to hone the skills of leadership and playing hard. He always taught me that you are only as good as your last game. Your last game could be tomorrow. I am basically reaping the benefits of not only the hard work I put in but also the hard work a lot of different people poured into me – Coach Richardson, my parents and Coach [Mike] Anderson. I have an obligation to instill the same values in these players that my coaches and parents instilled in me.”