By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Scotty Thurman lived the dream of hitting the game-winning shot in the biggest college basketball game on the planet.
“No time to think, shot clock running down, it felt good when I shot it,” says Scotty of the rainbow 22-foot three-pointer with 51 seconds left that broke a 70-70 tie with Duke and gave the Hogs an eventual 76-72 victory in the 1994 NCAA finals in Charlotte, N.C.
Then, he lived through the nightmare of having his NBA dreams erased in a blink, cut after five preseason games, never to get another shot at the league.
“It was like a state of shock,” he recalls. “You go from everybody adoring you to being a castaway.”
Now, Scotty, just finishing his second year as Arkansas’ director of student-athlete development, shares the heaven and hell and back to heaven experiences that he hopes will provide young Hogs’ basketball players with sage career advice.
“It’s tough, because most of them have been told all their lives how good they are by an AAU coach or a family member,” says Scotty, now 37, married to longtime sweetheart Regina and the proud father of son Scotty Jr. and daughter Romani. “So when you start telling them that they might not be as good as they think, kids throw up a wall and don’t let you in. So I try to provide them with information.
“I grew up with both of my parents at home, I always had a good upbringing. I felt I had the right information when I left school for the NBA (after his junior season) and it still didn’t work out the way I wanted.
“I tell these guys, `Compare my numbers at Arkansas to your numbers and my team’s success to your team’s success. If the opportunity didn’t happen for me, there’s no guarantee it will happen for you.’ You have to plan for that.”
As son of Levell and Roma Thurman, Scotty had sound advice. His dad played basketball for Grambling (La.) University.The Thurmans settled just down the road in Ruston where Scotty, a sweet-shooting 6-6 all-state forward, averaged almost 26 points per game during his Ruston High career.
The more Scotty weighed college scholarship offers, the more he liked Arkansas. It was just close enough to home and he connected immediately with Hogs’ coach Nolan Richardson.
“During my recruiting period when I talked to Coach Richardson, I knew he was different,” Scotty says. “He wasn’t afraid to share with you that he was better than everybody else at what he did.
“My AAU coaches wanted me to go to prep school because I was so young. I thought I’d be redshirted because I was just 17. But Coach Richardson told me on the phone one night, `I’m recruiting you because I expect you to come in and play.’ ”
Scotty wasn’t particularly fast and he didn’t have explosive hops. But he possessed an automatic shooting stroke and played with a confidence that Richardson found appealing from the first time he saw Scotty playing in an AAU tournament in Jonesboro, Ark.
“The whole time Scotty was playing he was talking,'' Richardson recalls. ``I asked my assistant (now Arkansas head coach) Mike Anderson, `Does he ever shut up?' But I liked Scotty, because he could back up everything he was saying.''
Scotty did it his entire college career, averaging 16.2 points in 102 games over three years from 1992-95, hitting 267-of-618 three-pointers for a career school record of 43.2 percent that still stands. He and Corliss Williamson were the backbone of three NCAA tourney teams that went a collective 85-19. That’s including winning 13-of-15 NCAA tournament games, en route to a Sweet 16 berth in ’93, followed by that ’94 national championship and a loss in the national title game in ’95.
Along the way, Scotty, nicknamed “Silk” for his smooth play, hit so many last-second daggers (five game-winning shots) that he had the most swagger of any Razorback.
His penchant for swishing game-deciders drove opposing coaches crazy, like in his junior season when he hit an 18-footer with 8.2 seconds left to beat Kentucky, 94-92.
'I told our team all week not to let Thurman beat us on the final play of the game,'' miffed Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said. ''I said that he would push off and get the final shot. Unfortunately for us, that's what he did.''
And then there were opponents, like Duke’s Antonio Lang, who barely missed blocking Scotty’s game-winning launch in the ’94 national title game, who could say nothing but “congrats.”
“Scotty hit a tough shot – I was right on him and I thought I could tip it,'' Lang said after the game. “It was a big-time play.''
When the biggest shot of Scotty’s career hit nothing but the bottom of the net after clearing Lang’s reach, two of his former coaches had to be ecstatic. They had been instrumental in developing Scotty’s high arc.
“I used to shoot the ball behind my ear,” Scotty says, “but my brothers started blocking it and I had to start altering it at that point. I probably had four or five different shots before I got the one I wanted.
“There was an eighth grade coach by the name of Reginald Knight, who saw me shoot and said, `Hey young fella, you gotta get the ball up, give it the best chance to go in.’ We worked on it everyday. Then I had a high school coach who made me shoot over a broom he held up in front of me. That’s where the arc came from, having to get the ball up.
“I thought my coach was crazy for making me shoot over a broom. It’s funny, but that one moment when I needed it the most (against Duke), I realized why he had me do that.”
Just before Scotty’s one-for-the-ages three-pointer made the Blue Devils even bluer, he missed two straight shots. His pride always told him to never miss three straight.
The fact that he barely had time to unload his game-winner after teammate Dwight Stewart fumbled the ball at the top of the key and passed it to him on the right wing was a bonus. Pure shooters don’t like time to think. They like to catch and shoot.
“When I caught the pass from Dwight, I knew there wasn’t much time, maybe three seconds,” Scotty says. “So I had to shoot it. Fortunately, Antonio Lang had to jump from pretty far out. He was actually on the way down when I released the ball. But he was still 6-8 and his arms were long enough to contest it.”
When the shot went in, Scotty turned to the stunned Duke crowd and screamed, `You’re surprised about that, huh?”
After all these years, what Scotty relishes the most about making the game-winner is that he joined a list of Final Four heroes that includes fellow Louisiana native Keith Smart of Baton Rouge, who made a baseline jumper to give Indiana the 1987 title over Syracuse.
“Louisiana has never gotten credit for putting out good basketball players,” Scotty says. “So I’m proud I had the same opportunity as the person I idolized growing up.”
While winning the national championship was awesome, the Hogs, with almost the entire team returning for the 1994-95 season, had a target on their backs. That’s why the run toward a repeat national championship was mentally and physically exhausting.
“Everybody was game planning for you all summer, everybody was giving you their best shot during the season,” Scotty says. “Teams watched our every mannerism, and were geared to play us.
“And everybody is watching you walk in arenas or meeting you at hotels. It was almost like rock star treatment on and off the floor. I don’t know if we were mentally prepared for that coming back after winning the national championship.”
In the ’95 NCAA tournament, the Hogs were pronounced dead several times. Maybe no team in college basketball history advanced to the Final Four by the hairs of their chinny chin chin more that Arkansas that year. The Hogs won their first four NCAA tourney games by a combined 15 points, including a one-point game in the first round and back-to-back overtime wins before beating Virginia in the regional finals.
After Arkansas beat North Carolina in the Final Four semis in Seattle’s Kingdome, gaining a measure of revenge from Scotty’s freshman season. That’s when the Tar Heels eliminated the Hogs in the East Regionals semis, the Razorbacks had nothing left for the championship game.
They lost to UCLA and the O’Bannon brothers – “Them O’ Bannons are the $#%&! Truth,” Hogs’ guard Al Dillard said – after Arkansas’ 89-78 loss to the Bruins.
As good as Scotty had been the year before in the ’94 tourney, he and his teammates finally caved. Against UCLA, he made only 2-of-9 shots and scored 5 points. His biggest three-point miss came with 6:02 left and Arkansas trailing, 67-63. The shot spun in and out, and the Razorbacks soon faded.
''I felt like if I would have hit that shot, I would have gotten in rhythm,'' Scotty said after scoring a combined 11 points in two Final Four games on 4-of-19 shooting including 3-of-16 three-pointers.
A couple of weeks after the UCLA loss, Scotty declared for the NBA draft. Although pro scouts had doubts about his footspeed and ball-handling since he was projected as a shooting guard and not small forward as he played in college, he felt the timing was right to leave the Hogs. So did teammate and all-America power forward Corliss Williamson.
“If I had stayed for my senior year, we had an entire new team coming in, and that uncertainty wasn’t comfortable for me,” Scotty recalls. “I wasn’t sure I was prepared to have a bull’s eye on me and nobody else.”
Scotty knew that with him as the Lone Ranger surrounded by a bunch of untested, inexperienced Tontos, the chemistry of the previous three seasons would be missing. That sense of true teamwork, players accepting roles playing for a coach who thought outside of the box, is what made those Arkansas teams some of the best in SEC history.
“That was a tribute to Coach Richardson and his staff for going out and recruiting guys that weren’t necessarily McDonald’s all-Americans except for Corliss and Darnell Robinson,” Scotty said. “We had a lot of guys who could play and a lot of guys who believed they could play and wanted to prove it to the world. We knew we could do it together. Everybody else had chips on their shoulders. It became kind of like a brotherhood. Our battle cry was we felt everybody was against us and we wanted to prove to the whole country and even to ourselves that we were good players.
“Nobody on our team had an agenda. Our only agenda, `Who’s next?’ ”
Another factor in Scotty’s decision to turn pro was the relentless pressure of maintaining a national championship caliber team had drained the joy from the game.
“The season had become a grind, it was like a job,” Scotty says. “Corliss and me thought that if it was going to be work like that, we might as well be paid for it.”
Prior to the NBA draft, there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of interest in Scotty. He worked out for the then-two-time defending league champion Houston Rockets, the New Jersey Nets and the Sacramento Kings. He also signed with agent Robert Fayne, meaning he forfeited his last year of college eligibility and there was no turning back.
Scotty, not feeling great about his Final Four performance, even played in the NBA predraft camp in Chicago. There, he started slow and played better as the camp progressed. By the end, New Jersey Nets general manager Willis Reed, a one-time schoolmate of Scotty’s father at Grambling, gave an honest assessment.
'He will be an NBA player,'' Reed said of Scotty, “but he may not be ready to step in and be the kind of player he will become one day. I think he can shoot the basketball, but he has to prove that he can get shots for himself, make sound decisions with the ball and move quickly enough to defend in the NBA.”
Scotty was still confident, saying, “''If I don't go in the first round, I'm still going to feel good about myself. I won't regret my decision no matter what happens.”
On draft day, Scotty thought he would be drafted by Houston after someone from the Rockets telephoned him hours before the draft. He watched the two-round draft at his parent’s home in Ruston and his phone never rang. He heard Williamson’s name called in the first round, not his own.
Scotty signed with the Nets as a free agent, because of his father’s Grambling connection with Reed and because Scotty’s cousin was married to Nets’ forward P.J. Brown.
After playing about a combined 30 minutes in five exhibitions and averaging 3.6 points, the Nets released him on Oct. 27, 1995. Though he had shown flashes of brilliance – he had 5 points vs. Orlando, hitting a three-pointer over veteran Nick Anderson and talking smack with him – his NBA career was over before it started.
He went to Sioux Falls in the Continental Basketball Association, then got cut after one game to make room for ancient former NBA center Darryl Dawkins. Scotty ended up playing for the CBA entry in Shreveport, La., 66 miles from Ruston.
Being close to home didn’t ease Scotty’s disappointment. But then, he began looking around the CBA and saw big-name college players like former Louisville guard LaBradford Smith and former Georgia guard Litterial Green toiling away.
“That kind of lifted my spirits,” Scotty remembers, “because these guys were great players in college and they had to re-route their lives just like me.”
It was then Scotty found himself again. So what if never played in the NBA? As long as he had a place to play – and he did overseas in Europe for the next 11 seasons, that’s all that mattered.
My mother used to always tell me before she passed, `You’re different than everybody else’ because most guys based their life on basketball,” Scotty says. “Before I came out of high school, people said I couldn’t play and I wasn’t that good, so there was really no pressure on me to make the NBA.
“Once I started playing overseas and I started looking around and realized who my circle really was – my parents, my wife who was my girlfriend at the time, my son who’s now 17 – I’ve never looked back on it and had any regrets.”
Playing in Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Lebanon gave Scotty an education he would have never gotten in the NBA.
“I’m not so sure I would be as well-rounded as I am right now had I not gone the way I had to go to get to this point,” Scotty says. “It was a unique education, riding trains in Greece or Italy, hanging out by the Mediterranean Sea, learning cultures, experiencing different lifestyles.”
The game atmospheres were also drastically different.
“I was in Yugoslavia one time at the free throw line and someone threw a shaved coin at me,” Scotty recalls laughing. “I’m looking at the referee like, `Are you going to get the ball back and give me a chance to re-group?’ He’s like, `Go ahead and shoot it.’ If that coin hit me, I would have had a big gash.
“One of the other things that you see playing internationally that you don’t see in the States is armed military in the arenas. It was odd when you went after a ball that went out-of-bounds that you might bump into a solider holding a M-16.”
When Scotty played professionally in Lebanon, he became fast friends with former Virginia Tech guard Ace Custus, who impressed on Scotty the importance of preparing for life after basketball.
“Ace is probably one of the only guys I ever played with that had a vision past that orange pill,” Scotty says.
Ace rubbed off on Scotty, because by the Scotty retired from basketball in 2006, he made sure he gotten his college degree from Philander Smith College in 2003 before entering the Little Rock real estate market. He also taught at Episcopal Collegiate School and coached AAU basketball.
When Arkansas’ program struggled after Richardson was fired in a dispute with the university before the end of the 2002 season, it was hard for Scotty to ignore the displeased Razorbacks’ faithful.
“Living in Arkansas all these years I would have all these people come up to me complaining about the program, complain that it’s not like the good old days,” Scotty says. “Well, misery loves company and at some point I started to feed into that saying `Man, we ought to be better, we should be doing this, we should be doing that.’
“So instead of complaining more, I decided to get in and do my part to help.”
Scotty didn’t have enough coaching experience to fill an on-court coaching vacancy on previous Arkansas coach John Pelphrey’s staff. But before the 2010-11 season when a position was created as the team’s director of student-athlete development to mentor players, who better to hire than the personable Scotty?
Armed with a gift of gab, a love for the Razorbacks and two lifetimes of experience compressed into about 20 years, Scotty found his niche.
When Pelphrey was fired after last season and new coach Mike Anderson was hired, there’s no doubt that Scotty wasn’t going anywhere since Anderson had recruited Scotty to Arkansas as a player. During the coaching switch from Pelphrey to Anderson, it was Scotty who soothed the frayed nerves of Razorback players that wanted to quit.
“I look at my job as a responsibility,” Scotty says. “When you build a house, and then you see somebody tear it down, you want to re-build that house because you know it was a good house before it was torn down. I’m one of the guys trying to re-establish the foundation of this house.
“And it’s a dream come true to get a chance to assistant Coach Anderson, who recruited me here. I never expected to be working at the University of Arkansas in any capacity, but to get up every day and go to work in the place you once played, well, I don’t know if you can write a better storybook ending.”
No, I can’t Scotty. I’m not even going to try.