Robert Thurman comes off the bench for the Cal men’s basketball team in nearly every game. When he is on the court, he is not graceful but forceful; he plays like someone who knows exactly what his specific role is. For Thurman, it’s the “garbage guy,” the player who gets his hands dirty with screens so that his teammates can make the nets swish.
He does not regret his role with the Bears — just as he does not regret the path he took to get there.
There is a saying Thurman knows: Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
“And I have to be honest,” he says. “I think I am a little lucky for where I am now.”
Until his senior year of high school, Thurman had his life mapped out. He was going to be a Marine, just like his mother. Military life was the only one he knew.
“You don’t really think there’s any other option,” he says. “It’s just like a family business.”
When his family relocated to Edwards Air Force Base in North Edwards, Calif., in 2005, Thurman enrolled in the Air Force ROTC program, in which he learned the value of teamwork and discipline. The following year, he was made second-in-command of the unit. He was set for life — until some new friends at the Edwards base convinced him to try out for the on-base high school’s basketball team. The 6-foot-7 Thurman had never been part of an organized sports team, but he knew the valuable lesson of teamwork through ROTC.
“I was taller than everyone, but I didn’t have any coordination,” he says. “(The coaches) were like, ‘Oh, he’s tall, might as well give him a shot.’”
As he immersed himself in the sport, Thurman found something he loved even more than the military. His passion for basketball edged out his desire to enlist, and his plan began to shift. He didn’t have to pursue the Marines — he could pursue basketball. But the switch didn’t happen overnight. Now, he decided, he would go to the Air Force Academy prep school, play basketball there and then enlist.
By his senior year, basketball won out completely. Thurman knew he wanted to set his sights higher than what the military could offer. He wanted to keep playing ball. But he wasn’t a great player. No Division I colleges came calling.
That didn’t deter him. He enrolled at Antelope Valley College in Palmdale, Calif. He commuted from the Edwards base every day to take classes and play on the basketball team.
The commute, however, was short-lived. In practice one day, Thurman suffered a concussion after colliding with a teammate while reaching for a rebound.
The season hadn’t even started.
During recovery, Thurman couldn’t drive alone, yet he had to drive to school every day. So he dropped out.
This wasn’t the end of his basketball career; it was just a short detour of recuperation before he was back in action. But as a child of a military background, he knew luck would not court him if he didn’t stay disciplined. To stay in shape, Thurman became a fixture at Edwards’ on-base gym.
“I didn’t really know what to work on,” he says. “But I just became a gym rat. It kind of helped me just get better.”
Then his preparation met an opportunity.
Norwich University, a Division III college in Vermont, recruited Thurman in high school. But Thurman denied Norwich’s advances back then, sure that he could garner Division I attention.
One day after the concussion, Norwich called him up and asked if his plans had changed. His plans had definitely changed.
At that point, Thurman saw a lucky break. He saw a way to play basketball again — even if it was for a Division III school. Norwich wanted Thurman to be the centerpiece of its team. Once he finally committed, he was in Vermont two weeks later, working out with the Cadets. The rapid move didn’t faze the young man who’d spent his whole life transferring in and out of bases.
Halfway through the season, the grayshirt freshman was starting over a veteran senior and leading the team in points and rebounds. After a monster 34-point game, he was named to all-Division III’s “Team of the Week.”
But Thurman didn’t exactly want to be a standout. He was a military man; he wanted to be part of a team that strove for greatness. If he could stand out at a Division III school, then maybe he finally had what it took to contribute at the top level.
“I’d rather be a role player at the Division I level than an all-star at the Division III level,” he says.
He caught a lucky break in Norwich, but maybe an even bigger one was on the horizon. He was ready to meet that challenge.So after talking to a friend who went to Berkeley, he emailed Cal assistant coach John Montgomery and said he wanted to walk on to the team. It really was that simple.
The rise of the Thurmanator has humble roots.
In the fall of 2009, fresh off transfer paperwork, a 20-year-old walked on to the Cal basketball team. Thurman did not have a scholarship. He sat out the season due to NCAA transfer eligibility rules. He did as he was told and kept his head down, listening to the generals higher in command.
“You got to take it as what it is,” he says. “You’re low on the totem pole of importance. You’re still part of the team, but when it comes to playing time and who comes first, you’re definitely lower on the totem pole.”
The next year, his role was usually limited to sitting at the end of the bench and rarely removing his warm-up sweats. It meant contributing in small, unseen ways. But after a dominating run on the team’s European tour in the summer of 2011, others finally took notice. He earned a scholarship before the 2011-12 season. However, it took a few more months for the scholarship to finally see a return. Yet on Dec. 31, 2011, the Thurmanator was officially born.
That day, Cal took on UCLA at home. Originally, head coach Mike Montgomery told Thurman before the game that he would not log any minutes. But UCLA’s 6-foot-10, 305-pound Josh Smith proved such a formidable force that Montgomery changed his mind. Thurman was the only player who had a shot at matching up with Smith. The coaches gave him an order, and he rose to it. If the ROTC had taught him anything, it was to follow orders. The Bears routed the Bruins, 85-69.
Once again, Thurman turned his practice and opportunity into luck. The redshirt junior notched 11 points in the final 13 minutes.
“We told (Thurman) what we needed him to do, and he did it,” Montgomery said after the game. “He was open, and he finished it.”
Thurman will never fade away on a mid-range jumper. He sets up screens and absorbs charges. He is realistic about the abilities and limits of the garbage guy. He knows that he is one member of a unit, one soldier in an army.
“He really wants to do the right thing,” Montgomery says. “Of all the guys, if you tell him to do something, he’ll try to do it.”
But he’s most known for rare yet thunderous dunks that set Haas Pavilion on its feet. In that sense, he really is the Thurmanator, the basketball equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. On the court, the Thurmanator is a tough and violent force to be reckoned with.
Thurman leaves his alter ego on the court at the end of each game. In public, he is outgoing and self-assured — two skills he picked up from a lifetime of relocating to new bases and making new friends. But the gritty Thurmanator must have lived dormant within him those long years he traversed the echelons of college basketball. As far as Thurman can tell, he’s the only one to climb as far and as high as he did.
“I can’t think of anyone who’s ever gone from junior college to Division III to walking on at a Division I program to getting a scholarship and playing,” he says.
“That shows myself that I can do anything.”