Thick Face, Black Heart: Update on Former Toro Curtis Jerrells

Don’t tell Curtis Jerrells he won’t make it back to the NBA. In fact, don’t tell the former Toro and Spur that anything is impossible for him in the basketball world.

You see, Jerrells has something few athletes do. You see, “thick face” and “black heart” are the way of the warrior. It is a “way” that must be embraced. Few have the stomach for it.

I will admit up front: I am a Baylor graduate so I am partial to Jerrells. The former Bear is a tough player. He doesn’t back down. He embraces challenges and isn’t intimidated in the least by the resume or hype of others. His basketball career is testimony to his warrior spirit.

Generously listed at 6’1”, Jerrells plays with so much heart and passion he seems larger on the court. Jerrells’ game is all about relentlessness. He is quick, loves contact and knows how to get off his shot in traffic. He takes every challenge personally. Don’t tell him that he’s basically an undersized combo guard and can’t make the transition to pure point guard. Don’t tell him he can’t succeed. He won’t believe you. Players like Jerrels don’t let others define them.

The undrafted free agent nearly made the final cut with the Spurs. His play was impressive enough for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C Buford. to sign him and reassign him to the Toros so he could get the playing time he needed to continue developing. Jerrells didn’t back down in Spurs training camp or when he played for the Toros. During his 50 game stint with the Toros in 2009, Jerrells averaged 21 pts and six assists.

Jerrells’ basketball career from college to the present has been one of embracing challenges and proving others wrong. To get an insight into his mind, consider the following: The Austin native (Del Valle High School) signed with Coach Scott Drew and the Baylor Bears shortly after Drew took over the Baylor program. The program was in shambles. Dave Bliss, the previous coach, resigned in shame after Baylor was rocked by the horrific shooting death of player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson. The further the university and the NCAA investigated and the more that came to light about the Bliss administration, the uglier it got. The program almost received the death penalty. The sanctions imposed were considered by many experts to be the near equivalent. Baylor would never rise again in basketball, at least not in this life-time.

Enter Scott Drew in August 2003. Baylor was put on probation until 2010, scholarships and recruiting visits were severely limited until 2007. Post season play was cancelled for the next season, and only conference games were allowed through 2006. And did I mention most of Baylor’s players left the program? Baylor gave players the option to transfer. Most of the team took them up the offer.

It was this environment and challenge that Drew embraced. If his vision for redemption was to become reality, he would need players who would embrace his vision and the hard work it would take to resurrect the program. This is the kind of program and environment most basketball players with dreams of the NBA dancing in their heads avoid like the plague.

High school players were not exactly lining up to play for the Bears. The first significant name to sign with Baylor was Aussie Aaron Bruce. The next: Curtis Jerrells. Drew kept casting the vision of rebuilding and being a part of something special. Jerrells was not an All-American, but was recruited enough by respectable schools to be considered a good catch.

Jerrells had other choices. Better choices. He chose the hard route. He chose Baylor. He caught Drew’s vision and accepted the challenge. Jerrells doesn’t run from challenges. He runs to them. Why? “Thick Face, Black Heart.”

After four years of playing at Baylor, Jerrells became the first player in Baylor history to lead the team in points and assists for four years. During his time at Baylor, Jerrells made the All Big 12 Championship All Tournament Team, was a consensus All Big 12 selection and was named to the 2009 NIT All-Tournament Team.

In retrospect, it was two players: Aaron Bruce and Curtis Jerrells that led the way for other players to catch Drew’s vision and turn the Baylor men’s basketball program into a Big 12 powerhouse. Jerrells quickly became the heart and soul of the team. He willed those around him to rise up.

Without Curtis Jerrells, there would be no Tweety Carter, no Ekpe Udoh, no LaceDarius Dunn and no Elite 8 appearance by Baylor two years ago. Jerrells made Baylor basketball respectable again. Don’t tell Curtis Jerrells something can’t be done.

When I first met Curtis, I was with my son who was 14 at the time, and we were talking with assistant coach Matthew Driscoll at the Baylor practice facility. Driscoll was telling my son, also a basketball player, about the importance of playing with passion and intensity and having a “never back down” mentality. He pointed out Curtis as an example. And, in a serendipitous moment, at that time, Jerrells walked down the corridor of the practice facility to hit the weight room. Driscoll called Jerrells over. “Curtis—show Christian (my son) your shoes,” Driscoll said.

Jerrells walked over. There, written in black marker on his basketball shoes were the words “Thick Face” and “Black Heart.” I had no idea what any of this meant. Driscoll then went on to explain: “It comes from China. This guy (Chin-Ning Chu) wrote about the Warrior Spirit. A ‘thick faced’ person isn’t hurt by others criticism. If you believe in him or his dreams. Fine. If not? He doesn’t care. He’s not defined by you or anyone else. A ‘thick faced’ person is not intimidated. He channels any fears he has into productive energy and uses that to move forward.” That made sense. Playing for Baylor certainly would require a “thick face.”

Driscoll continued: “Black heart” means you are passionately committed to reaching your goals. A “black heart” person may be a nice person, but in competition he is ruthless. He doesn’t care how hard his opponent has trained or how big his opponent’s dreams are, he is determined to crush him. He doesn’t care if his opponent cries or gets his feelings hurt. There is no mercy asked for, no mercy shown in competition. black heart.”

Driscoll went on to explain: “Curtis has this mindset and he sets the tone for the rest of the team. He’s a great guy, but on the court, ‘thick face, black heart.’ If he wants to make it to the next level and help us get there, he has to be this kind of player. And the same goes for you. If you want to make it…” you get the idea.

Curtis JerrellsJerrells caught the attention of the Spurs after his play with the Toros. These qualities made him a continual work in process. Always evolving. Never backing down. During the 2010-2011 preseason his play caught the attention of New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps who traded for Jerrells, sending the Spurs a second round pick for his rights. After one week of training camp with the Hornets, however, Jerrells was waived.

Thick face, black heart. Never back down. Don’t listen to what others tell you about yourself. Prove them wrong. Pursue your goals. Be relentless.

Jerrells wasted no time. One month after being waived by the Hornets, the former Toro and Spur signed with BC Partizan, from Belgrade, Serbia. Jerrells led that team to the Serbian National Title in 2011 while also winning the 2011 Serbian National Cup and the 2011 Adriatic League. His game continued to evolve. New challenges, new opportunities.

In June, Jerrells took another step toward reaching his goals, signing a two-year contract with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. A better league, a greater challenge. More mountains to climb. More obstacles to overcome. No problem: Just more opportunities to develop into that NBA pure point guard.

Don’t bet against Jerrells returning to the NBA. I say this, not as a Baylor fan, but as a fan of players like Mario Elie, Bruce Bowen and Avery Johnson—guys who had those qualities, kept grinding and proved everyone wrong by working hard and taking the long, difficult route to make their mark on the league. I believe Curtis Jerrells is that kind of player and has that kind of character and drive. I wouldn’t bet against him at all.