John and Juice: After long journeys, Shurna, Thompson reunite as opponents
May 7, 2013
In April 2013, John Shurna and Michael Thompson, two Northwestern basketball legends, finally stepped on the hardwood together again. This time, on a court in France, Shurna and Thompson faced off as opponents, professionals in a world very different than when they were college stars.
Both Thompson (Comm '11) and Shurna (SESP '12) have come and gone long ways since their humble beginnings, and their basketball careers have carried them throughout Europe.
Of course, their time together started in Evanston, where “John and Juice” helped a historically bad program relinquish its pushover status.
Golf by day, basketball by night
Before he led the Big Ten in scoring his senior season, before he became NU’s all-time leading scorer and before he ever joined his fellow recruits in summer basketball leagues, John Shurna occupied his time on the golf course.
Not golfing, of course.
Instead, the 6-foot, 9-inch Shurna worked as a caddy at a local golf club during his first couple summers in high school. Caddying only served as a part-time gig, in between Shurna’s job as a lifeguard or his mission trips with his church.
Shurna ultimately became a better lifeguard than caddy. Although his CPR certification never came into use in the pool, Shurna’s time on the green did not pass without incident.
“I got hit by a golf ball my first or second time out,” Shurna recalled. “I was what they called a ‘B’ caddy, I was definitely at the bottom there. My parents told me I had to go find a job or something to take up my time to make money.”
Now, in his spare time, the Glen Ellyn, Ill. native has traded in the life jacket and golf bag for cookbooks and French history textbooks.
The long climb
Last year, Michael Thompson found himself canyoning in Majorca, Spain, nearly 4,500 miles from Chicago.
“We went up in the mountains,” Thompson said. “It was a little scary at first. That was just a great experience. To be in a place with different weather and stuff, where it’s warm all year round, it was nice to visit Spain.”
Thompson journeyed a long way before reaching that mountaintop in Majorca.
He started at Loyola Park, back in Chicago, on a basketball court five minutes from his house. Thompson, in seventh grade at the time, followed the trend of all the other players at the park, who signed their shoes with the best nickname they could think of.
Thompson settled on what he felt described his shot, which was “100 percent pure,” and wrote down on his shoes the nickname that stays with him to this day: “Juice.”
Working out the kinks
Daily file photo by Ray Whitehouse
Shurna didn’t play AAU basketball over the summer until after his junior year of high school. By then, he already committed to playing for the Wildcats, making his decision in May after receiving a scholarship offer from then-coach Bill Carmody.
Shurna credits NU’s interest to a game his high school team, Glenbard West, played against Glenbard East. Former NU player Mike Capocci starred for East, and when the Cats scouted Capocci, Shurna caught their eye as well.
Shurna’s high school career was not without its ups and downs. Early on, coaches worried the forward’s funky shot could never work on the next level.
“Oh, of course we tried to change his shot,” said Tim Hoder, who coached Shurna as a freshman on junior varsity and again as a varsity senior. “Johnny’s shot was always very flat. He didn’t have a lot of arch on it. His shot now is pretty unconventional. You should’ve seen it when he was a freshman. We were always trying to change it, now he gets it higher and gets more arch toward the rim.”
Despite the kinks in Shurna’s shot, he set school records in his senior season with averages of 22.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game.
Also in his senior season, Shurna came across another future NU teammate when he squared off against Drew Crawford’s Naperville Central team in a regional playoff game.
“I remember that game very well,” Crawford said. “We were winning after the first half. I kind of knew John. He was just one of those guys, he was a center but he did everything. It was a fun game, but I wish we would’ve got the win.”
Crawford also remembers marveling at Shurna before the game even started. As was custom for the regional playoff games, participants in the state’s 3-point shooting contest competed before their game, knowing the score of previous shooters and what they needed to advance.
According to Crawford, Shurna reached the mark he needed to advance early in his round. And instead of stopping mid-round or slowing down his pace, Shurna decided to have some fun, shooting his remaining threes off the backboard, banking them in off the glass.
“Johnny got his score early, so then he just started banking in shots,” Crawford said. “That shows his personality. He’s such a fun-loving guy, he doesn’t care what people say or think.”
The rising star
Daily file photo by Ray Whitehouse
Thompson’s basketball career took off early. Immediately after christening himself “Juice” on that court in Loyola Park, Thompson said, he made “about 26 of 30” three-pointers, adding credibility to his proclamation.
As an All-Academic Chicago Public League honoree and National Honor Society member, Thompson earned accolades on and off the court. He played for the Rising Stars AAU team alongside Capocci and became the 13th-ranked prospect in all of Illinois for his class.
In the 2005 St. Rita Holiday tournament, Juice was named MVP, averaging 22 points and 5 assists in four games. Thompson also earned MVP honors for the 2006 Bigger Dipper Tournament. The Chicago native’s performances at the Bigger Dipper gave him the distinction as the first player to be named to the Bigger Dipper all-tournament team four years in a row.
Unlike Shurna, Thompson’s shot was never a question – he lived up to the “Juice” moniker with his hot shooting. His height, listed at 5 feet, 10 inches, added to the legend of the guard who wasn’t afraid to pass.
Thompson’s off-court mentality made him just as endearing to teammates as his skill on the hardwood did. Thompson has often cited his height as an assumed weakness by opponents, so he decided to turn that potential disadvantage into motivation.
For Crawford, who shared a backcourt with Thompson in Evanston, the wisdom Thompson imparted meant more than anything else.
“The biggest thing that Juice did was the example he set,” Crawford said. “Obviously he would tell me things during games that would help me out. I remember one time I missed a play, and he really got on me. He woke me up. He really held players accountable. He was the best player in practice, he brought it every day.”
Ultimately, Thompson’s scoring prowess made him a hot recruit. He turned away the schools that “called or texted too much” and instead preferred Carmody’s more understated approach.
Carmody sold Thompson on his role with the Cats, how he could lead the team as the point guard. Of course, the proximity to Thompson’s hometown of Chicago and NU’s academic reputation also helped.
After receiving offers from schools such as Oklahoma State, Dayton and Clemson, Thompson finally settled on NU.
“It was a difficult process, you have to get to know so many people,” Thompson said of his time as a recruit. “I fell in love with the campus, just everything. I remember 5 minutes in the car ride home after my unofficial visit, I told my parents I wanted to commit to Northwestern.”
Daily file photo by Ray Whitehouse
Shurna, Thompson and Crawford eventually took the court together for two seasons, with Thompson one year ahead of Shurna and Shurna one year ahead of Crawford.
Those seasons would end up as best two in NU history, with the 2009-10 and 2010-11 teams the only squads ever to win 20 games in a season for the Cats.
In early 2010, in their first season on the court together, the three played in what each said was one of the biggest wins in program history, an upset over No. 6 Purdue at home.
The unranked Cats toppled the Boilermakers 72-64, with Thompson leading the team with 20 points. Shurna chipped in with 8 points and 6 rebounds in 38 minutes. Crawford, then a freshman, played a huge role down the stretch, scoring 8 points in the final three minutes en route to a 15-point, 7-rebound performance.
“That was a real big win for us,” Crawford said. “We realized we could play with anyone in the country. We knew we were a real tough team to beat, that was a really big moment for us.”
John and Juice would have plenty more signature moments during the rest of their NU careers.
Thompson started attracting attention as a freshman, when he led his class in assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and minutes played. During his junior year, he crossed the 1,000-point plateau with 17 against Penn State. After his final season, Thompson earned third-team All-Big Ten honors, finishing his career first in assists, minutes played, games played and games started for NU.
Thompson said his favorite game was against Illinois his senior year, when he hit four 3-pointers in the second half en route to 22 points and a win against many players he faced in grade school.
Crawford’s favorite memory of Juice reveals the shooter’s lighter side.
“I remember at Indiana his senior year he was knocking it down,” Crawford said. “Juice was hot that game. He had just hit a couple threes, so Indiana subbed somebody in to guard him. As soon as that guy gets on him, Juice catches the ball behind the 3-point line, he shakes him a little bit, and shoots a three. The guy contests him hard, ends up fouling him, the shot goes in, and Juice makes the free throw for a 4-point play.
“He runs back down the court and says, ‘Sub him out, sub him out! He’s not ready to play.’”
Shurna, though perhaps calmer on the court, didn’t lack success.
He led the Big Ten in scoring his senior year with 20.0 points per game, after notching 16.6 and 18.2 averages in his junior and sophomore seasons, respectively.
In his final season, Shurna helped lead an upset over No. 6 Michigan State, with 22 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists against the Spartans. In another big victory that season, Shurna poured in 24 points during a road win at Illinois.
Arguably the highlight of Shurna’s career came against Minnesota, when his 18-point performance made him the all-time leading scorer in school history.
Shurna began the game slowly, not scoring until more than 16 minutes into the first half. As the crowd grew in anticipation with each shot, Shurna finally entered the score sheet with a steal and dunk for his first basket of the game. In the second half, he became the all-time scorer on a 3-pointer from the top of arc.
“I was never focused on an individual goal to achieve,” Shurna said. “It was a definitely a fun game, just because of the crowd. With each shot you could tell by the reaction of the crowd if I was getting closer. I was really just happy to get the win.”
He ended his career first among Cats in scoring, blocks, and games played, as well as second in games started, field goals and minutes played.
The two 20-win seasons, as well as the personal successes of players like Shurna and Thompson, helped to usher in a new level of respect for the school’s men’s basketball program. Still, at times, the respect or level of attention from opponents was not always there.
“People not giving us the respect definitely motivated us a little more,“ Thompson said. “As a team, we did a lot of great things, we made a lot of history. We’re definitely happy with what we accomplished and where the program is headed”
Shurna added that if opponents didn’t see NU as a threat before games, hopefully they did after.
“We didn’t care what you thought of us,” he said. “Hopefully from playing hard and competing, we tried to gain respect that way. I don’t think when any of us went out on the floor we felt disrespect. We always thought we were going to win — that was one of the reasons why we were successful.”
Lost in the world
Source: Dorian Brault/Image Banque SIG
After his senior season ended, Shurna’s pro career became a whirlwind process.
He missed his graduation ceremony at NU to attend a workout with the Los Angeles Clippers but ultimately went undrafted. Shurna then caught on with the Atlanta Hawks’ summer league team but was not retained after the summer season. Eventually, he joined the Knicks training camp roster, competing for one of the 15 spots on the team.
In late October 2012, after going through training camp with the Knicks, Shurna was released from the team.
“It was an incredible experience,” Shurna said of his first NBA training camp. “I just tried to compete, I tried to get better and make the team. It was a great experience and one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
About a week before Thanksgiving, Shurna received a call from his agent. Strasbourg IG, a team in the French Pro A league, wanted Shurna as an injury replacement on a six-week contract. Shurna boarded a plane to France the next day.
After the final game of the contract, Strasbourg brought Shurna back for another 6 weeks. After the 12-week trial period, Strasbourg decided to sign Shurna for the remainder of the season. He will become a free agent after the playoffs, which tip off May 13.
Off the court, Shurna moved into an apartment provided by the team in Strasbourg, located in eastern France. Starting with his NBA tryouts, then summer league, then training camp and now Strasbourg, Shurna has been living out of a suitcase for nearly a year.
Shurna cooks for himself. He tries to tackle a bigger recipe his father sends him every week, although he says his “college ways of cooking” often come in handy while living alone.
The language barrier in Strasbourg can be an impediment at times as well. Shurna said he’s never done as much “pointing and nodding” in his life.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment,” Shurna said. “I want to enjoy life. I want to see the world, as long as I’m having fun doing it.”
Source: Hervé Bellenger/ASVEL
Before he reached that literal mountaintop in Spain, Thompson suffered the proverbial valleys that come with living far away from home for the first time.
After growing up in Chicago and attending school a few miles away, in his first pro season out of college, Thompson found himself in Frankfurt, Germany, and his life became bumpy on and off the court.
During a tournament game in Turkey, Thompson’s German team’s bench had to be protected by a plastic shield because fans threatened to throw drinks, phones and batteries at the players. During free throws, fans banged on drums or blew air horns to distract shooters.
During that first month in Germany, Thompson called home every day to cure his homesickness. On the court, Thompson suffered an injury that sent him to the bench after never missing a game in college. He stopped playing as much, and his role on the team came into question, something Thompson said “messed with him mentally.”
But eventually things turned up, after help from veterans and a sense of security set in for Thompson. Things got better on the court, and everything else fell into place. A group of the other Americans on the German team took Thompson under their wing and helped him adapt to life in Europe — but he still calls home every day.
Thompson played one season in Germany and then joined the then-New Orleans Hornets’ summer league team in 2011. After initially signing with another French team, Thompson joined Asvel, one of the most successful teams in Pro A, for the 2012-13 season.
“It’s been up and down, especially my first year,” Thompson said. “This year has been a lot better. It’s gone by so fast. Playing overseas is tough at first but you get used to it.”
Thompson currently lives in Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon, southwest of Strasbourg but still in the Eastern part of France. Both Frankfurt and Villleurbanne have a largely English-speaking population, which eased the transition slightly.
For Asvel, which is partly owned by NBA superstar Tony Parker, Thompson has settled into a defined role and enjoyed a healthy season.
“It’s just a different setting, a different culture,” Thompson said of life in France. “After a while, things get better. The more you embrace the culture, the easier it is.”
The French connection
Source: John Shurna
In its April game, then-sixth place Asvel notched an 84-81 upset at home over then-second place Strasbourg. Asvel took control early, building a 6-point lead after the first quarter, and held off Strasbourg for the rest of the game.
Thompson started at point guard and played 19 minutes, scoring 9 points with 1 rebound and 4 assists.
Shurna gave his team 20 quality minutes off the bench, notching 6 points and 5 rebounds.
“That day was great,” Thompson said. “Me and Johnny are so competitive. We always go back and forth and talk trash. I won so I got bragging rights. I’m happy he’s in France and doing well and I can keep up with him.”
Shurna echoed the sentiment about having one of his old teammates with him in France.
“I’m fortunate to have him as a friend and to have him here,” he said. “Juice was very helpful with helping me adjust to life here.”
Over the course of the season, Thompson averaged 10.8 points, 2.9 assists and 1.8 rebounds in 28.9 minutes per game. He played in 30 games and shot nearly 34 percent from the three-point line.
Shurna played in only 23 games, as he signed with Strasbourg after the season began. In 21.1 minutes per game, Shurna averaged 8 points, 3.1 rebounds and shot 47.3 percent on his 93 three-point field goal attempts.
Strasbourg finished the season in second place in the 16-team league, while Asvel was close behind in third, and both qualified for the eight-team playoff tournament. The playoffs start on May 13, and if both Asvel and Strasbourg win their higher-seeded matchups, Shurna and Thompson will square off again in the semifinals.
Although Shurna’s future with Strasbourg is still undecided, Thompson said his agent has been in talks with Asvel management about a potential multi-year deal. However, both players say they would still like to pursue their NBA dreams.
“I’m taking it a day at a time,” Thompson said. “I’d love to try summer league or NBA minicamp again. If I had to play in Europe the rest of my career, I wouldn’t mind at all. I’m just having fun. I want to learn new countries and cultures.”
Shurna feels the same way.
“My goal is to compete at the highest level, to play in the NBA would be a dream come true,” he said. “If I’m fortunate to have that opportunity, that would be amazing. But I know I’m blessed to have an opportunity to play basketball and see the world.”
Source: John Shurna