A Different Ball Game

At True Success Basketball & Fitness Academy in St. Charles, Thurlester Robinson, Jr. uses basketball as a vehicle to teach kids lessons in teamwork, self-esteem, and leadership.

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Story By Heather Riske
Visuals By Michael Thomas

Thurlester Robinson, Jr. firmly believes that basketball saved his life. 

Robinson grew up in the foster care system and was often getting into trouble in his youth. But when he started playing basketball in high school, it completely changed his path forward. 

I was a street kid, I did a lot of stuff to survive, and I was in a lot of trouble — I was just on a really bad path,” he says. “My freshman year of high school, a friend of mine told me I should try out for basketball and I did. I took a liking to it and it led me to where I am today.”

Today, Robinson is combining his longtime love of basketball with over two decades of experience working in education as the owner of True Success Basketball & Fitness Academy, which opened in St. Charles in December 2023. 

True Success students practice and run drills at the academy on a Saturday morning with coach Thurlester Robinson, Jr.

After teaching for three years, Robinson spent about 20 years working as an administrator in St. Louis Public Schools and several local charter schools. He currently works as an administrator in the Riverview Gardens School District and is pursuing his doctorate in education at Lindenwood University. Inspired by the adversity he himself overcame, he particularly enjoys working with at-risk youth, offering mentorship and teaching different coping strategies to kids.

“A lot of times, those kids get wrote off because of their behaviors or because of their record, so I like working and dealing with those kids,” he says. 

But through all his years working in education, Robinson never lost sight of his love of the game. He’s been coaching both youth and adult basketball for 25 years, including at McCluer High School and in the Jennings School District, and always dreamed of opening a training facility. He’s seen firsthand how basketball — and sports in general — can be an effective outlet for youth and a foundation for both personal and professional development.

“It’s a great way to reach the youth, get their attention, and change the narrative for them,” he says. “For me, basketball was more positive than a lot of the things that were in front of me growing up at that time. One, I enjoyed it. Two, your grades have to be at a certain level and you have to have a certain type of behavior. You can’t get suspended and you can’t be in trouble if you want to do it. So, it gave me something to focus on.”

A True Success student practices at the academy on a Saturday morning with coach Thurlester Robinson, Jr.

True Success Basketball & Fitness Academy is located next to True Success Church in St. Charles, where Robinson is head pastor. The facility offers skills training for kids ages 8 and up, with a maximum of six players per trainer, as well as youth camps and clinics. Aside from the age requirement, all kids are welcome to sign up. Robinson is the only coach currently, so all kids in his programs work directly with him. The facility can also be rented for games and private parties. 

Robinson grew up in St. Louis and chose to open True Success in St. Charles to make its offerings more accessible to youth from across the metro area. He works with kids who live in St. Charles, Town & Country, Webster Groves, Wellston, North City, and North County, and enjoys facilitating connections among them. 

“The big difference is exposure, and exposure not only to a different area, but different people, because it’s a mix,” he says. “All the different children are able to come together, mix and mingle, learn about each other, and become friends with each other. It was important to create something here that would be able to make a difference and give some guidance and mentorship here in my city.”

Thurlester Robinson, Jr.

Robinson’s mission for True Success is to make young people into better citizens, and the lessons he teaches go far beyond the basketball court. In addition to the skills inherent to the game, he introduces kids to yoga and pilates and also integrates a mentorship piece into all of his training, teaching lessons in teamwork, coping strategies, and conflict resolution that he’s picked up throughout his 20-plus years working in education. The lessons build on those conveyed in “True Success: The Blueprint,” a self-help book Robinson released in 2020 to help readers create a blueprint for mental, physical, and financial success.

“The biggest thing is just having a safe space and a different outlet for certain things,” he says. “The goal would be to have kids leaving here being more well-rounded in four groups: spiritually, mentally, physically, and financially.”

The basketball academy is located in a separate building directly behind True Success Church, which opened in January 2021, and Robinson says it functions as the church’s youth ministry. He often incorporates biblical lessons and analogies into the training, referencing Noah’s Ark or using the book of Joshua as a lens to navigate through turbulent times, but he stresses that this is not a traditional approach to pastoring. 

In January, he hosted a “Bibles and Basketball” program, in which parents attended church from 10:30 a.m. to noon while their children worked on basketball skills and drills with Robinson. During the second week, two girls needed to leave early to get to their own teams’ games, but begged their parents to let them stay and finish the lesson with Robinson instead.

“Just in their second time being at the camp, to see them enjoying it like they did and (to) want to stay was really fulfilling,” Robinson says. 

True Success students practice and run drills at the academy on a Saturday morning with coach Thurlester Robinson, Jr.

Robinson’s mission hits particularly close to home for Dr. Shane Williamson, EdD, the director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Webster Groves School District and a True Success board member. Her 15-year-old son, Kennedy, started working with Robinson several years ago and continues to participate in skills training at the basketball academy. She believes the individualized approach of True Success, compared to other facilities that might work with hundreds of kids at once, allows Robinson to connect with children on a deeper level.

He just has a way of seeing children’s strengths and being able to capitalize on those strengths while also challenging them and motivating them to move beyond those pieces to places that they need to work on,” she says. “He’s building up their self-esteem while also building up their skills and knowledge and helping them understand the game better. He brings in a mentoring piece, setting high expectations of being a person of character. The game is important, but he also stresses academics as well as the importance of respecting yourself and respecting others.”

Since her son started working with Robinson, Williamson says his passion for the game has increased, and he’s also willing to take on more responsibility.

“Through the process of teaching basketball, (Robinson) is teaching self-esteem, he’s teaching respect, he’s teaching moral character and leadership skills,” she says. “He’s teaching how to be a good citizen and a good team player.”

Robinson is continuing to expand the offerings at True Success Basketball & Fitness Academy, adding academy leagues and summer camp for kids in third through eighth grades starting in June. This summer, he’ll also offer adult and youth fitness classes for body pump, pilates, yoga, and Zumba.

He hopes True Success will become a home for teams and athletes of every level, from beginner all the way up to elite, and dreams of morphing the business into something resembling the Boy Scouts of America, with a focus on community service. 

Above all, he hopes to continue to transform the lives of children across the St. Louis metro through basketball.

“I truly feel like a healthy body leads to a healthy mind, especially with kids,” Robinson says. “The biggest impact in our life is typically confidence, and we are able to build their confidence in terms of helping with problem-solving and decision-making — the whole gamut. I think basketball is a great confidence-builder. Not only does it get you in shape, but it makes you friends, it teaches teamwork. And I think all of those things cross over into real life.”

Thurlester Robinson, Jr.

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