Turiaf's Heart His Greatest Asset

April 6, 2006

Tacoma News Tribune

SEATTLE, Wash. - The remarkably recuperative Ronny Turiaf prompts an odd question: Could an NBA rookie be considered the league's top comeback player?

Of course, "comeback" undersells Turiaf's circumstances a bit. That's usually for someone who bounces back from a bum knee or ankle.

Not heart surgery.

The NBA doesn't present such an award anyway, but Turiaf's action on the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers seems like more of a career resurrection - if such a thing can happen before a career starts.

The former Gonzaga University star averages just 2.1 points per game, but his contribution to the Lakers has little correlation with numbers, unless they apply to odds, to long shots.

Eight months after heart surgery, Ronny Turiaf flies to the boards with the same unrestrained verve he displayed so notably at Gonzaga.

Drafted in the second round in the summer of 2005, Turiaf's career appeared either detoured or derailed entirely when a physical exam revealed an enlarged aorta root, a condition that, without surgical correction, could mean an aortic rupture and death.

"That was a little bump in the road," Turiaf said before last Friday's game with Seattle.

His teammates know that heart surgery is more substantial than a speed bump, and Turiaf's return to the team this winter inspired them.

"This was not like having a cold or the flu, this was a complicated surgery," Lakers veteran Lamar Odom said. "Some people lose their lives, not just their career. When you figure he's been able to play for us, and even to be effective for us, anybody has to be inspired. He's defeated some long odds to be here and now he's an emotional part of this team."

Turiaf was so popular in Spokane and on the Gonzaga campus that coach Mark Few titled him "The next governor of the great state of Washington."

He returned to Spokane's embrace after surgery to fulfill his promise to make a speedy return to the NBA. But the rehabilitation process was so excruciating he wishes the topic would disappear.

"It was hell, the toughest thing in my life," Turiaf said. "My rib was cracked open, I could not play basketball; I could not do anything by myself for months."

His determination was buttressed by the support from the Gonzaga "family," and by "people I didn't even know who sent me letters," he said. "The whole community of Spokane cared so much about what I was going through."

He returned in early February and went right to work. His season highs thus far are 10 points, five rebounds, four blocks and incalculable watts of competitive zeal.

"He brings great enthusiasm for the game," coach Phil Jackson said. "He has an upside because he has the intelligence to play the game and the knowledge of what he should be doing. He's got a feel for it; he's a good shooter from a certain range, and he attacks the basket rebounding on both ends. He's a good teammate for these guys."

Turiaf made it clear that he's more pained these days by the collapse of the Zags in the Sweet 16 against UCLA. He said he was in attendance at Oakland Arena when the Bruins' late rally sent Gonzaga home.

"Every day (in Los Angeles) I have to hear about Gonzaga losing to UCLA," Turiaf said. "It was difficult, especially when I went down there to watch them play and we were up by 17 and had the game won."

His former teammate, Adam Morrison, soon will face the decision of passing on his senior year to enter the NBA. Turiaf addressed the same dilemma two years ago and stayed in Spokane to pick up his degree.

His advice to Morrison? Take the money. And then try not to be affected by it.

"Just stay the same, stay the same, crazy guy," he said of what counsel he would offer. "Stay the same guy who's worked hard all the time, who has pretty much destroyed the guys who have gone against him. That's what makes him so good, having the supreme confidence in himself.

"He should go pro; I hope he does," Turiaf said. "There's nothing else he has to do right now in college. He's done everything he could. He has a chance to be a top-five pick; why stay in college? I don't know, it's his decision."

Lakers teammate Luke Walton overheard inquiries about Morrison and offered some of his own advice.

"Keep the 'stache," Walton said of Morrison's wispy facial hair.

"Yes, he should keep the 'stache," Turiaf said. "That's what's made him so good."

Turiaf gets requests for advice on more important matters all the time - from heart patients.

"I get people talking to me on the street, in e-mails, letters, asking about recovery and what I've been through," he said. "I just tell them to keep on going because every day gets so much better. You just can't lose the faith."

It appears that Turiaf hasn't lost much of anything - his faith, his game, his personality.

"He was a good dude before," Odom said. "He's an even better dude now. This is a guy who's been through a lot. He's one guy who knows how fragile life can be."



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