PALO ALTO, Calif. – A small contingent of Gonzaga University officials and close friends of Ronny Turiaf put in a long day and more anxious hours than they probably wish to remember Tuesday, waiting for a medical update on the former Bulldogs men’s basketball standout.
But when cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Craig Miller emerged to announce Turiaf’s open heart surgery had gone extremely well and the patient was doing fine, those standing vigil in the waiting room of Stanford University Medical Center’s intensive care unit were immediately refreshed and elated.
Adding to their excitement was the fact that Miller was able to repair Turiaf’s enlarged aortic root without having to replace the heart valve – a procedure that could have ended his dream of playing in the National Basketball Association.
Bulldogs coach Mark Few, one of those who waited for Miller’s assessment, called the news “terrific,” adding, “It’s as good as we could have hoped for.”
Or anyone else, for that matter, including the Los Angeles Lakers, who selected the 22-year-old Turiaf – the reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year – in the second round of this year’s NBA draft.
It was the Lakers’ team physician who first discovered the seriousness of Turiaf’s heart condition, prompting them to void the two-year, $1 million contract he had signed earlier this month, contingent on his passing a team-administered physical examination.
The Lakers agreed to pay for Turiaf’s surgery, but expressed doubts that he could play competitive basketball again, should he need a heart valve replacement.
Instead, Miller was able to mend Turiaf’s enlarged aortic root by inserting a synthetic conduit into the base of the aorta. The conduit will reinforce the weakened walls of Turiaf’s main artery and greatly enhance his chances of returning to the Lakers, who have retained his draft rights.
The Lakers’ interest in Turiaf became obvious when a team representative, waiting at the hospital with GU officials, called general manager Mitch Kupchak with the good news immediately following Miller’s announcement.
Miller informed the Lakers representative and members of the GU contingent that he felt Turiaf should be able to eventually resume his basketball career, but made it clear that will not be his decision to make. It will be the Lakers, he said, who will ultimately decide whether the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Turiaf will be cleared to play.
“And that could be months, maybe even a year or more, before that’s all sorted out,” Few said. “Nobody can say for sure right now.”
Miller told the GU contingent he might not have even recommended the surgery had Turiaf not been involved in professional sports, saying he might have opted, instead, to put him on beta blockers and closely monitor the situation.
Turiaf is expected to spend the next few nights in the hospital, but plans to eventually return to Spokane to recover from his surgery, which took more than six hours.
“It’ll be good for him to get back among friends,” said Few, who pulled himself and assistant coaches Bill Grier and Leon Rice off the recruiting trail to have dinner with Turiaf Monday night and lend emotional support to, perhaps, the most well-liked and visible player to ever don a GU uniform.
Grier and Rice left California Tuesday morning, prior to Turiaf’s surgery, to return to Spokane, where the Bulldogs are holding their annual team basketball camp. Few was scheduled to return to Spokane today and make a brief appearance at camp before flying to Los Angeles on another recruiting venture.
Despite all that the Bulldogs’ coaching staff had going, Few called the decision to shut down recruiting to be at Turiaf’s side a “no-brainer.”
“There wasn’t even a decision to be made,” he added. “That’s just how much any of our players mean to us at Gonzaga. It’s not just Ronny. We’d do the same thing for any of them in this situation.”
Turiaf was expected to be groggy or asleep for at least six hours following his surgery. His mother, Aline Cesar, was scheduled to fly into San Jose late Tuesday night from her home in Le Robert, Martinique, to be with her son.
GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd and Turiaf’s former teammate and roommate Brian Michaelson were going to pick her up at the airport, and Lloyd plans to stay with Turiaf until he is given medical clearance to return to Spokane.
Steve Hertz, the Bulldogs director of athletic relations, was one of those with Turiaf while he was being checked into the hospital at 5 a.m. Tuesday.
“He was pretty much walking in his sleep at that time,” Hertz said. “We all hung around his bed, all worried that they might shave off his wonderful curls, but they didn’t. There was a lot of laughter between 5 and 6:40, when they started the IV. But Ronny got a little pensive at that point.
“It was like he realized, ‘Oh-oh, here it comes.’ “
Hertz, the Bulldogs’ former baseball coach and longtime member of GU’s athletic staff, said it was a “wonderful reflection” on the basketball coaching staff that so many made the trip to the Bay Area to be with Turiaf.
“They did it for all the right reasons,” he said. “Ronny’s not going to score any more points for us, but the love for him is still there.”