This is the summer Ronny Turiaf got lost. And found.
All this since he was last in Spokane in May, collecting his degree from Gonzaga University in possibly the most conspicuous walk across the stage at the Spokane Arena, and perhaps in school history.
The getting lost part was easy enough. There was an airplane pointed toward Africa, and he got on it. Then he didn’t return for a month.
And the getting found? Well, that was even more unlikely.
He was traded to the New York Knicks.
This is the franchise that, in recent years, has been regarded around the National Basketball Association as little more than a punchline. But Turiaf regards it quite forthrightly as a lifeline, and if you’ve ever seen how something as routine as a teammate’s dunk sends him into a dancing spasm, then you can imagine the emotional handsprings he’s doing over what he considers a professional rebirth.
“This is a change,” he said, “I needed in my life.”
Turiaf is back in Spokane for an indeterminate stopover, working out in preparation for the start of next month’s training camp and, surely, attending this weekend’s Coaches vs. Cancer event staged by Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his wife, Marcy.
Ahead of him is his sixth NBA season and third different team – and maybe even something of a crossroads in a career that has had more than a few, starting with the happy recruitment that brought him to Gonzaga nine years ago and including the unimaginable heart surgery that salvaged his professional aspirations.
Another of those was supposed to be his free-agent signing – for four years and $17 million – with Golden State two years ago. But the payoff was unsatisfying: just 55 victories, no playoff appearances and an injury to his left knee that kept him in and out of the lineup for the duration of 2010 – and convinced him not to play this summer with the French national team.
When the Knicks, not unpredictably, lost out in the LeBron James me-stakes, Turiaf came into play. New York launched its latest rebuild with a sign-and-trade of forward David Lee to the Warriors, bringing Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike and Turiaf in return. Earlier, the Knicks had signed free agent Amar’e Stoudemire, and since have added guards Raymond Felton and Roger Mason to the makeover.
“I feel fantastic about people wanting me to be part of their organization,” Turiaf said, “part of the movement. I can’t wait to get started on the East Coast. I’m not looking forward to the weather, but the basketball side is something else. I thank the Warriors for what they did for me and the fans and wish them nothing but good luck – and I can’t wait to play them twice.
“This has brought happiness to my life.”
As always, Turiaf’s glow is something to be envied. He’s joining a franchise that has made the playoffs exactly once in nine seasons, and was eliminated in four games that time. It is perpetually a-swirl in a soap opera starring owner James Dolan and former coaches Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas. It is perfect fodder for the city’s tabloids and talk-radio ranters.
Yet before the scandalous came the storied – though neither history is weighing much on Turiaf.
“It’s very meaningful,” he said, “but I don’t want to sound cocky or indifferent about the past, but I want to create my own history there – something brand new. I know everybody remembers the days of Reggie Miller talking to Spike Lee during games, and the battles with John Starks and those days were obviously great. But we need to create something of our own.”
And he insisted his knee has healed enough to allow him “to be the player I want to be.”
“The Knicks don’t need me to be passive,” he said. “I want to attack at the high post, attack at the low post, be a playmaker – getting guys open shots. I want to get back to the way I was playing with the Lakers, going back to Gonzaga. I was playing alongside great players and elevating my level of play. That’s the Ronny Turiaf I want to be and they want me to be.”
That he has not been capable of being that Ronny Turiaf is what led to his summer of what he called “soul-searching.”
It began with the trip to Africa with his best friend, Charlotte Bobcats forward Boris Diaw, that included a 10-day safari, snorkeling and “just finding happiness again,” Turiaf said.
“I went through some unfortunate events the last two years,” he said. “I think I needed to take some time off and disconnect from everything. We went to Africa and I turned my phone off and disappeared. It was quite a delight to be able to do things and not have to worry about answering the phone.”
Eventually, they wound up working Diaw’s basketball camps in Senegal, where Turiaf turned on his phone long enough to learn of his trade to the Knicks. What followed was a Homerian odyssey: a seven-hour drive to the nearest airport, a nine-hour wait to board – at 4 a.m. – and nine-hour flight to New York. But within a few weeks, he was back in Africa – and not just on a mission to restore himself.
Turiaf and Diaw were joined by a number of other players who volunteered to work with African youth as part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, which has created 25 “safe havens” on the continent that include basketball courts, classrooms and computer centers. On behalf of the Nothing But Nets program, they also helped distribute and install more than 20,000 bed nets in the fight against malaria that accounts for a quarter of all deaths recorded in Senegalese hospitals.
“This has been a very rewarding summer,” he said, “in all respects.”