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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Turiaf’s pro debut is reason to cheer

The Spokesman-Review

From the time Texas Tech knocked off Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament last spring, Bulldog fans have looked forward to the beginning of Ronny Turiaf’s professional basketball career.

It begins tonight, with the Yakama Sun Kings in Boise – not the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Turiaf’s debut in the Continental Basketball League is still reason to cheer for the effervescent former Zag star.

Five months after open-heart surgery to repair the enlarged root in his heart, Turiaf will lace up his sneakers for the first time to step onto a basketball court as a professional. That he still has a chance to play in the National Basketball Association this year defies the dire predictions made for him by physicians and Laker officials before and after Turiaf’s open-heart surgery July 26. It also underscores how badly Turiaf wanted to continue playing basketball. It’s easy to pull for this determined young athlete who has meant so much to Spokane and the Inland Northwest.

Statements made by Turiaf and others since the heart problem was detected provide a road map for how far he’s come already.

In the same press conference before the surgery, Turiaf said: “I definitely will be back on the court.” And: “I’m scared of dying, I’m sorry to say.”

More than two months after the surgery, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak held out little hope that Turiaf would play this season.

Meanwhile, Turiaf, who inspired teammates and fans with his enthusiasm and leadership on the court, surprised all but himself by progressing from a few hesitant steps following surgery, to scrimmaging with the 2005-06 Gonzaga team, to being cleared by doctors to play again. From looking death in the face as a gifted athlete of 22, he has come almost all the way back to the young man who was picked in the second round of the National Basketball Association draft.

As great as they are at Gonzaga, former Bulldogs haven’t had an easy time making it in the NBA.

Former star guard Dan Dickau was injured his first season with the Atlanta Hawks after being selected in the first round of the 2002 draft by the Sacramento Kings and then traded. He has been traded three times since and now may be out for the season with another injury after playing sparingly for the Boston Celtics. Richie Frahm, the Zags’ career leader in three-point baskets, is playing for Minnesota, his third team in three years. Both have fallen short of the standard set by former Zag John Stockton, an NBA Hall of Famer.

Turiaf’s road to the NBA has been the roughest of all for a former Gonzaga player. But his prospects may be the brightest, too. Tonight, he’ll cap a year in which he was named the most valuable player of the West Coast Conference, signed a $1 million contract, faced life-threatening surgery, and persevered.

His appearance on the court tonight is nothing short of a Christmas holiday miracle – and a foretaste of that future game when he’ll make his NBA debut.

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