2018 WCC HOH Inductee: Ronny Turiaf, Gonzaga
John Crumpacker profiles a truly global Zag
By John Crumpacker, #WCChoops Columnist
PREVIOUS WCC HALL OF HONOR PROFILES: Randy Wolf, Pepperdine | Miles Batty, BYU & Nicole Karr, Portland | Brian Quinn, Loyola Marymount | Ken Earle, Pacific | Mandy Bible, Saint Mary’s | Cameron Rast, Santa Clara | Suzanne Enos, San Francisco | Chris Enger, San Diego
Leading up to the 2018 West Coast Conference Hall of Honor induction ceremony Saturday, March 3 at the Orleans Casino Resort, WCC Columnist John Crumpacker is profiling each inductee. Today’s final profile focuses former Gonzaga Basketball player Ronny Turiaf, the 2005 WCC Player of the Year.
This being Las Vegas time of year for the West Coast Conference, it’s a safe bet that Ronny Turiaf has more stamps in his passport than you do. A lot more. In fact, the former Gonzaga basketball star probably has a busier passport than everyone you know, combined.
“I am not living anywhere. I am a nomad, a vagabond, a wanderer, a global citizen. I am always on the move. This is the life I always wanted to lead, to have the flexibility to go to every country in the world, the flexibility to satisfy my curiosity and my thirst for knowledge, to share experiences with the world.’’
Whew! If there is such a thing as an anti-homebody, Turiaf is it. Even his 11-year NBA career was a peripatetic one as he wore the jerseys of the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, Miami Heat (with whom he won a championship in 2012), Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
And that doesn’t include brief stops with the Yakima Sun Kings of the CBA and internationally with Lyon in France.
It’s a good thing the 35-year-old Turiaf speaks five languages. A world traveler like him can go a long way with fluency in French, English, Spanish and Italian, as well as his native language, Antillean Creole, spoken on Martinique in the French Caribbean where he was born and spent the first 15 years of his life.
Turiaf estimates that since retiring from the NBA in October of 2016, he’s visited more than 30 countries, some of them in his role as an NBA ambassador, bringing the Junior NBA program to the world. All told, he said he’s been to as many as 80 countries around our spinning globe.
“It’s an opportunity to experience these countries you never heard of,’’ he said. “It’s something that’s priceless. My favorite places so far? Nepal has touched my heart. … Senegal … India … South Africa, because of the Nelson Mandela Museum. Every country I go to … I leave a piece of my heart there.’’
Said Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who – successfully – recruited Turiaf, “Wanderlust is what he has. That’s something we share. We both love to travel. He’s a basketball player but basketball doesn’t define who he is.’
Recently, Turiaf spent three weeks in Nepal, working on personal improvement as well as offering his help at an orphanage with a friend of his. Ten of those days were spent in meditation at a retreat.
“The reason was trying to be a better person. Also, my commitment to myself to do whatever I can to understand myself better.’’
The 6-foot-10 Turiaf, the WCC’s Player of the Year in 2005, will be in the U.S. long enough to be inducted into the conference’s Hall of Honor along with nine other former student-athletes in the Class of 2018. With Turiaf for the ceremony on March 3 in Las Vegas will be his mother and father, his aunt, a couple of former teammates, and two faculty members from Gonzaga, English teacher Michelle Pajer (“She showed so much patience”) and Jolanta (Kozyra) Weber, a friend.
“To be completely, transparent, I was completely shocked,’’ Turiaf said when he was informed of his nomination to the Hall of Honor. “I forget where I was. I was traveling somewhere. I was at a loss for words. Shocked, grateful, proud. I appreciated everything I had as far as growing from an 18-year-old kid into a 23-year-old in the NBA.’’
The story of how a tall kid from the island of Martinique ended up at Gonzaga, with a stopover in Paris, marks the start of the Turiaf narrative. Sprouting to a height a couple of inches less than 7 feet, Turiaf followed his father’s advice and went to Paris at 15 to attend the National Institute of Physical Education.
A couple of years later, he was part of the French Under-18 team playing in the European championships in Croatia, where his teammates included future NBA players Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Mickael Petrus.
That’s when Lloyd, in his first season as an assistant coach on Mark Few’s staff at Gonzaga, became aware of Turiaf. Lloyd liked what he saw of Turiaf on video from the European U-18 Championships and the recruiting process began.
“In one of the games, he dunked it and broke the backboard,’’ Lloyd said. “It was pretty awesome. He would have been 17. That was the golden era of French basketball. We went from there. We corresponded directly with Ronny and through his high school, INSEP. He came over and visited a few schools and fortunately, we were the one he chose.’’
Regarding that backboard-breaking moment, Turiaf said it came in the championship game, in which, “I scored the winning basket on a crazy, off-balance hook shot.’’
As for the shattered backboard, Diaw had the presence of mind to scoop up a shard or two to save for posterity. Whenever Turiaf visits his old teammate and compatriot, he can also visit a small representation of the damage he wrought that day in Croatia.
“I still got scars from it,’’ Turiaf said of his monster dunk. “I don’t know how I did it. It was a dunk and I released the power.’’
In listening to Turiaf in an interview with WCC Sports, it seems Gonzaga served as the village he needed to raise him from a gangly youngster into a confident young man, both on the basketball court and in the classroom, where he greatly improved his English skills.
“I would say I was decent at English,’’ Turiaf said, referring to when he first came to the Spokane school. “One thing I did was I used to watch the Animal Planet with the captions underneath. I also watched movies. I put myself in position to sink or swim. The squad of angels around me helped my adaptation. (Teammate) Winston Brooks, if he did not take me under his wing, if Tommy Lloyd did not follow through with his promise to take care of me – all of those guys played such a part in my story. I can never thank them enough.’’
During his four years at Gonzaga, Turiaf helped the Zags win 107 games and finish in the final Top 10 national rankings three times. He was named All-WCC first team three times, was conference Player of the Year in 2005 and left school ranked fourth in program history in points (1,723) and rebounds (859). In seven NCAA Tournament games, Turiaf averaged 16.7 points and 7.6 rebounds.
“He was a dominant player,’’ Lloyd said. “He was probably too unselfish. He was always looking to pass. When the moments were big, he was great. He was a versatile guy with a good feel for the game. He was a winner. He could play the 4, play the 5, defend.’’
Turiaf’s NBA career was stalled before it started when the Lakers, who had drafted him in ’05, detected an issue with his heart related to his aortic valve. He had open-heart surgery on July 26, 2005 but recovered faster than anyone expected and was able to join the Lakers six months later.
Because of that experience, Turiaf in 2009 founded the “Heart to Heart’’ Foundation to help people with heart issues get necessary exams and treatment.
“It’s a cliché, but as good a player as Ronny was, he’s a better person,’’ Lloyd said. “He’s engaging, compassionate, interested in what other people are doing. He was always fun to be around. He’s an emotional person who didn’t come from much. He came from a pretty meager background. He was all-in to give his family a better life.’’
Turiaf’s wanderlust will kick in again on March 7, the day after the WCC Tournament championship game, when he’ll leave for Paris and other European stops before spending 1 ½ months in Martinique. After that? New Zealand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Burma beckon as his bucket list is reduced while that map of the world with thumbtacks indicating countries visited becomes more crowded.
“The travel I do is based on others’ recommendations and listening to what people have experienced,’’ he said. “When you listen, it’s amazing what can happen. It’s pretty cool.’’
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards. Crumpacker has been covering #WCChoops since the 2014-15 season.