Sixers' probable draft pick Turner has overcome adversity

Ohio State's Evan Turner (left) with brothers Darius Turner (middle), Richard James and his mom, Iris James.
Ohio State's Evan Turner (left) with brothers Darius Turner (middle), Richard James and his mom, Iris James.
Posted: June 17, 2010

THE GREAT ATHLETES play relaxed. No moment is too overwhelming. The possibilities are considered and analyzed.

When you watch Evan Turner next season, and every indication is that you will be watching him play for the 76ers, notice the rhythm and pace to his game. It is understated, quiet, effective and very relaxed.

When you've been where Turner has been and lived what he has lived, playing basketball does not seem all that daunting.

Before his fourth birthday, Turner got just about every illness imaginable. He did not learn to speak until he was 3 because of oversized baby teeth and an overbite. A few years later, he rushed across a street and got hit by a car.

"[My family] said I was sick, like, every other day," Turner said last week from the Washington office of his agent, David Falk. "They were wondering if I was ever going to be fully healthy, live a normal life."

Turner, 21, obviously does not remember all the details, but he does remember countless visits to doctors, "trying to get help."

"When you're a little kid, you're just used to it," Turner said. "I always thought, 'Something is always wrong. That's part of life.' "

His mom, Iris James, was right there for all of it.

"Measles, pneumonia, eczema, rashes, adenoids," she said from Chicago. "It was just one thing after the other. It was a mess."

Eventually, he put most of the illnesses behind him.

"And then he started becoming accident-prone," James said.

And then kids made fun of the way he talked.

"I remember going to speech classes," Turner said. "My mom really worked with me to get my speaking right, just made sure I enunciated my words."

Turner did not get completely comfortable speaking in public until high school.

Turner distinctly remembers his bout with Bell's palsy. He was 10. A part of his face was paralyzed.

"I was on my way to a parade," he said. "I had to go brush my teeth. When I went to brush my teeth, part of my face wouldn't lift up. I wanted to go to the parade really bad, but my mom made me go to the hospital."

James remembers the moment vividly.

"He said, 'Mom, something is wrong with my face,' " James said. "I was like, 'Just go wash your face.' He said, 'No, really.' "

James knew almost instantly what it was. She had suffered bouts of Bell's palsy, too, the first time when she was in her 20s. She recovered fully from the first two incidents. She got it again only 2 years ago. She is doing much better, but has not made a full recovery yet.

Turner lived with his mother and two brothers, Richard and Darius. His father, James Turner, "put the ball in my hands," Evan Turner said, but was not always part of the family's life.

The palsy was Turner's last significant youthful medical problem, and it left a lasting impression.

"I had to get a spinal tap," he said. "That was real painful. I just remember screaming. It was horrible. You take a needle and they put it in your spine."

Two weeks later, the palsy was gone.

Eventually, all the illnesses were gone, and there was time to take that basketball and put it in that milk crate nailed to that telephone pole outside his home on the west side of Chicago.

"That's how I first started playing, pretty much on milk crates," Turner said.

Richard is 11 years older than Evan. Darius is a year older than Evan and "is one of my best friends."

"He always looked out for me growing up," Turner said. "I can really count on him for advice. He treats me like Evan. He doesn't treat me differently just because I play a sport."

Turner happens to be a basketball player about to come into a lot of money, but he wants very much to keep the fame and fortune in some perspective.

"Sometimes, people might think you're bigger than what you are," he said.

The perspective comes from his family.

"My family taught me to always be honest and be myself and be a good person," Turner said. "All the adults I encountered always preached, 'Be true to yourself, be nice and don't take things for granted.' "

He never did, but he was an early believer in himself. Growing up watching the end of the Michael Jordan/Bulls dynasty can create big dreams.

"When he was able to start talking, he said, 'You know I'm going to be a millionaire one day,' " Turner's mom remembered. "And I was like, 'Oh, really?' "

She wanted to know about the backup plan. These days, Turner's plan he explained to his mom is "the" plan.

Turner was never programmed to become the National Player of the Year. He was a very good player at St. Joseph High. Teammate Demetri McCamey, now a rising senior at Illinois, was more highly regarded early in their high school careers.

When he arrived at Ohio State, Turner was not the freshman with the most accolades. That would have been Kosta Koufos, who left after his freshman year and is now an anonymous 2-year NBA player. Or it would have been shooter Jon Diebler, the leading scorer in Ohio high school history.

Only it was Turner, who was good as a freshman, a revelation as a sophomore, and on his way to putting up impossible numbers last December when he fell off the rim after a dunk and broke two vertebrae in his back.

The 6-7 Turner was supposed to be out 8 weeks. He was back in 4.

"I was a little nervous at first," Turner said. "I didn't really understand the injury. Everybody was freaking out. The first couple of days, I was a little bit bitter. After that, I just tried to keep my head."

He led the Big Ten in scoring (20.4 points) and rebounds (9.2). He was second in assists (6.0) and third in steals (1.7). He shot 51.9 percent. The numbers explain his versatility.

After most player of the year awards had been conceded by Christmas to Kentucky freshman John Wall, Turner, playing point guard for the first time in college, took them all by March.

He specializes in the lost art of the midrange game. He understands the angles of the sport. Turner's NBA position, Falk said, is "whatever it needs to be to win."

Ohio State was 3-3 without Turner and 26-5 with him.

Falk, who also is Elton Brand's agent, knows the Sixers roster well.

"What they need the most is they need more smart players," he said.

Evan Turner is a very smart player. The only things he does better than play are figure out a way for his team to win and act as if the game is not the only important thing in his life.

It was what he learned in high school playing at St. Joseph for the legendary Gene Pingatore, the man who coached Isiah Thomas and William Gates of "Hoop Dreams." Turner's brothers had gone to St. Joseph before him.

"[Pingatore] really preached doing the right thing and carrying yourself right," Turner said. "A lot of people preach it, but he actually practiced it as well."

It was at St. Joseph where Turner met John Moll, whose locker was next to his. They were very close. During Turner's sophomore year of high school, Moll committed suicide.

"When I was younger, I didn't really understand death," Turner said. "When it happens to one of your friends and you realize they're never coming back, you don't really know how to take that."

Moll's number at St. Joseph was 21. Turner wore 21 for Ohio State.

"I try to represent him," Turner said. "He definitely wanted to play big-time basketball."

Evan Turner has played big-time basketball. He is about to play bigger-time basketball. And, unless something very unusual happens before next Thursday's draft, he will be playing in Philadelphia.

Turner was here once, playing in an AAU tournament as a seventh-grader. Naturally, his team won. He is back again today for a workout for the Sixers.

"My mom made me go see all the historical sights," Turner said of his previous visit.

So, they went together.

He specifically remembers seeing the Liberty Bell and being around Independence Mall. No doubt, he saw some statues during his visit.

Turner and the Sixers are a long way from statues, but what they need is what he has - someone who won't make the game bigger than it is, but will make the team better and do it in such a way that who he is will be as important as his game.

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