Man With a Big Heart
HOOPFEST He isn’t returning just to judge a slam-dunk contest. Ronny Turiaf is helping kids who are facing the same kind of heart ailments that he does MICHAEL BOWEN
He’s a multimillionaire who nearly died young. In the space of just five months back in 2005, Ronny Turiaf went from highs (completing his Gonzaga career and being se- lected in the NBA draft) to lows (being diagnosed with a heart defect and facing potentially career-ending surgery).
Now, after making a six-month, faster-than-expected recovery from his surgery to repair an enlarged aortic root, Turiaf is preparing to start his seventh NBA season. (He’s now with the Knicks, after stints with the Lakers and Warriors.)
And he’s making a three-day Hoopfest stop this weekend: unveiling a community court on Thursday, headlining a fundraising dinner on Friday night for his foundation, and judging a slam dunk contest on Saturday afternoon.
Six years ago, the news of Turiaf’s brush with mortality hit hard, not just because he was only 22 at the time, but because he was so fun-loving — the guy whose smile lifted your day whether or not you cared anything about basketball.
When I interviewed him in January 2002, back when he was a 19-year-old freshman with the Zags, he was a lot more concerned with festivities than mortality. He was going to live forever, man.
He’d already made the shift from his home in Martinique to a colder climate in Paris for his high school years, but nothing like snowbound Spokane
“I already seen [snow] in France, but little, it wasn’t big like this,” he said. He’d done his first snow angel, “all by myself, it was my first time here. You lay down on the snow and shish, shish, shish” [waving motion].”
His fun-loving personality blended into his style of play: “On the court, I know I make some crazy play, ’cause I’m so inn-air-jick [energetic], so … [gesticulates, laughs] I’m like a badger on the court. I just want to give my best, so could be happy to my teammates.”
And his face brightened into a big smile when he recalled the “festivities” during carnival time in Antigua: “You have to go, that’s like weird gyrating and embracing [raises arms joyfully, demonstrates a hip-wiggle]. WHOOO! [laughs]. That’s big-time.”
But Ronny Turiaf is older now. Wiser. In addi- tion to his NBA career — the workouts, the travel, all the publicity demands — he has a foundation to run. The Ronny Turiaf Heart-to-Heart Foundation (ron- nyturiaf21.org) funds prevention, detection and treat- ment for kids with life-threatening heart conditions.
At 19, Ronny was a party boy, running through a birthday-spanks gauntlet formed by his Zag team- mates at practice one day. Now he’s giving back, helping with the financial and logistical needs of kids with heart ailments.
When he was 22, Turiaf himself was like one of those kids. He’s still a kid at heart, which is why Hoopfest — and all of Spokane — is looking forward to having him back.
Ronny Turiaf’s Hoopfest appearances • Community Court Unveiling • Thurs, June 23, from 3:30- 4:30 pm • Fri, June 24, from 7-9:30 pm • Heart-to- Heart Foundation fundraising dinner with Cedric the Entertainer • $100 • Lincoln Center • 1316 N. Lincoln St. • ronnyturiaf21.org • 327-8000 • Slam- Dunk Contest judging • Sat, June 25, from 1-2 pm and 2-3:30 pm • Nike Center Court, Riverfront Park • spokanehoopfest.net • Hoopfest Saturday Night • Sat, June 25, at 9 pm • $10 – $15 • 21+ • The Lincoln Center • (800) 325-SEAT