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For most rookie pro athletes, the words just happy to be here are little more than the standard party line, a less-than-catchy catchphrase that makes them look suitably humble in the press. But when Los Angeles Lakers forward Ronny Turiaf recites those words--and he does so often--the sentiment doesn't ring hollow.
Last June, Turiaf appeared to have a very promising future. The 6'10" native of Martinique had improved steadily during his four seasons at Gonzaga, winning West Coast Conference player of the year honors in 2005. Selected by the Lakers with the 37th pick in the NBA draft, he signed a two-year, $1 million contract. But even though he had been cleared to play at the Chicago predraft camp, an echocardiogram performed there indicated that Turiaf, 23, had an enlarged aortic root. For that reason Lakers' trainer Gary Vitti recommended that Turiaf be given more extensive tests, including an angiogram, which revealed a high risk of an arterial rupture.
"If he played, it would have been Hank Gathers," says Dr. Robert Robbins, chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford Medical Center, referring to the Loyola Marymount star who collapsed during a 1990 game and died. "Could've been months or years, but eventually his aorta would've ruptured or dissected."
Says Lakers G.M. Mitch Kupchak, who was forced to void Turiaf's contract, "If he played with this [condition], his life would be in jeopardy on a daily basis."
Turiaf faced a difficult decision: Call it a career and put his degree in sports management to use, or undergo a frightening operation in which a surgeon would crack open his chest and repair his aorta by inserting a synthetic lining inside the root to strengthen it. Among those who advised Turiaf were former Minnesota Timberwolves guard Fred Hoiberg (box), who a month earlier had undergone a similar operation. "Fred raised my comfort level," says Turiaf, who has stayed in close contact with Hoiberg ever since. "We would talk about what we were going through and about how you could have an operation like this and survive."
On July 26 Turiaf underwent a six-hour operation at Stanford Medical Center, during which his heart was stopped for two hours. "I was terrified [going in]," says Turiaf. "But my surgeon [Craig Miller] and I, we were a tag team. I told him if he did a good job, I would start wearing Stanford gear. But if he messed up, there would be some angry Caribbean people looking to talk to him."
The operation was a success, though doctors did have to go back in to repair a blood clot near Turiaf's heart while he was still in post-op. By August he was dribbling a basketball. ("Twice up and down [the court] felt like playing a double-overtime game.") In October, with a foam pad protecting the six-inch scar on his chest, he was running drills with his former teammates at Gonzaga. ("Everyone wanted to know why I was wearing Stanford shorts," he says.) In December, Turiaf signed with the CBA's Yakama Sun Kings, for whom he averaged 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds during a nine-game stint.
"I couldn't believe what I saw," says Kupchak, whose team still retained his rights. "His conditioning wasn't great, but his rebounding, his jump hook, his explosiveness were all there. You could tell that this was a guy who knows how to play basketball."
On Jan. 17 Turiaf once again signed with the Lakers, this time a partially guaranteed three-year, $1.23 million deal. His playing time has been limited--he was averaging 1.9 points and 1.8 rebounds at week's end--but his infectious personality has had an impact on the Lakers. "On the bench it's like musical chairs," says teammate Devean George. "We're fighting not to sit next to him because the whole time he's clapping and yelling in our ear. He keeps us all up."
Which prompts the question: So, Ronny, how do you feel about playing for the Lakers?