by Howie Stalwick
Gonzaga basketball coaches love Ronny Turiaf like a son -- a 6-foot-10, 249-pound son who would probably eat them out of house and home, but a son all the same.
Thus, when Turiaf's coaches at the little Catholic school on Boone bring up the subject of Turiaf's occasional lapses in intensity, they do so only after stopping just short of nominating him for sainthood.
"He's just such a good person," Bill Grier says.
"He's the godfather to our son,'' adds fellow assistant Tommy Lloyd. "He's family."
"Everyone knows him on campus," says Head Coach Mark Few, "and not just because he's a basketball person, but because he's a genuine person. He comes to the volleyball games and the women's basketball games and soccer games and supports them. He goes to plays and just hangs around. He talks to every secretary in every office around here. And he listens to them, not just talks to them. He's a one-of-a-kind kid, he really is."
Informed of Few's remarks, Turiaf practically blushes. Of course, that doesn't prevent him from feigning anger over Few's contention that his intensity wanes at times.
"Coach Few is right -- but Coach Few is CRAZY!" Turiaf says as he literally shakes with laughter. "Make sure you put that in!"
Whatever you say, Ronny. It's tough to argue with a preseason All-American, a returning honorable mention All-American, one of Gonzaga's all-time greats and, arguably, the most familiar face in the Inland Northwest. After all, our region is not overloaded with enormous black men from the Caribbean who wear their hair in corn-rows (along with the occasional Afro) and speak with a Creole accent.
Even his name is unique around these parts. ROH-nee Tirr-ee-off rolls off the tongue as easily as Turiaf scores 20 points, grabs 10 rebounds, swats a handful of shots into the cheap seats and unleashes gym-rattling dunks that keep the highlights producers at ESPN licking their chops.
"Kids and dogs have a keen sense of a warm person as compared to a cold person," Few says. "The way I see my two kids and Leon's kids and Tommy's kids attach themselves to Ronny is something special. That and all the kids in Spokane in all those schools he's been to. And there's all the charity work he's done. He just has an amazing ability socially to reach out to people to make them feel comfortable and special."
Comfortable and special -- Turiaf says that's exactly how Gonzaga coaches and players made him feel on his recruiting visit four years ago. That factored heavily into his decision to turn down big-time basketball powers from all over the country to come to Gonzaga. Ironically, the two other finalists for Turiaf's services were West Coast Conference rivals Pepperdine and Saint Mary's.
"I didn't want to go to a big school like Georgia," Turiaf explains. "All the schools that came out to see me, I don't think they were too impressed, because I was a lazy person at the time."
Gonzaga coaches beg to differ, though Turiaf certainly had periods of indifferent play as a teenager. "You had to catch him on the right day," Few says.
Lloyd, who teamed with Grier on most of the recruitment of Turiaf, needed just one look at game tapes of Turiaf to know he was a keeper.
"We got the tapes," Lloyd recalls, "and on the tapes he smashed a backboard. I remember showing it to Coach Few, and his only comment was, 'Yeah, let's get that kid. We can use more kids who can break backboards.'"
The Bulldogs discovered Turiaf playing in Paris at a high school sports institute for France's top young athletes. Turiaf left his family in Le Robert, a tiny fishing town on the east coast of the island of Martinique, to move to Paris at age 15. Martinique is a colony of France with about the same population as Spokane County.
"I don't think people really understand the sacrifices he's gone through over the years," Grier says. "He's 15 years old and leaving home and a sunny beach in the Caribbean to go to school in Paris. And then from there to here and being thousands of miles away from his family, who he's so close to. That's really hard on him, because he's really tight with his family.
"He gets emotional when it's his sister's birthday or his mom's birthday, or it's around Christmas," Grier continues. "Something like that is really, really hard on him. I think in the back of his mind, he just tries to keep a focus, like, 'The reason I'm over here is when I'm done, I'll be able to take care of my family.'"
Turiaf could have begun that process a year early, but he turned down potential millions by passing up the NBA to return to Gonzaga for his senior year. Turiaf says it really wasn't all that difficult a decision, even though he was projected to be drafted as early as low in the first round. The NBA loves bulky 6-foot-10 guys with long arms.
"I just love the [GU basketball] program, first of all," Turiaf says. "I love the coaching staff and my teammates and the community.
"After the loss to Nevada [Gonzaga's second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament last March], I felt so bad that I got into foul trouble in that game. I felt like I let the program, the community, everybody down. I couldn't leave after that. I took it personally."
Turiaf says he "might have" given more consideration to the NBA if not for the Nevada game. Of course, he's been turning down six-figure annual contracts from French and Spanish pro teams ever since he came to Gonzaga.
"Life shouldn't be about money," Turiaf says. "It should be about your experiences in life, the people you meet."
"He's one of the most thoughtful people I've ever been around," teammate Sean Mallon says. "He's just more thoughtful than most 20-year-old, 21-year-old kids you meet. I don't know how to describe it, really. He can relate to everybody. He can talk to everybody on our team no matter what's going on."
Turiaf, who speaks Creole, French and English fluently and "a little" Spanish and Italian, had marginal English skills when he arrived in Spokane. That initially presented problems in the classroom, but Turiaf now boasts a 2.8 cumulative grade point average, and he'll need just one class next summer to earn his degree in sports management.
"I didn't want to leave early without my degree," Turiaf says.
"He ought to be a poster for the NCAA," Few says. "He should, because he values and understands being a student-athlete. It's not a token word for him. He really enjoys the college experience."
Just about every time he takes the floor, Turiaf makes the college experience more enjoyable for his fellow students. The power forward led the 28-3 Bulldogs with 15.5 points per game last season, but that was down from 15.6 as a sophomore (he did boost his rebounds average slightly to 6.4). GU coaches have stepped up their four-year mission to convince Turiaf to shoot more.
"There's such a warm heart, such an unselfish person in there, that he would rather pass it out to the true freshman who he wants to make feel good by hitting a jump shot," Few says with a look on his face that's somewhere between a grin and a grimace.
"I just get so excited when I make my teammates better around me," Turiaf says. "I know my coaches are just trying to make me reach that higher level I can reach, and I will do that."
That kind of talk makes WCC rivals shudder.
"He's certainly one of the best players in the college game," Portland coach Michael Holton says. "He creates problems for every team he faces. He's got good hands and feet, and he's athletic. I think his future at the next level is bright."
"He has good reason to expect to have a nice pro career," agrees Pepperdine coach Paul Westphal, a former NBA player and coach. "The pros like him because he has size and mobility. He can play power forward in the pros, and maybe a little center. You can tell he likes to play a lot."
Holton seconds the motion. In fact, Holton almost gagged when he learned that Gonzaga coaches claim Turiaf's intensity lags at times.
"We hoped for it," Holton said. "We haven't seen it. He doesn't take a night off when he plays us."
Hmm. Maybe Turiaf is right when he turns to a visitor, with his smile lighting up the room, and exclaims, "My coaches are CRAZY!"
Publication date: 11/18/04