by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hree years and one life-threatening heart operation removed from Gonzaga University, Ronny Turiaf remains the same delightfully free-spirited individual who warmed the hearts of Gonzaga fans on and off the court with his passion for basketball and life.

Turiaf may have "gone Hollywood" on us, but only in the physical sense. In fact, even though Turiaf is now in his third season with the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, he purchased a house in Spokane last year.

"Why not?" asks Turiaf, his sing-song French accent sifting through the phone lines from Los Angeles. "That's [near] my school. I love going to Spokane in the summertime. I love going to Coeur d'Alene in the summertime, being outdoors."

Spokane won't soon forget Turiaf, and it's obvious the reverse is true. Turiaf rents out his home in Spokane to "one of my best friends," former Gonzaga baseball star Josh Monroe.

In Los Angeles, Turiaf's "best friends" now include the likes of Kobe Bryant.

"He's one of my closest friends on the team," Turiaf says. "We hang around on a daily basis. If you hang around him, you'll see he's a good person. Some people see him as cocky, but he's just trying so hard to be the best.

"His level of desire to be successful is higher than anyone else. People don't see this, but Kobe's a jokester. He pulls off pranks. He likes to joke around.'

Turiaf says Bryant has become "more open" this season and has demonstrated more "confidence in his teammates." The easy-going Turiaf says he's gotten along well with Bryant ever since he joined the Lakers, but Turiaf's self-described "best friend" is San Antonio point guard Tony Parker.

The two played on the same high school team in Paris. Now they've been paired off in the best-of-seven series that will determine which team represents the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

"That's why we all play; to play for championships," says Turiaf. "But I guarantee Tony is going to try his best to beat me, and I'm going to try my best to beat him."

Even the popular Turiaf (who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Dodgers game last month) will be hard-pressed to "beat" Parker when it comes time for marriage. Parker is married to Eva Longoria, one of the stars of the hit television series Desperate Housewives.

"She's very down to earth," Turiaf says. "People aren't around these people like I'm around them. All they see is what they read in papers. They're just regular people."

Turiaf separated himself from "regular people" years ago due to his size and basketball skills. Injuries pushed the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder into the starting lineup for 21 games this season, but he generally helps the Lakers most as an energetic, crowd-pleasing force off the bench at power forward and occasionally at center.

"I felt great about the whole regular season," Turiaf says. "I was definitely doing a great job for my teammates. I started the playoffs slow because I was sick with tonsillitis for about two weeks. But I've got a job to do. We're professionals. We've got to get the job done."

Turiaf averaged career highs of 18.7 minutes, 6.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in the regular season. In the playoffs so far (through Sunday, May 25), he has averaged about 10 minutes, 2 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.

Of course, any stats look good for a player whose NBA career almost ended before it began. A routine physical exam after the 2005 NBA draft revealed that Turiaf had an enlarged aortic root. He plays with a lightweight chest protector under his jersey, but says he rarely gives his heart (or the massive scar on his chest) any thought during games.

Off the court, things are different. Turiaf has announced plans to start the Heart to Heart Foundation to increase awareness of heart-related issues and provide free testing for needy children.

"This is a big problem in the United States, France and all around the world," Turiaf says. "You feel like you're fine, then all of a sudden, you can fall down."

Leave it to Turiaf to lend a helping hand.

Vaccination Happy Hour @ Spokane Arena

Wed., June 16, 5-7 p.m.
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