MANKATO -- Raised on an island surrounded by Caribbean seas, new Timberwolves center Ronny Turiaf knows better than to swim against the forces of nature, whether it’s free-diving off Martinique’s coast since he was a child or choosing his career path now that he’s all grown up.
“I’m a big believer in following the current, going with my heart and the signs I’ve been given,” he said. “When you don’t follow the current, it gets too hard.”
He believes his heart literally and a cosmic current figuratively have led him to his seventh NBA destination in nine seasons because of Timberwolves connections present and past: He played for new basketball boss Flip Saunders briefly two seasons ago in Washington. He also felt himself drawn in so many ways to Minnesota because of his friendship with Fred Hoiberg, the former Wolves player and executive with whom Turiaf shares little in common except for an unbreakable lifetime bond.
That, and an eight-inch scar that runs the length of each man’s sternum, a reminder of how their lives changed forever on operating tables within a month of each other in the summer of 2005.
Hoiberg reached out to Turiaf that fall at the request of Turiaf’s agent, and eight years later, the two men remain intertwined by their common experience caused by an abnormal heart valve each was born with: a six-hour open-heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. That condition could have killed either man had it not been detected by a timely echocardiogram that was part of an otherwise routine physical examination.
They in turn have shared their experiences with other NBA players — Etan Thomas, Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox — who later underwent similar heart surgeries. Together, they now comprise a rather exclusive fraternity Hoiberg calls the “Zipper Club” for the telltale scar — “I got cut up like a little lobster,” Turiaf says — even if its members don’t receive a uniformed blazer or share a secret handshake.
“Not yet, but we have a secret look,” Turiaf said. “If we look each other in the eye, we know what the other person went through. So many times in this day and age, people don’t know what others went through. We have this saying, ‘Walk a mile in my shoes.’ I know what he went through. That’s what makes the bond so special.”
A guiding hand
Hoiberg helped Turiaf through months of grueling recovery, telling him by phone what to expect after an operation in which a patient’s system is shut down while a surgical team works for six hours or more. Both men lost more than 20 pounds afterward from a combination of blood loss, lack of appetite and weeks of inactivity.
Hoiberg’s playing career ended after 10 NBA seasons when his heart went out of rhythm during surgery and his surgeon had to install a pacemaker that people to this day mistake for an old collarbone injury because of the two-inch lump under the skin on his chest.
He failed a physical exam required when he sought a new insurance policy while setting up college funds for his four young children, getting no immediate explanation. He fully intended to play again with the pacemaker until his doctor said there might be risks, particularly if he took another blow to the chest like the one he absorbed while drawing a charge from big Karl Malone in the 2004 playoffs.
“If there was a 1 percent chance, that was too much for me,” Hoiberg said. “With four young kids, I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Turiaf’s enlarged aortic root was discovered two days after he signed his rookie contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted him out of Gonzaga in the second round. Doctors told him he was lucky to still be alive, and only days later he underwent the same surgery Hoiberg endured a month earlier.
“I played 10 years, I lived out a dream,” Hoiberg said. “He was just starting that journey. I know how scared he was, just thinking that at 22 or 23 he might never have that opportunity.”
Surgeons were able to save both men’s own aortic valves rather than replace them with a mechanical valve that would have ended each man’s playing career. Turiaf’s doctors told him he could take medications for the rest of his life and never play again or undergo a surgery Turiaf calls “traumatic.”
The basketball big man who left Martinique’s projects at age 15 to attend a Paris sports academy with Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and others didn’t pause a beat. His immediate decision has led to a long NBA career that includes two-plus seasons with the Lakers and a 2012 NBA title won with Miami before he signed as a free agent with the Wolves in July.
“Having missed every birthday, my grandpa’s funeral, my sisters growing up, not being with my mother, being robbed of all my teenage years, all those sacrifices going down the toilet like … pfffft?” Turiaf said, exhaling like air out of a balloon. “Not happening. I was not going to let all that go to waste. I would not let that be my life story. The choice was simple, I did not even think of it for one second: Cut me up, let me go back on the basketball court.”
He returned to Spokane, Wash., and Gonzaga to recuperate for six months because he said he wanted to be surrounded by love. Soon after returning, Hoiberg entered his life. Hoiberg had leaned on a neighbor near his Chaska home who had undergone the same surgery for peace of mind and paid the favor forward when Turiaf’s agent called.
“Fred told me it was going to be OK, so I was cool,” Turiaf said, “or Fred told me what to expect so I said, ‘Oh, that’s easy.’ ”
Hoiberg’s aftercare was one of the few easy things about Turiaf’s operation, complicated by a blood clot that developed. The surgeon installed a small piece of plastic into Turiaf’s aorta, then closed his chest up with a series of wires down his sternum that probably will remain there the rest of his life.
“I’d only have them removed if I wanted to be 100 percent human and not superhuman,” he said with a grin. “Sometimes when I go to the airport, I ring. I tell them I have heart surgery and they don’t believe. I go like this [he lifts up his shirt] and they just wave me through.”
He has established the Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation to raise money for EKGs and heart surgeries for children in need and defibrillators for schools. He calls it “the right thing to do, to give back to people who do not have” because he grew up poor and is forever grateful to late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who paid for a surgery Turiaf could not afford.
“I would go through it a million times again,” he said. “Because of what I went through, I am able to connect with kids, I’m able to help save kids’ lives. There is nothing I would change.”
He has worn uniform No. 21 throughout most of his career, but didn’t consider it with the Wolves out of respect to Kevin Garnett, who wore it for 13 seasons in Minnesota. So Turiaf asked Hoiberg if he could wear his old No. 32 in his honor.
Hoiberg calls it a “really cool” gesture.
“There’s a reason why Flip Saunders became president here, a reason it was Fred Hoiberg,” Turiaf said. “There’s a reason why I’m here. I’m here to accomplish great things, on and off the court. I strongly believe that. Just like when you go in the ocean, I know this now: I just let the current push me wherever I’m supposed to go. I don’t know where it’s going, but I know it’s supposed to be.”