By Marcus Thompson II
Warriors center Ronny Turiaf is known for playing with passion.
The way he swings his arm with all his might to block a shot, or tries to bend the rim with one of his two-handed dunks. The way he supports his teammates when he’s on the bench, watching intently, cheering demonstratively, lobbying vehemently.
His passion for basketball is unquestionable. But it is rivaled by his other passion: Helping people with heart issues. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice.
“I know what its like to be in those shoes,” Turiaf said Monday from the Leonard J. Meltzer Boys & Girls Club in Oakland. “I don’t wish that on anybody. Especially when it’s a 15-year-old high school kid. I don’t think people understand how serious I take this problem. Especially when I see all those unfortunate events happen to those kids at such a young age.
“That’s why,” he added, “I’m just trying to do whatever I can so hopefully people can jump somewhat on the bandwagon and understand this is something very important to me. This is not a joke. This is very, very dangerous problem that I hope more people will be aware about.”
At a worn Boys & Girls Club in a scruffy part of Oakland, his other passion took a step towards realization. The Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, started last August, held its first official event Monday. A news conference.
You could tell it was special to Turiaf. Normally a blue-jeans-and-blazer kinda guy, Turiaf on Monday was full-on dapper in a crisp gray suit with a sky blue shirt and navy tie. Usually seen scowling behind a bush of coarse whiskers, Turiaf’s smile on Monday beamed through a neatly cropped full beard.
His foundation, which accepts donations on his website (www.ronnyturiaf21.org) launched a program to provide automatic external defibrillator machines (AEDs) for local organizations. Courtesy of Turiaf’s foundation, each get a portable AED to be placed in gymnasiums. Also, Cardiac Science – a company that provides cardiology products – will provide training for 10 staff members. And the American Heart Association will provide CPR training for 30 students.
The Heart to Heart Foundation’s first five recipients of the AEDs are El Cerrito High School, Calvary Christian School in El Sobrante, De La Salle High School in Concord, Life Academy in Oakland, and the Warriors Basketball Camp.
On Oct. 11, 2009, De La Salle freshman Darius Jones, of Pittsburg, died of a heart attack while playing basketball. On Jan. 29, Calvary Christian senior Joshua Ellison died after playing five-plus minute stint of basketball. It is suspected a genetic heart problem was the cause of death.
Then, on Feb. 2, sophomore David Gurganious of El Cerrito collapsed in a game after suffering cardiac arrest David’s near-fatal experience touched Turiaf. David’s brother, Larry, played college ball at Gonzaga. So did Turiaf.
“It’s unfortunate to say,” Turiaf said. “Everything was already in the works, but when my teammate’s brother had the incident, I think he helped everything, kind of pushed everything to happen sooner rather than later.”
David was fortunate because three people trained to perform CPR – a nurse, a police officer and a fireman – were on hand immediately. After five minutes of CPR, the defibrillator arrived with the El Cerrito Fire Department, saving David’s life.
Such resources are not readily available at every school. A pair of assembly bills — AB 1646 and 1647 — have been introduced that would make having AEDs mandatory at interscholastic sports games and practices. Supporters of the bill, which is co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward) and Assemblyman Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), don’t consider the costs reason enough to not have the necessary equipment.
AEDs, on average, are about $1,500, not including the training needed for staff members to be able to operate.
“You know, 14 other states in the U.S. do have laws around this,” said Brett Reisner, the Cardiac Science representative at Turiaf’s news conference. “California is behind. In what we saw happen in the last month, with the student we lost at Calvary Christian, with what happened at El Cerrito, it’s obvious. It’s long overdue. … Funding is a major challenge and that’s why it’s fantastic that Ronny’s foundation is actually able to help out and to make a contribution to the community. Schools are faced with budget cuts, potentially laying off teachers. So it’s a huge funding issue.”
Turiaf knows what it’s like not to be able to afford what’s needed for his heart. Before his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2005, Turiaf learned he had an enlarged aortic root after an exam. He was given two options: have surgery or never play again.
“After I thought about it for about 35 seconds,” Turiaf said, “I decided to have surgery.”
He had endured six-hour open-heart surgery performed at Stanford Medical Center. But before he returned to action, some six months later, he needed help.
Turiaf needed help paying for surgery. Being a second-round pick who had yet to play a game, he simply couldn’t afford it.
Turiaf needed help preparing for surgery. He found a mentor in former player Fred Hoiberg, now the VP of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Hoiberg, who had surgery to repair the same ailment as Turiaf, was there to answer questions and provide advice and comfort.
Turiaf needed help recovering from surgery. He couldn’t so much as tie his shoes or feed himself during the early stages of rehab.
Now, part of his life’s work, is returning the favor. That could be in the form of inviting the El Cerrito basketball team to a game. Or providing schools with AEDs. Or visiting patients. Or using his fame to educate people about heart health. Or one day, he hopes, paying for someone’s heart surgery.
“I get happy doing this kind of thing, especially things close to my heart,” Turiaf said. “Because I was in the same boat asking for help, and people were there for me. … I will try to do whatever I can. And when I say whatever I can, I really mean that to the utmost. Because I really want to help.”