Turner remembers life before chair

Originally Published: June 30, 2010
By Wendell Maxey | Special to Page 2

Landon TurnerCourtesy of Double QLandon Turner, confined to a wheelchair since 1981, is a motivational speaker and still loves the game.

In late June, Landon Turner sat in his wheelchair in Indiana and watched the Washington Wizards select John Wall as the first overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.

It brought back memories.

Turner has been sitting in a wheelchair ever since a one-car accident on July 25, 1981, left him paralyzed from the chest down, four months after Turner helped Isiah Thomas and Indiana University beat North Carolina for the 1981 NCAA Championship.

That didn't stop the Boston Celtics from drafting Turner in the 1982 NBA Draft.

"It was a complete surprise. It was close to my heart when they drafted me," said Turner, whom Boston selected as the last pick in the 10th and final round.

"Red [Auerbach] did send me a couple championship watches -- from '84 and '86 -- which was very nice," Turner said. "I have them to this day. They are in my safe right now."

Turner, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound forward and center, made the all-tournament team as a junior and averaged 9.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game during the regular season. He was NBA-bound and still draws comparisons to North Carolina's James Worthy, whom Turner guarded in the title game and went first overall in the '82 draft.

"Landon was the type of athlete that Worthy was. He [Turner] had all the makings of being a great power forward," remembered Thomas, Turner's teammate and now head coach at Florida International University.

Then the accident happened. Turner was hospitalized and unconscious for five days. He spent five months there, immobilized and unable to speak because of an emergency tracheotomy.

[+] EnlargeLandon Turner
Courtesy of Landon TurnerIndiana University's Landon Turner skies for a dunk as teammate Isiah Thomas watches.

"I will never forget walking into the hospital room and just seeing him wired up to all these machines," said Thomas, who was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1981. "They had this brace on his neck. I just remember how massively big he looked lying there."

Turner endured rehabilitation and on June 29, 1982, the Celtics rewarded his perseverance. While Landon never suited up for Boston, the story behind the goodwill gesture was actually orchestrated by two basketball icons: Bob Knight and Red Auerbach.

As the story goes, the spring after Turner's accident, Knight attended a pre-NBA draft camp in Chicago and broached the subject with Auerbach about Boston drafting Turner as a symbolic gesture to what the kid had endured. Several weeks later, the Celtics did.

"I didn't know that [Knight] had spoken with Red Auerbach. I didn't know anything until my parents told me I was the last person selected in the draft," Turner said. "I felt elated that they did that for me."

Seven years after his accident, Turner -- who graduated from Indiana in '84 with a degree in physical education -- finally returned to the basketball court and played for the Indiana Pacers wheelchair basketball team for three years, but the love for the game wasn't there like it was before.

"I miss the camaraderie," Turner said. "You're like a band of brothers."

Today, Landon spends his days in Indiana as a motivational speaker where he shares his story and educates others about disability awareness. Ever an avid sports fan and angler, Turner still keeps tabs on the NBA, which will have summer sessions this week in Orlando and Las Vegas.

Basketball is never far from his mind.

"John Wall has to be one of the quickest guards I've seen in a long time," said Turner. "He has a lot of potential to be a great ballplayer."

Just like Turner did.

Wendell Maxey is a freelance writer for Sports Media Exchange, a national freelance writing network.