Ex-Gonzaga star cleared to play after heart surgery

Updated: December 22, 2005, 2:46 AM ET
Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Ronny Turiaf, the former Gonzaga Bulldogs star who had open-heart surgery just over six months ago, has signed a contract to play for the Yakama Sun Kings as part of his rehabilitation.

Turiaf brings new status to the Continental Basketball Association team, whose fans tracked his stellar career at Gonzaga, just three hours east in Spokane.

"From a selfish standpoint, for me, he's a great basketball player. But for the franchise, and for everything Ronny has done in this state, it's the biggest one we've ever had," coach Paul Woolpert said of the signing Wednesday. "And he hasn't even stepped on the floor yet."

Turiaf, a 6-foot-9 forward, was chosen by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 35th pick in June's NBA draft. During a subsequent physical, doctors detected a heart problem, and Turiaf underwent surgery July 26 to repair an enlarged aortic root.

The Lakers voided the contract but retained the rights to Turiaf for three years. He has no timetable for joining the NBA team.

"I'm not physically healthy enough to endure practice and training for an NBA schedule," Turiaf said at a Wednesday news conference. "I'm using Yakama as training. As long as I'm here, I will work hard and I will try to make this team better."

Turiaf, who worked out with the Sun Kings for the first time Wednesday, said he got "a little winded" but otherwise felt good. He said he will be working to get back to NBA form, but for now, "I'm a Sun King."

Details of the contract were not disclosed.

Turiaf's first court action likely will come Monday, when Yakama plays the Idaho Stampede in Boise. His first home game with the team will be the following night.

Asked how he was felt about finally getting back to the game, Turiaf said, "Nervous, no. Excited, yes.

"I've been waiting for this so long," he said. "Just give me a jersey and a pair of shoes and I'm ready to go."

The Sun Kings drafted Turiaf with the fifth pick in September's CBA draft, after his surgery. Woolpert, who saw Turiaf play at a draft camp last spring, was well aware his stint as a Sun King could be temporary, if it happened at all.

"No question in mind mind that he was head and shoulders the best pick in the camp," Woolpert said. "We don't know how long Ronny will be here, but however long it will be, we'll be extremely fortunate."

Turiaf brings size to a team that currently the best record in the CBA at 11-3.

"He'll allow us to go big and still be athletic. He gives us that presence inside," Woolpert said.

The team was sold last summer to the Yakama Nation, an American Indian tribe based just south of this central Washington city. The June acquisition was contested by some tribal members, who ousted several tribal leaders in a recall election.

The spelling of the team name was changed to 'Yakama' to reflect the tribe's ownership.

The dispute slowed ticket sales at the start of the season, but sales picked up to five times the usual pace following word Wednesday that Turiaf would sign a contract, general manager Rich Austin said.

Turiaf was a celebrity known simply as "Ronny" in Spokane, where Gonzaga is based. His expressive face famously reflected the Bulldogs' triumps and disappointments.

A native of Martinique, he was recruited by the Bulldogs after a prep career in France. He averaged 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press