Turner perseveres through tough times
Through childhood sickness and the death of a friend, OSU star shines on and off court
Lost in her own grief on the night her son committed suicide, Barbara Moll reached for the ringing telephone and heard the sound of her own pain in the voice of a 16-year-old boy.
He was so overwrought, she could barely make out what he was saying, sobbing so hard it took her a minute to figure out who it was that was calling.
Nearly five years to the day later, Moll flips on the television and sees that same boy. He is the picture of strength and confidence, a chiseled 6-foot-7 point guard turning NBA scouts' heads and breaking college opponents' ankles.
But Moll immediately can see past the glory of today to the pain of yesterday.
Evan Turner wears No. 21 at Ohio State. It's the same number Barbara's son, John, wore in the last season of his life.
"He told me he tried to get that number in his junior year of high school when he moved up to varsity, but couldn't," Moll said. "So when I saw him at Ohio State, I knew."
In the first two weeks of the college basketball season, no one has skyrocketed out of the gate quite like Turner. Debuting with a triple-double against Alcorn State -- only the second in the history of the Buckeyes program -- he has posted a double-double in every game thereafter and is averaging an eye-popping 21.8 points, 14.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game.
To watch him play is to see effortlessness, a kid who is blessed with a buffet menu of skills. In last week's Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, Turner literally made the Madison Square Garden crowd "Ooh" and "Aah" when he left a Cal defender flat-footed.
To meet him is to discover a rarity, a considerate and polite old soul who lacks the pretentiousness and peacock preening that ordinarily comes part and parcel with the talent. When Turner's face graced the cover of various preseason magazines, he snatched up a handful to show his family; not to brag but because, as he put it, "It was the strangest thing in the world."
To hear his story is to understand why he is the way he is. This is not a silver-spooned athlete who dribbled his way through life without scars, indifferent to the people around him. He suffered and endured and worked.
On Dec. 11, it will have been five years since John Moll ended 16 years of a troubled life by stepping in front of a train. Nearly every year since, Turner has called Barbara Moll at least three times -- on Mother's Day, on John's birthday and on the anniversary of his friend's death.
"Some days it's hard," Moll said. "I look at Evan, and I think about John. He'd be 21 now, maybe in college. But as the mother of a troubled boy, who had hopes and dreams for her son that he didn't achieve, it helps to live vicariously through someone like Evan. He's a unique person, an outstanding young man, and that has nothing to do with the way he plays basketball."
Turner's mother, Iris, will tell you that on the day her son was baptized, something miraculous happened. It was a sensation she can't describe, just a feeling that her second son was destined to do something special.
Perhaps it was the simple miracle that Turner lived long enough to be baptized that made Iris believe he would leave a mark. The first 12 months of Turner's life were filled with such fear and anxiety, illness and hospitalizations, that Iris didn't even christen him until his first birthday.
"So many times, I thought he wasn't going to make it," Iris said as she watched her son play at the Garden. "People walk up to me now, strangers with articles or just to tell stories, and tell me how much they look up to my son, and I think, 'How far can this go?' For the first year of his life, I kept asking, 'Lord, when is he going to get better?'"
A strapping 10-pound baby at birth, Turner had chicken pox, pneumonia, asthma and measles before he celebrated a birthday. When a measles epidemic swept through Chicago in the winter of 1989, Iris found her baby so ill he couldn't even cry. She called a doctor who, presumably figuring she was exaggerating, suggested she come to the office. Guided instead by her mother's instincts, Iris took him to the emergency room.
"Doctors took one look at him and just took him away," Iris said. "They had tubes and machines and everything there in a second. He nearly died."
Turner survived the measles but had severe breathing problems. Surgery to remove his adenoids and tonsils eventually eased the struggles, but for the first year of his life, Turner slept on his mother's chest every night because when she put him on his back in his crib, he would almost stop breathing.
Continuing through his Job-like childhood, Turner survived being hit by a car as a 3-year-old (his mother saw him flip in the air and land on his head, but Turner walked away with just a concussion and stitches).
He also struggled to speak as a toddler. Saddled with oversize baby teeth and a difficult overbite, he was capable of talking, but only his older brother, Darius, could understand him. Even Iris would turn to Darius for interpretation and translation from the boy who called her "Bobba" because he couldn't say "Momma."
"I don't know what he would have done without Darius," Iris said of her two boys' special bond.
Intense speech therapy helped Turner, but the sting of special classes and the frustration of not being understood left Turner reserved and insecure. "I'd be yelling, 'Darius, what does he want? What does he want?' and poor Evan would get so frustrated, he'd say, "Oh, nebber minb [mimicking the way Turner spoke]."
"I'm still shy, but I'm not insecure anymore," Turner said. "I just know how to hide it better. When I was little, I just didn't like being around big groups of people. I would just go outside by myself and play basketball. It was almost therapeutic."
Turner doesn't remember when he started playing basketball, but he references vintage film of his going at Darius on a Fisher-Price hoop when they were barely old enough to walk. He also vividly remembers sitting in his room as an eighth-grader, playing March Madness 2003.
"You could create your own team and of course, I made myself the best player on the team," Turner said. "I'm in my room, and Dickie V is yelling on the game, 'He's a PTPer, a diaper dandy, baby,' and my brother walked in. He said, 'You better make that happen someday.'"
Turner took the first step toward realizing his brother's charge at St. Joseph's High School in Chicago.
That's also where he met John Moll. The two had crossed paths on the summer circuit before and they became friends when Moll, whose life had been a series of trials, enrolled at St. Joseph's. Moll was more of a showboat than Turner, a kid who asked his parents whether he could let his hair grow, then let it get to 1970s Afro proportions.
Turner didn't know a lot about Moll's problems. He didn't know that middle-school experimentation with drugs made him both physically and verbally abusive to his parents; didn't know that his biological mother was a schizophrenic who gave him up for adoption; didn't know about the stay in a youth home for much of their freshman year. He just knew he was a funny kid, a tough defender and one heck of a point guard.
In retrospect, no one knew what was going on in Moll's head, not his parents or even the host of professionals who were working with him.
"He had counselors, psychiatrists, even a probation officer that he saw every week. And to a person, they said suicide was never on their radar screen with John," Barbara Moll said. "The only people more surprised than my husband and I were the professionals. No one saw this coming."
So when Turner found out that his friend and teammate had killed himself on that December day in 2004, he was destroyed.
"I was really worried about Evan at that point," Iris said. "He was in so much pain."
Said Turner: "It's not that I didn't accept it; I just didn't appreciate what it meant. His locker was right next to mine, and I remember thinking, 'He's never going to use that locker again.' I'd look at his desk and realize he wasn't going to sit in it. I kept thinking he'd come back. It took me a long time to really understand what it meant."
Turner doesn't know what compelled him to call Barbara Moll that night. His mom didn't suggest it. No one did. He just picked up the phone.
The conversation was brief, but it was the start of many. Even through tragedy, Barbara Moll still attended all of St. Joseph's games in that 2004-05 season, as well as the team banquet. She followed Moll's classmates through their final two years of high school and watched Turner develop into a bona fide Division I player who earned his own praise despite the constant attention heaped on fellow Chicago senior Derrick Rose.
Moll attended the Ohio State-Northwestern game in Evanston last season, and this year she signed up for Facebook, figuring it would be an easy way to keep in touch with Turner and another former teammate of Moll's, Mike Capocci at Northwestern.
Next year? Next year, she doesn't know what she'll do if Turner jumps to the NBA.
She's not alone.
Unlike a lot of parents who eagerly await their son's entrée into the NBA, Evan Turner's mom is nervous.
"As my mother would say, 'I'm happy he's living his dream,' but I worry because it is getting so close," Iris said. "It's a lot of responsibility."
But if anyone seems well-suited for the adjustment, it is Turner. He admits to being selective about his circle of friends and cautious with his decisions, all good traits for the NBA life.
And despite a breakout two weeks, he remains humble. Not only is he unimpressed with himself, he is downright stunned when you suggest that some eighth-grader could be sitting in his room, playing a video game, pretending to be Evan Turner.
"People show me magazines, and I think, 'Is that really me? On a magazine?'" Turner said. "It's just crazy. It's all kind of funny to me."
Turner is -- as Barbara Moll learned on the evening of Dec. 11, 2004 -- a good kid.
"I'm still stunned that he made that call," Moll said. "Adults don't want to make that call, and here he was, just 16. He amazed me. He still amazes me."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.