Ronny Turiaf mourns Wes Leonard

Updated: March 13, 2011, 4:08 AM ET
By Jared Zwerling | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- New York Knicks center Ronny Turiaf became emotional Saturday when asked about Wes Leonard, the basketball player from Fennville (Mich.) High School who died last week.

Turiaf -- who underwent open-heart surgery in 2005 -- got teary-eyed while talking about Leonard's death, which happened shortly after Leonard hit the game-winning shot against Bridgman High on March 3. While Fennville was celebrating its 57-55 victory and 20-0 regular season, Leonard collapsed and was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. An autopsy revealed he had an enlarged heart.

"It's not an easy situation for me to talk about because [long pause] that could have been me, man," Turiaf said. "When I heard that, it really made me sad, man. Me and my mom obviously just right away decided to call the school to try to help the family and help the school. It's a tough grieving process for them, so we contacted them.

"They're amid the playoffs and everything, so as soon as their season is over, whenever they have time to sit down, I would love to do anything possible for them because it could've been me."

On July 16, 2005, with no prior symptoms or related family medical history, Turiaf was diagnosed with an enlarged aortic root. The discovery came during a routine checkup while he was playing on the Los Angeles Lakers' summer league team. Alongside Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and assistant GM Ronnie Lester, Turiaf met with doctors, who gave him two options.

"They said, 'Ronny, you are lucky to be here today; you could have died at any point,'" Turiaf recalled. "[They said,] 'We have two choices for you: Choice A, either you stop playing basketball and can't do any contact sports, and you have to take medicine for the rest of your life. Or you have the surgery done.'

"So I looked at them and I was like, 'Well, I don't want to waste seven years of my life -- I left my house [in Martinique] when I was 15 [to attend National Institute of Physical Education for elite-level athletic training] and at the time I was 22 -- and I'm not going to throw [my career] down the toilet just like that.' So I said I wanted to have the surgery."

Ten days later, Turiaf was operated on at Stanford Medical Center, and he was able to make his NBA debut that season with the Lakers on Feb. 8, 2006. Three years later, while a member of the Golden State Warriors, Turiaf established The Heart to Heart Foundation to provide medical care for children who couldn't afford any.

"I'm just trying to help people and hopefully save lives," Turiaf said. "This is how dangerous heart problems are: About 300,000 people die every year of heart problems. That's about 34 people every hour."

Jared Zwerling is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

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