The insecurities disappeared once Evan Turner stepped on the court. Between the lines he was just like everyone else. The setbacks, health conditions, learning challenges and speech impediment were left out of bounds while he learned to dominate with the ball in his hand.
“I didn’t have any disabilities when it came to basketball,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “That’s why I liked it so much.”
Turner described himself as being a “sickly kid” for as long as he could remember. His mother often fretted when her young son wanted to do the the simplest of childhood activities. Leaving their Chicago home became a worrisome afternoon.
“She was like, ‘Oh Lord, he’s going outside. Make sure you have a scarf! Make sure you don’t play in grass!’” Turner recalled. “I would always come back with some type of rash or something. I just had a background of being sick.”
Turner was always headstrong. Even as a toddler he wanted to do things on his terms, which led to a dangerous childhood accident at the age of three. Turner and his family rode the bus to visit his grandparents. He remembers throwing a hissy fit once he got off the bus and pulling away from his older brother.
“Somebody did something and I got mad,” the Boston Celtics swingman said. “I let my brother’s hand go, walked into the street. A car hit me and my mom said I landed on my head.”
As luck would have it, an ambulance was driving down the street near the time of the accident and Turner was rushed into the vehicle. Two memories stand out from the chaos: the glare of bright lights shining on him to keep him awake and alert, and him calling out in fear of being administered a shot. In spite of everything he endured, Turner was fearful of shots.
The tenacious toddler walked away with only a concussion, stitches and a limp for three days.
Once Turner entered elementary school, the differences between him and other students began to rise to the surface. Turner had an overbite and issues with his tonsils and adenoids. He struggled with a speech impediment, unable to say words with “err” sounds such as “theater” and “funeral.”
He met with a speech therapist from the ages of five to 11, often going three times a week during recess. While other students were playing, Turner was putting in hard work.
“When you’re a kid, kids make fun of you,” Turner said. “That, along with my overbite, drew a lot of insecurities. For the longest time, if I didn’t know you I would speak in a low tone so people couldn’t hear me or make fun of me.”
When Turner turned 11, he got braces to fix his dental problems. He wore them for five years and came out feeling like a new person once they were removed.
“Thank the Lord for braces,” he said. “They used to call me ‘The Four Horsemen.’ Life changed, girls started saying I had a cute smile (laughs).”
In the classroom, Turner had trouble keeping up with the lessons. He wanted to blend in with the rest of the students, so he spent extra time studying at home. His mother stayed up “as long as it took” to help him, re-teaching topics for sometimes two or three hours a night.
There were no easy tricks or shortcuts, just a routine of focus, patience and commitment to stay on pace. Turner credits his family for their role in the process, especially his mother – who began teaching him about the value of books and education when he was five.
“I learned slower than most,” Turner said. “Every subject was hard. I just process stuff at a different speed than other people. That was definitely tough. A lot of stuff comes with confidence. Once you know you do bad in certain situations, I would lose confidence in it. But my mom helped and my brothers helped and I had great mentors in my life to help me to keep learning.”
Throughout his obstacles, Turner began to thrive on the basketball court. He considered himself to be a bit of a loner growing up and spent hours by himself, dribbling up and down an alley, shooting on the awning of a garage imagining a rim. He felt that while he was behind kids his age in certain aspects of his life, with hard work he could be just as good, if not better, in basketball.
Turner became a standout on the St. Joseph High School basketball team. He drew attention from several Division I colleges, including The Ohio State University where he eventually attended.
Yet even as his numbers soared, he still encountered health issues. He would get “severely” sick each winter. During his freshman year, he caught a viral infection and lost over 15 pounds. Seasonal asthma followed. Turner battled through these obstacles.
“My senior year I got so sick,” Turner recalled. “I would get really, really cold where I was shaking and really, really hot where I was sweating. I had to go to the hospital and get steroids just to get everything back. That was probably the worst one I remember. I was there overnight. I got out around 4 a.m., went to school and played that night. That’s just how I was. I got allergic to everything.”
As a junior in college he broke two vertebrae after he fell attempting a dunk in a game. He missed a month of basketball. Celtics teammate Jared Sullinger, who also attended The Ohio State University after Turner, watched his first game back from injury.
“He feels like he can conquer anything,” Sullinger said of Turner. “I remember him coming back a week or two early. The first play he went to the basket. I wouldn’t think that was the first thing he’d do. He showed no fear.”
Following Turner’s return, a woman approached him at a restaurant. She worked in the medical field and told him she thought he was going to become one of her patients. The fall looked so serious at the time she believed he had been paralyzed.
“A lot of things could have gone the opposite way,” Turner said.
The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Turner second overall in 2010. He was traded to the Indiana Pacers halfway through last season and faced scrutiny for the lack of playing time on his new team. Last summer, he signed with the Celtics as a free agent. The change in scenery has been a resurgence for Turner, who is averaging 9.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists. He has hit game-winning shots, posted triple-doubles and emerged as a leader on a hungry playoff team ready to battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
He considers himself lucky to be in his situation. Whenever a moment seems tough, he reflects on his previous hardships for perspective. He says fighting and overcoming has always been in his background, which has kept him moving forward.
“When I tell stories it’s pretty crazy,” Turner said. “Sometimes I wake up and am like, this stuff is hard, but I’m really blessed. … Larry Bird said life always balances itself out. I always felt like I had a rough few years when I first got into the league, but I feel like it just can’t end like that because I’ve overcome so much.”
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