"Eating donkey was not a fun thing for me," Rick Turner is telling me by telephone from Taiyuan, China, about 300 miles southwest of Beijing...
“Eating donkey was not a fun thing for me,” Rick Turner is telling me by telephone from Taiyuan, China, about 300 miles southwest of Beijing.
He then explains, saying he was at a buffet with his basketball team, Shanxi Zhongyu. There was some delicious sweet and sour pork, some tender chicken and another meat.
“I ate a bunch of it [donkey], just had a few bites left and then our interpreter told me it was donkey,” Turner says. “It didn’t taste like chicken, but it didn’t taste like donkey either. To be honest with you, if I hadn’t been told, I probably would have gone back for seconds. But when I was told, my gag reflex kicked in.”
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Turner is in China this basketball season, keeping a promise to himself that is more than a decade old.
The former coach for Bellevue Community College and several teams in the American Basketball Association, is pursuing his passion. At age 40, he still is desperately seeking the right head coaching job.
For most of his adult life, Turner has been stuck in a coach’s Catch-22.
Every time he interviews for a job he hears praise for his knowledge of the game. He hears how impressed people are with the won-lost record and the championships he’s won.
This summer he interviewed for a head-coaching job in the the NBA’s development league. At the end of the interview session he heard another loop of the same soundtrack.
“We’d love to hire you,” the general manager told him. “We know you’re qualified. But you just don’t have a big enough name.”
“It really ticks me off,” Turner says.
The D-League may be offering chances for unknown players, but it doesn’t offer the same chance for coaches. The league takes the safe path hiring “names” like Jim Harrick and Sam Vincent.
This latest rejection hit Turner the hardest. He was close to giving up his hoop dreams, when former Sonics head coach Bob Weiss called. Weiss was taking a head coaching job coach in the Chinese Basketball Association and another former Sonic coach, Dwane Casey, recommended Turner as an assistant.
Wherever, whenever, whatever has been Turner’s unofficial motto. But China? Now?
“When I didn’t get the D-League job I told a couple of my friends, I think I’ve played this hand out as long as I can,” Turner says. “I need to get serious about taking a real job now.
“I’ll never have a name. I’ll never be able to impress someone with my name and if that’s what it takes to get a job, then I’m banging my head against the wall. I had pretty much reconciled in my mind that I was going to quit coaching.”
One call from Weiss, believed to be the first former NBA head coach to coach in the Chinese league, kept the dream alive.
“Having the opportunity to work with Bob,” Turner says, “the chance to come over here and to actually get paid a pretty nice amount of money for doing something that I liked to do was intriguing to say the least.”
Turner left his Bellevue roots for Taiyuan two months ago.
“Every day has been an adventure,” he says. “Every day has been an education. Every day, for the most part, had been a lot of fun.”
Still, every international coaching assignment is fraught with surprises. Cultures clash. Promises are scrambled. Expectations change. A coach has to be adaptable.
In China, Weiss and Turner’s team, like all Chinese teams, practice twice a day for two months before the season starts. They also have long team meetings before and after practices. They are told this is “the Chinese way.”
“The cultures are so different,” Turner says. “It is so difficult to communicate with the players when you don’t speak the language. I can’t say something to a player without an interpreter. Sometimes it’s like playing Pictionary or charades. You’ve got to act it out.”
Early in preseason, the team owner decided Shanxi Zhongyu needed more discipline. He brought in a former CBA all-star Liu Tia to “instill discipline.”
Liu installed a 10:30 p.m. curfew. Lights had to be turned off by 11.
“That meant no talking to your roommate, or on the phone or to yourself,” Turner says.
An Internet rumor circulated earlier this month that former Sonics All-Star Gary Payton was joining the team. The rumors turned out to be false, but the idea of trying to make Payton agree to a 10:30 curfew almost makes you wish the rumors were true.
Meanwhile, Turner is careful when he makes coaching suggestions to Liu.
“We can’t allow him to lose face in front of the players,” Turner says. “That’s been part of the learning process. Like this week I had a suggestion on an adjustment we could do on one of the plays that we run.
“I waited until all the players were out of the room and I got together with the interpreter and the coach and asked if it was OK for me to make a suggestion. You just have to be sensitive about how you deliver your suggestions.”
Liu also gives as many as three or four inspirational speeches a day.
“Don’t be a flower in the greenhouse,” he tells the team. “Be a mighty tree in the forest.”
Weiss, who is known as Boba Wee-sah in China, still is the head coach. Liu is the head disciplinarian and chief communicator. But even the head coach can get surprised at practice. One day, early in training camp, former Cavalier, Hornet and Milwaukee Buck Robert “Tractor” Traylor showed up at practice and told Turner he had signed with the team. It was news to Weiss.
“No one ever told us. He just showed up at practice one day,” Turner says. “It was really awkward.”
It turns out, there was a communication problem. Traylor hadn’t signed. He sat on the sideline for three days, then left to play with a team in the Turkish league.
The star foreign player for Shanxi Zhongyu is former Sonics center Olumide Olajide, who led the CBA in rebounding last season. He turned down a more lucrative contract from an Iranian team to play with Weiss and in the team’s season’s opener last week, Olajide had 21 points and 24 rebounds.
Early into the CBA’s 50-game season, Turner doesn’t know if this merely is an excellent adventure, or an important steppingstone to the perfect job.
“I’m trying not to look too far ahead now and put myself in a box,” he says. “The main reason I took this job was the opportunity to work with Bob. He’s been in professional basketball for 40-plus years. I’m trying to be a sponge and absorb as much as I can from him.”
Rick Turner is learning another game, another culture, another menu. He is growing his basketball portfolio as he tries to avoid another culinary mistake.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org