I swear I was going to write this column without mentioning “Cool Runnings” or the Jamaican bobsled team. It seemed too obvious.
But then Rick Turner, a Seattle basketball lifer who has taken on the ambitious task of leading Jamaica’s men’s national basketball team to the 2024 Olympics — and sustaining success with a pipeline of youth programs — brought it up, unsolicited.
“The Jamaica brand, there’s a coolness to it. It resonates with people,” Turner said. “Even a guy like me can’t ruin the coolness of it. I think it’s natural for people to want to root for Jamaica.”
After delving into this project, and learning more about Turner’s tireless efforts to make it succeed as the coach and national coordinator, count me among those rooting for Team Jamaica. The Jamaican men’s national team, established in 1962, has never made it to either the FIBA Basketball World Cup or the Olympics, but Turner is steadfast that he can accomplish the former in 2023, and achieve the big prize: A spot in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
“Now it’s time to put up or shut up,” Turner said. “I want to take on the challenge, and I think we can do it. I’m confident we can do it.”
The path that took Turner, 52, from playing varsity hoops at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland in the 1980s to landing the Team Jamaica coaching job in 2019 is a fascinating one, full of twists and turns and a few potential roadblocks he plowed through.
“Every time I thought maybe my story had ended, or my path had reached an end, something else sort of presented itself,” Turner said.
After attending Bellevue College and Western Washington University, Turner was hired by the Sonics in 1989 as an intern. It began as a lowest-rung position in game operations and promotions, but Turner eventually wound up as an assistant to scouting director Gary Wortman and later the director of broadcasting.
Whatever he was doing, Turner was in heaven being around hoops — and slowly made a mark with the Sonics. He seized the opportunity whenever he could to help coach George Karl in practice, whether it was keeping score, running the clock or rebounding for a player taking extra shots.
“I was just kind of around,” said Turner, who forged relationships with people such as then-assistant coach Dwane Casey that later would help further his career.
Meanwhile, Turner caught the coaching bug while helping out the boys program at Mercer Island High School under legendary coach Ed Pepple. All his life Turner had heard people say that you should “follow your passion.” So he did. And his passion was undeniable: basketball.
“This lightbulb went on,” he said. “I just decided out of the blue to sort of quit (the Sonics) and go for it.”
Turner talked his way onto the men’s coaching staff at Bellevue College as a voluntary assistant — and by 2000 he had ascended to coach. In 2002 he was NWAACC coach of the year, and by 2003, he had BCC in the Final Four of the conference tournament.
From that point it was a hodgepodge of disparate coaching opportunities for Turner, some slightly off the beaten path, others WAY off the beaten path. He spent a year as a volunteer assistant for Lorenzo Romar at Washington, and a couple of years as coach of the American Basketball Association team in Bellevue (yes, there was one, and his squad of local stars made it all the way to the championship game against a powerhouse team of former NBA players — and nearly beat them).
Then came a stint as coach of a CBA team in Great Falls, Montana, then a year as an assistant in the Chinese Professional League under former Sonics assistant Bob Weiss, who had gotten a recommendation for Turner from Casey.
If there was a hoop and some players who needed guidance, Turner was a willing participant, whether it was 6-year-olds or pros, here or abroad. Along the way he earned growing acclaim for his coaching skills. Yet Turner couldn’t quite break into the big time, losing jobs in the NBA’s D League (now the G League) to coaches with higher profiles, as the title of his memoir, published in 2011, attests: “If my name was Phil Jackson … would you read this? The anonymous adventures of an anonymous coach.”
Meanwhile, Turner had set down strong roots in Jamaica, where a love of the country and its people grew. A youth development program in Kingston called Jump Ball Basketball, started by Digger Phelps and passed along to Pepple (recommended by a Notre Dame student from Mercer Island who was helping out) and one of his Islander assistants, Omar Parker, wound up in Turner’s hands in the early 2000s.
After nearly two decades running Jump Ball, and making connections all over the island, Turner decided to take a run at heading the national team, which had gone dormant in recent years. He put together an extensive plan that included not only a blueprint for making the Olympics, but — just as important to Turner — a system to develop coaches that would help fulfill his vision of cultivating a youth pipeline. The idea is not just to foster international hoops success, but to provide college opportunities through basketball.
Now Turner’s focus is on fundraising to pay for his grand vision. That includes the expenses necessary for the national team to train and attend qualifying tournaments, and to build the infrastructure necessary for the youth programs in Jamaica. Information on contributing (and more in-depth on the program) can be found at jamaicabasketball.org.
Whatever salary Turner (whose “regular” job is at Kenmore Air) would have received he is pumping back into the program. His assistants — which include Parker, now the boys coach at Liberty High School in Renton — are working without compensation.
As Parker said, “Climbing a mountain is done for free. Obviously, my respect and close friendship with Rick had a huge impact on the decision for me to say, ‘Yeah, let’s go do this.’ But like everybody else, the allure of the Olympics is a component, too.
“And on a smaller scale, looking at how our basketball camp changed lives. Giving to those Jamaican people and hopefully giving them something to be proud of, which has never been done before, would be pretty amazing.”
Turner and Parker are excited by the basketball talent in Jamaica, which includes pros playing around the world as well as several college standouts in the U.S. They include Kofi Cockburn of Illinois, the Big Ten freshman of the year; Romaro Gill, a 7-foot-2 center from Seton Hall who was Big East defensive player of the year; and Nick Richards, an all-SEC at Kentucky under John Calipari.
A Caribbean qualifying tournament scheduled for August was canceled by COVID-19. If the pandemic eases, Turner hopes to put on an Olympic qualifier in Jamaica in the spring; the upside is that the host gets an automatic berth in the next qualifying round.
But that takes money, which is why Turner is “turning over every rock” to find people who want to invest in a team, and a dream. His goal is to find 10,000 people to donate $20.24 (a nod to the Olympic year). Based on a proposed budget of $80,000 per year, that would roughly fund the senior team from now until the Olympics — “and then we could go after all the other stuff.”
“When I first got the job, I wanted to have something that we could point toward and talk about,” Turner said. “Just a goal that is out there for us. Something that is meaningful and history making. No Jamaica basketball team has ever made the Olympics.
“So I truly believe we have the talent to do it. I’ve been around the country long enough to say that with confidence. And knowing the players that are involved. I know that it’s doable. I don’t want the money thing to hold us back. I don’t want that to be the reason why we don’t do it.”
Jamaica’s most famous hoopster, of course, is Patrick Ewing, who has an Olympic gold medal — for the U.S. Turner eventually wants to get Ewing involved, but he is leery of approaching him for financial help.
“I don’t want to be that guy to meet Patrick Ewing with my hand out,” he said. “I think when we do the things we want to do, and not just talk about them, then he’ll jump on board 100 percent, I’m confident of that. And I think a lot of other people will, too.”
That’s all part of Turner’s dream for the magical day when Jamaican hoopsters will be dribbling up and down the basketball court in Paris. For someone who has chosen to devote much of his life to that pursuit, it would be cool runnings, indeed.