Feb. 19, 2014
Had it not been for a coaching change at the University of Florida, former Vanderbilt basketball player and First Team All-SEC selection Jeff Turner (1981-84) might not have been a Commodore. Born in Maine, but raised in Brandon, Fla., Turner’s final college choices were the Gators, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Vanderbilt head coach Richard Schmidt jumped back into re-recruiting Turner.
“I had committed to go to Florida at the time John Lotz was the head coach and they fired him midway through the year,” Turner said recently. “Then they hired Norm Sloan. Sloan told me I wasn’t his recruit and I wasn’t his type of player. Coach Schmidt called me right up and said he was still very interested in me and wanted to get me to Vanderbilt for a visit. I went, fell in love with the school and that was that.”
When Turner arrived on the Vanderbilt campus, Schmidt was in his second season as the Commodores’ coach. Turner’s freshman season would see controversy as seniors Charles Davis and Mike Rhodes were within grasp of breaking Clyde Lee’s all-time scoring record. For unclear reasons, Davis and Rhodes would find an unusual amount of time on the bench and weren’t starting some games.
“I didn’t really know Charles Davis and Mike Rhodes that well,” Turner said. “I was just a freshman coming in. There were five of us that were Coach Schmidt’s first recruiting class. I think that was a big part of it. We were his guys and he wanted to play as many of us as he could. We had Al Miller, who ended up on the All-Freshman Team. He took a lot of minutes at small forward and the No. 2 spot. I ended up playing a lot at the big forward position and center.
“I don’t know if Coach Schmidt had anything personal against Charlie D or Mike. I just think he put the crew on the floor that fit his system. I was 18 years old, just tickled to be playing college basketball and working my tail off every day. I know that it was not the best situation and was probably a big part of why he didn’t keep his job.”
Vanderbilt finished that season 15-14 (7-11, SEC) with an upset over No. 7 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. Rhodes did pass Lee to become the all-time leading scorer at that time while Davis graduated in third. Others in Turner’s recruiting class besides Miller were Al McKinney, Jimmy Lenz and Kevin Linder.
Turner, 51, said that the biggest moment for him as a freshman was playing in his first SEC game in Memorial Gym, beating Alabama 93-91. That season he played in 29 games and averaged 3.6 points per game. After the season C.M. Newton replaced Schmidt.
“Obviously for those of us five freshmen, we were really disappointed,” Turner said. “Coach Schmidt brought us in there with the idea that we were going to build together. I know there was some talk of what were we going to do? Back then transferring was not as big as it is today. At the same time there were a lot of question marks. I remember having a conversation with a couple of the guys.
“We didn’t know who was going to come in there, but I’m at Vanderbilt University because of basketball. I knew I wouldn’t be in that school without it. I wasn’t going anywhere, but to wait and see. What a blessing it was. Coach Schmidt brought me there and I got to play for one of the finest gentlemen and coaches that I think ever coached NCAA basketball with Coach Newton. For a chance to get a Vanderbilt education I was willing to take that chance. I’m glad I stayed. I don’t think I could have had a better coach than Coach Newton.”
In Newton’s first season the Commodores were 15-13 (7-11, SEC). Willie Hutch Jones and James Williams led Vanderbilt. One special recruit that season was Phil Cox, who would later become Vanderbilt’s all-time leading scorer. In Turner’s sophomore season as a starter he averaged 9.3 points and shot 52.4 percent (99-for-189). In the summer of 1982, Turner played on two separate United States teams which competed internationally.
“That was a great time for me,” Turner said. “I got chosen to be part of a select team that went to Europe. Phil Cox and I both played on that team. We played with a young guy by the name of Michael Jordan, who traveled with us. We played four or five games in Europe, which was our first taste of traveling overseas.
“When I got back I didn’t go to the tryouts for the World Championship team, but they had an open spot. Bob Weltlich, who had been the Mississippi coach and just taken the Texas job, called Coach Newton. He needed another big guy and asked if I’d be available. So I jumped on that. What a great experience that was. It was the first time representing my country in a major competition playing with some great players, including Glenn `Doc’ Rivers who later I became good friends with and coach of the Orlando Magic.
“Unfortunately we lost in the championship game to the Soviet Union. The good thing was as time progressed the following year, Coach Newton took us on a trip where Vanderbilt represented the United States in the Jones Cup. So for me going into the Olympic Trials in 1984, I probably had more international experience than any college player in the world or United States.”
Turner played on a 19-14 (9-9, SEC) Vanderbilt team as a junior that concluded the season with a loss in the second round of the NIT. Turner’s scoring average improved to 13.2 points a game while he shot 49.2 percent (180-for-366). The Turner-Cox combination is one that Vanderbilt fans will rank as one of the best.
“We were really a trio with Al McKinney,” Turner said. “We came in together and Al was kind of our captain and kept us focused. Phil came in a year later and the three of us became close friends. Phil was one of those tough Eastern Kentucky kids that you looked at and thought there’s no way he is going to be able to play in the SEC.
“If there had been a 3-point line in three or four of his years, I’m not sure there would be anybody close to breaking his 3-point record. He could fill it up from anywhere. We had a nice inside-out combination going. In my junior year we had Ted Young and made it to the NIT.”
That ensuing summer, Turner was again playing internationally. This time Vanderbilt’s basketball team represented the United States in the Jones Cup Tournament in Taipei, Taiwan. The Commodores took home the gold medal as Turner made the all-Tournament team.
“The great thing about that it was the first time I believe they allowed a college team to represent the United States in international competition,” Turner said. “In the Far East it was a major tournament. We had a good time learning about the culture in Taiwan. It was a really good time for us to grow closer as a team spending the summer playing together. We had high expectations going into our senior year based on what we had done over the summer.”
The 6-foot-9, 230-pound senior finished his college career as a First Team All-SEC selection, Honorable Mention All-American, SEC All-Academic selection and captain of a 14-15 (8-10, SEC) team. He averaged 16.8 points per game, shot 53.3 percent (200 for 375) from the field and 84.3 percent (86 for 102) from the free-throw line. His stats for his career include 117 games, 50.6 percent shooting (519 for 1026) and 10.9 points per game. Turner ranks 24th on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list with 1,271 points.
“We had some big wins like beating Georgia and Auburn,” Turner said. “Nashville hosted the SEC Tournament that year. It was a great time to be at Vanderbilt. Unfortunately we were a very young team. We had some young players that would eventually be good. Will Perdue was just a freshman and not ready to play at the SEC level. He certainly worked and got a lot better. Steve Reese, Glen Clem and Bobby Westbrooks all turned out to be good. We did not have the depth to compete in the SEC that year to accomplish what we wanted.”
Turner has fond memories of playing in Memorial Gym.
“It was always sold out,” Turner said. “There is nothing like it. I’ve been blessed to play basketball all over the world and in the NBA. There is no place like Memorial Gym. There is atmosphere with the configuration of the gym. I don’t think there is a better home-court advantage for a school. I’ve got a lot of great memories. I know there has been a lot of changes with updating the locker rooms and the facility, but it is still a fantastic place.”
Playing in the SEC meant that Turner would be challenging some of the best college basketball players in the country.
“Through the years obviously in that stretch Kentucky was very strong,” Turner said. “They had Sam Bowie, Mel Turpin and were as deep as any team in the league. My freshman and sophomore year I competed against a very good Georgia team lead by Dominique Wilkins and Vern Fleming.
“Auburn was so strong with Charles Barkley and Chuck Person. Mississippi State had Jeff Malone who was an unbelievable NBA player and had a great career. Alabama was strong with Ennis Whatley and Bobby Lee Hurt. I played against some quality big men. LSU had Rudy Macklin and DeWayne Scales my freshman year. We had some great battles with Tennessee through those years. With Dale Ellis and Tyrone Beamon, Michael Brooks and some of those guys. My junior year was great as we won both games against Tennessee.”
Turner said his favorite moment was his last game in Memorial Gym on senior night. He scored a career-high 30 points against Mississippi and felt he couldn’t miss – a fitting ending for his time at VU.
After graduating Vanderbilt with a degree in economics, Turner was invited to tryouts for the U.S. Olympic team. Bobby Knight was the head coach and C. M. Newton was the team manager. It had been a dream of Turner to play on the Olympic team since he was a child who watched the Soviet Union “steal” a gold medal in a controversial gold medal game in 1972.
“I was 10 years old and sitting in my grandfather’s living room,” Turner said. “My dad, grandfather and I watched that game. I remember being upset about it. We couldn’t believe it. From that time there was always a dream for me to play in the Olympics and represent the United States and to avenge that loss. The years worked out for me into my senior year, an Olympic year. As far as dreams coming true that was definitely one of those great moments for me to be part of that team.”
The 1984 Olympic team included Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Steve Alford, Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing. The trials were held in Bloomington, Ind., on the University of Indiana’s campus. Turner made the team after several cuts.
“By my estimation there were 100 guys that went to Bloomington,” Turner said. “We were doing three-a-day practices, drills and games in tryouts. They cut it to 30 guys and brought us back for more practices. I made the final cut down to 14 guys and two alternates. Any time you go to a college team you’ve got guys with varying skill sets. Being a part of that Olympic team you are playing with guys that were the best on their teams. It’s like an NBA experience to a degree.
“We played nine exhibition games against the NBA all-star teams as we traveled around the country drumming up support for the Olympic team. We won all those games and won all the games in the Olympics. It was the only undefeated team I ever played on. It was fun to see how Coach Knight took a group of guys that were stars on different teams and put us together with the chemistry to win. Guys played in a lot of different roles that they didn’t on their college teams.”
The games were held in Los Angeles in which the Soviet Union boycotted in retaliation for the United States boycotting the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. Turner was disappointed in not having a chance to face the Russians. But he did get to play with Michael Jordan.
“Being a part of that Olympic team people always ask me what separates Michael Jordan?” said Turner. “I always tell them that he is the most competitive person I’ve been around in my life. Whether guys were playing cards on an airplane or one night while at Coach Knight’s house for a barbecue, just hanging out. Coach Knight had a pool table. Jordan lost an early game and we couldn’t leave until Michael had finished and won. He refused to lose. All of us thought we were competitive, but he had the drive and the killer instinct. I don’t know where that came from, but it was stronger than anything I have ever seen.”
The United States defeated China, Canada, Uruguay, France, Spain, Germany, Canada and Spain in the gold medal game. That team averaged 95.4 points per game while allowing 63.3 points per game. Jordan led the team with 17.1 points per game. Turner played in all eight games and scored13 points. He also recorded six assists, three steals and four blocked shots.
Turner felt the emotions of standing on the top platform to receive his gold medal while the national anthem played.
“I think the emotion, and you see it on a lot of athletes, is a mixture of high expectations especially in basketball since you are representing the United States,” Turner said. “There is an expectation that you are supposed to be on that top podium. Then there is all the work that we put in and all of the training. I don’t know how much practicing and work the Dream Team does, but we worked hard as a bunch of college guys.
“You look where you start and where you finish. Then there is relief and the unbelievable pride in the accomplishment. None of us had the opportunity to represent the United States in a military uniform. Just to be able to go out with USA on your chest and knowing that your country is cheering for you is bigger than college or the NBA. That is where a lot of that emotion comes in.”
During a break in the Olympic trials, Turner traveled to Hawaii for a tryout of potential NBA draft players. His agent thought the Lakers, Celtics or teams that were making their selections near the end of the draft might pick him. Otherwise, Turner wasn’t sure about his future in the NBA.
As draft day arrived, the New Jersey Nets, with the 17th pick in the first round, selected Turner.
“The funny part of the story is because we were working out in Bloomington we were not able to get to Madison Square Garden for the draft like the college guys do now,” Turner said. “We were in a television studio in Bloomington. I’m in the green room and the first guy taken from the green room is Michael Jordan. Several followed like Sam Perkins. Vern Fleming and I are sitting there and I’m thinking, `Oh my gosh, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and others are sitting out in the van waiting for me and I might not get taken.’ I might have been taken until after a later round. The 17th pick comes up and it is the New Jersey Nets and they are on the clock. Vern Fleming is from New York and he is saying I really don’t want to go to the Nets.
“When they announced the pick there was a chorus of boos from the Madison Square Garden (crowd). They don’t know who Jeff Turner from Vanderbilt University is. I will never forget Vern Fleming looking at me and saying, `I’m sorry.’ Then Vern was picked next by the Indiana Pacers with the 18th pick. So we both got out of there.”
Turner played three seasons on Nets’ teams with poor records. They were coached by Stan Albeck (42-40) and Dave Wohl (39-43 and 24-58). In New Jersey, Turner played in 72 games that first season, 1984-85, and averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds. In his last two seasons with the Nets, Turner averaged 4.3 points in 53 games and five points in 76 games the next season. He averaged 2.6 rebounds a game his last two seasons.
“I started a lot since in the NBA there are a lot of injuries,” said Turner. “It was a good and bad experience. I had been a post player and I could shoot the 15- to 18-footer in college, but potentially I played in the middle of a 2-3 zone or guarding post players. I got to the NBA and due to some injuries they decided to play me in the small forward position. Back then some of the elite players in the league were Larry Bird, Bernard King, James Worthy, Julius Erving and the list goes on and on about those skill players.
“They play on NBA classics all the time a game during my rookie season. It is Christmas Day in Madison Square Garden. I’m starting and my match up is Bernard King. Bernard went for 60 points that night, but it wasn’t all me. I was getting the feel for the speed and strength and how big a jump it was from college to the NBA. That night put it all in perspective for me.”
After the three seasons in New Jersey, Turner’s contact expired and a new general manager told him they weren’t bringing him back. The team was going in a different direction. Turner continued his pro basketball career by going overseas to play two seasons in Italy with Vismara Cantu.
“My wife Dee Dee [Dee Dee Cook played for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team] and I had a small town house in Nashville that we had just purchased,” Turner said. “I had my three years in the NBA and thought maybe it’s over for me. I had been talking to a guy who was putting players overseas and he had a team in Italy. He asked that Dee Dee and I just go over to see the set up and visit with the team. They were a good Italian team in the smallest city in the highest division, which at the time Italy was the top of international basketball.
“We went over there and I thought it would be a great experience so I signed a two-year deal. We had a blast. People ask me what it was like? At the time I was playing on the team that had good Italian players. There was one other American on the team besides me. It ended up being like in a top 25 college program. I went back to the way I used to play and I had a lot success over there.”
In 1989 the NBA expanded with the addition of the Orlando Magic. Turner was the first free agent signed to the new club. This would be a good career move for the 27-year old.
“I wanted to give the NBA one more shot,” said Turner. “I felt that my New Jersey experience wasn’t great, but I was very happy overseas. I grew up in Central Florida so when Orlando got the franchise I told my agent at the time that was a place I’d like to explore.
“My mom was living in the Orlando area so I was staying with her. The Magic coaches called and told me to be at a gym and they would work me out. I just got lucky. They liked what I did and signed me. Dee Dee and I moved to Orlando and got involved in the community. We started building some things and the team had some success as we got draft picks. I turned that into seven more years in the NBA.”
Playing on an expansion team would result in poor records for the first few years. In the first four seasons as a Magic player, Turner started 120 of the 281 games he appeared for an average of 6.9 points per game. Matt Guokas coached Orlando those four seasons with records of 18-64, 21-61, 31-51 and 41-41.
Orlando was given the No. 1 draft selection for the 1992 NBA draft. Center Shaquille O’Neal from LSU was their choice and the Magic fortunes changed.
“I had watched him play in college,” Turner said. “We knew when we had the No.1 pick that we were taking him. I had played against some pretty good centers in the NBA. I thought here is a young guy who will have to learn the game, which he definitely did.
“But when he first came in and started practicing in the fall there weren’t a lot of big guys there, but me. We were playing pick up games so I had to guard him. I realized very quickly that this guy was very special. The power, the strength and the way he moved I knew we had a dominant guy. In six years with the start of the franchise we were in the NBA Finals.”
In O’Neal’s third season (1994-95) the Magic made it to the NBA Finals with second-year coach Brian Hill. Orlando finished in first place (60-22) of the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. The Magic beat Boston (3-1) in the first round, Chicago (4-2) in the semifinals and Indiana (4-3) in the conference finals.
Houston won the Western Conference title behind center Hakeem Olajuwon. The game was billed as the Shaq versus Olajuwon series. The Rockets swept the Magic in four games.
“It was a great matchup,” Turner said. “It wasn’t just Hakeem. Hakeem was great, but they had some guys that played out of their minds. Robert Horry and Sam Cassell came in off the bench and were just lighting us up. Kenny Smith played really well. They had been there the year before and it was clear that their experience of being in the playoffs helped. We had not won a playoff series until that year. We were a young team for the most part. We had Horace Grant, who had playoff experience while everybody else did not. I think that showed down the stretch, especially when those games got close.”
Turner played in all four games coming off the bench. He scored six points in the series. Turner was a role player in the NBA and competed some at center, but mostly as a forward.
“I was a utility guy,” he said. “Today I would have been a Stretch-4, a power forward that could step out on the perimeter and shoot the basketball. I was a role player. I understood that. I started a lot of games. I tell people I would win the war of attrition.
“I took good care of myself and learned what was needed to be successful. Typically what would happen by the end of the season I’d find myself in a starting role when someone got injured. When we got Horace Grant I knew I was going to play behind him and my minutes would be down. By the time I finished my career I was a decent 3-point shooter. When I went in for Horace that gave us a different look.”
Turner said playing the Indiana Pacers in the 1995 Eastern Conference finals was the most intense and fun games he participated in. Each team won on its home floor with all the games close going back and forth. One game went into double overtime as the series went to seven games and the Magic captured the Eastern Conference crown.
During the 1995-96 season, Turner, at age 33, was traded to Vancouver, but never appeared in any games for the Grizzlies since he was injured. A few years earlier he had rehabbed from an ACL tear and later suffered a slight meniscus tear on the same knee during training camp. He played in 13 games his final season, then tore cartilage in the same knee.
“I got a second opinion from a Vanderbilt doctor,” Turner said. “Basically they put it to me that I could try and keep playing, but if I played on it I wouldn’t have any cartilage in that knee. I was just going to do more damage. It was probably was a good time to hang it up. It was hard, but the nice thing was I was able to slip into the organization and try my hand into some broadcasting.”
Turner’s 10-year playing career includes 612 regular season games (235 starts), 3,697 points (6.0 avg), .467 field goal percentage (1,543 for 3,304) and 3.3 rebounds per game. He also played in 24 playoff games, averaging 2.3 points. As an NBA player, Turner tussled with some of the greatest basketball players in the world.
“I thought the toughest guy I ever guarded was Bernard King as far as just impossible to stay in front and his quick release,” Turner said. “Obviously the greats one like Larry Bird and Karl Malone were always a tough matchup for me because of their strength and from a defensive standpoint. The good thing about that I became more and more of a perimeter player. They didn’t want to come out where I was. Later on in my career with my bad knee I tried to play at a lighter weight and I didn’t match up well in the post with some of those guys.”
When he went home, his wife, a former collegiate basketball player, could relate.
“The thing I like to tell about Dee Dee is she understood the game,” Turner said. “It was never about basketball to her; it was about us as a couple. She has always kept me very grounded. She understood when I was frustrated and always knew what to say and get me back to what I needed to be. She has certainly been a blessing for me.”
After retiring from the NBA, Turner worked radio color commentary for the Magic for nine years and then for eight years coached a high school team and won a Florida state championship.
“I have two young girls, Allie and Emma,” said Turner. “I felt I needed to be home more and not traveling as much as I did with the Magic. I got a great opportunity to work at a private school in Orlando Lake Highland Preparatory School. The president of the school asked me to put together a leadership program and coach basketball. It was a great journey and I did that for eight years. I really learned a lot about basketball from the coaching standpoint. Being a player and being a coach are two different things.
“I understand why some players don’t make very good coaches sometimes. You forget sometimes that you have to teach and teach everything that you took for granted. There was a process of building a program, winning that first district title and getting to the state tournament to lose. And coming back the following year, coming together and winning the title was a great experience.”
Turner stepped down last year as head basketball coach to became an associate athletics director at Lake Highland. He also works as a color commentator for the Orlando Magic Television Network, a role he accepted prior to this season.
Turner reflected about the importance of being a Vanderbilt student-athlete and how it molded his life.
“I tell my kids all the time going to play a sport at any university is a job,” Turner said. “But it gives you an opportunity maybe to go to a school that you wouldn’t have without sports. My parents could never have afforded to send me to Vanderbilt University so being a part of the basketball program not only gave me a group of lifelong friends, but it provided me opportunities I might not have had like opening doors for me.
“I learned to play in the SEC at a high level and then was blessed to play NBA basketball. My professional life has been around basketball and it starts with everything I learned from the coaching I got at Vanderbilt and players I played with. For me in 1980 to be offered a basketball scholarship changed my whole life. I met my wife there. I got nothing but positives from my time at Vanderbilt.”
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email at WLTraughber@aol.com. You can purchase his book “Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History” on Amazon.com or Nashville area bookstores including Barnes & Noble at Vanderbilt.