Landon Turner came to the door in his wheelchair and a smile. He wore the red and white basketball shoes of Indiana University. It's been 21 months since he helped Indiana win the 1981 NCAA championship. It's been 17 months since the automobile accident that paralyzed him. "I'm doing good," he said, almost singing it.
Anyone who saw Indiana's march to the '81 national college basketball championship remembers Landon Turner as the 6-foot-10, 250-pound junior forward who overwhelmed Albert King, Rudy Macklin and Sam Perkins. Those were all-Americas; they were as boys against a man when Landon Turner became, in the words of teammate Steve Risley, "an electrifying force in the tournament."
We can enjoy sport on a hundred levels, sometimes for the pure entertainment of a soloist's virtuosity, sometimes for the adrenaline-pumping conflict of teams chasing the same prize. Nothing is much more thrilling than the moment an athlete, like a butterfly from its cocoon, grows into the prettiest thing he can be. In March 1981, we saw the first flights of Landon Turner, who only six weeks before sat grounded in Bob Knight's doghouse.
"If Landon had been able to play his senior year," said Risley, "he'd have been one of the top three players in the NBA draft. Here's a kid who had a million dollars in his hands and he had to watch it float into a fire and burn up. When Landon woke up after the wreck, the first thing he said was, 'I had a nightmare' "
"Pretty out," Turner said on this winter's day dazzling with sunshine. "Go in there by the TV." It was 2 o'clock, time for Turner's favorite soap opera, and this was the day they would hypnotize the woman who might have seen the killer, if in fact there was a murder, "but I don't think the guy's really dead," Turner said.
The phone rang. Nope, Turner said, can't go to that party. Busy that night.
The doorbell rang. Turner revved up his motorized chair and rolled to the front door. A buddy wanted him to go Christmas shopping. Later, Turner said. And the party Thursday, is it still on? Gotta drive to Bloomington on Wednesday for the Kentucky game. Big game for December. Gotta beat those guys.
Since Turner's accident on July 25, 1981, a trust fund has collected more than $400,000 for the extraordinary medical expenses of his spinal cord injury. Of maybe 20,000 Americans with such injuries, the typical patient is a young, athletic male. Cars cause most injuries, and sports come next, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, a Washington outfit whose director, Louise McKnew, says, "Research is showing paralysis doesn't have to be permanent."
Turner's injury is low in his back. He has full use of his arms and hands. He drives a van to Bloomington, where he is a full-time student majoring in physical education. On his chair, he goes to Indiana's basketball practices, where, if he doesn't like the look of things, Landon Turner will chew out a big guy.
He should know all the words to use, because he heard them from Bob Knight for three years.
"Coach never hated Landon, even though people will say that," said Risley, an assistant to U.S. Sen. Dan Quayle. "He saw more potential in Landon than in anyone else, and he saw Landon making less of an effort. In high school, he could fumble his way to 30 points, so he had no perception of the effort it took. He came from getting patted on the rear to getting kicked in the rear, and Landon took it personally."
Knight runs a loose-ball drill in which two players dive for a rolling ball. Turner, as a freshman, had to go against the entire team in that drill--diving 14 straight times onto the floor. "I had hip pointers everywhere," he said today with a survivor's smile.
He wouldn't quit. "Coach thought I could be the best player ever at IU, so when I didn't play like it, he just went off. He tried to get me to quit. He told me I'd have a better chance of playing in the NBA than for him. I told him I wasn't a quitter."
In February of 1981, deep into a third unsatisfying season, Knight in fact told Turner it was over. Write to the NBA, Knight told him. In a 36-point victory, Knight insulted Turner by playing him only the last 19 seconds. In another runaway, Knight put Turner in with 10 minutes to play.
Knight said he told Turner, "This is your last chance."
The kid played sensationally.
"Every game from then on, I told him the same thing. 'Your last chance, Landon.' His trouble had been he couldn't think past tomorrow. He'd have a great game and then wouldn't go to class, wouldn't practice hard, wouldn't do anything the way he needed to do it."
"In February and March," Risley said, "it finally all came together for Landon. At last, he knew what he had."
He had a sprinter's quickness, a weightlifter's strength and a basketball player's grace. He grew up wanting to be the next Julius Erving. Suddenly, in March of '81, anything seemed possible.
July ended that. July changed his life--and Knight's. "Coach wouldn't talk about it at first," Risley said. "He was hurt, too, because he could see how far Landon had come. They have an amazing relationship now. It's almost father-son. Not that Coach is taking care of him; he just makes sure he learns to take care of himself."
Knight insisted to Turner's parents that he return to classes this year. When he graduates, Knight wants the university to hire Turner as a counselor. "Landon Turner will be a star here forever," Knight said.
In March of '81, the star first rose. A visitor to Turner's home in Indianapolis said, "The way you guys beat Maryland . . . "
Turner interrupted. "You want to see the tape of that game?"
He rolled to the TV to push a button, and it was March of '81 again, with Maryland leading Indiana, 8-0, in an NCAA Tournament game.
"This is one of my favorite games," Turner said. "Ray Tolbert had five dunks, and I had three. Look at this next play. This next play is my favorite. Right here. I love it."
On the TV, Landon Turner leaped high for a behind-the-head dunk. In his chair, Landon Turner slapped his left hand against his knee.
"I gotta see that play again," he said, and he backed the tape up to run the dunk again. "I've seen that play a million times. After that, Maryland made three straight turnovers. I shook 'em up. That game, we just took off. We flew."
It was Indiana 99, Maryland 64. Landon Turner had 20 points and seven rebounds, and a visitor asked if it bothered him now, seeing basketball like this, and Turner said it used to bother him seeing Indiana play without him, but not now, not 17 months since July.
"I keep my mind away from the bad thoughts now," he said. "It's not really hard to do. I go to school, I have my friends, I go to practice and the games. It's just that one part of my life is over and another part is going on."
He turned off the tape and said he had to go Christmas shopping. See you at the Kentucky game, he said. Thanks for coming by.