After his team’s loss Sunday to Oregon in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, UC Irvine Coach Russell Turner was happy to acknowledge that he had tried to rattle Ducks forward Louis King by calling him “Queen” during the game, and that he had encouraged his players to do the same.
Turner claimed that he was making a chess reference, noting King’s importance to his team, but his behavior and subsequent comments sparked accusations of sexism and homophobia. On Monday, Turner issued a statement through UC Irvine in which he said, “I recognize my actions were inappropriate and insensitive.”
Noting that he spoke with King and Oregon Coach Dana Altman, both of whom “graciously accepted” his “explanation and apology,” Turner said, “I share UC Irvine’s belief that inclusivity and diversity are paramount values, and I apologize for not understanding that my actions during the game suggested otherwise.”
Turner’s critics Monday included Anthony Nicodemo, an openly gay high school basketball coach who said on Twitter: “Attacking a player’s masculinity is unacceptable. As leaders, we are supposed to know better. You owe Louis King and the LGBT community an apology.”
The Oregon player’s mother, Ativea King, felt the same way, according to a Twitter account reported to be hers. Calling for an apology from Turner, she said that the coach tried to “publicly humiliate” her son and that his actions were “in poor taste,” although she said her son “doesn’t get fazed by it.”
At a postgame news conference following UC Irvine’s 73-54, second-round loss to Oregon, Turner was asked about the in-game interactions with King. With a quick laugh, the coach agreed to discuss the topic, telling reporters: “I was saying, ‘Double-team Queen,’ to try to see if I could irritate him. And I did.
“And I kept talking to my team about what we wanted to do,” continued Turner, who completed his ninth season as the Anteaters’ head coach. “We were calling him ‘Queen’ because I knew it might irritate him, because of how important he is to their team — the queen in chess. It was a play on his name of King.
“And it bothered him, started thinking about me, started thinking about [UC Irvine guard Max Hazzard]. But he came back and finished the game really strong. And he’d had a thing or two to say to me during the game, and I wanted to let him know that what I’d done was out of respect.”
Turner said he was trying to get under King’s skin in the first half, when Oregon’s offensive half of the court was on the same side as UC Irvine’s bench. “I’ve got a voice, I can make the offensive team hear me, so I utilized my voice best I can, to help my team,” he said.
Turner’s efforts were ultimately in vain: King scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half, when his Ducks pulled away. A 6-9 freshman from Jersey City, King was a five-star recruit and made an immediate impact by averaging the third-most points for the Ducks and the second-most rebounds.
King has upped his scoring in the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.5 points in two games after posting 12.9 in the regular season. With the event now winnowed to 16 teams, his 12th-seeded squad is the only one left that doesn’t have at least a top-five seeding, so it is the only one with a claim to Cinderella status.
Turner has earned praise for his work at UC Irvine, which had never made the NCAA tournament before he arrived. His teams have made two trips and the Anteaters just completed a 31-win campaign, setting a program record, but their season is ending on a controversial note.
Turner’s explanation that he was referring to King as a queen on a chess board struck some as odd, considering that would ordinarily be a compliment. In that case, why would the coach hope that the term would “irritate” the opposing player?
“Of course, that’s a bunch of bull trying to rationalize his indefensible behavior,” OutSports’s Cyd Zeigler wrote Monday. “He knew that resorting to calling a male player ‘queen’ would rely on tired homophobic and sexist tropes in sports and, as he intended, in turn taunt his opponent.”
The Oregon men’s basketball program said in a statement that Turner “reached out today to express his apology to Louis and the King family, as well as the staff and program for in game comments,” and that he “reiterated they were not meant to offend.”
“All parties accepted the apology and are moving past the issue,” the Ducks said.
“I take seriously my responsibility as a campus and community leader, and I regret that my actions during the Oregon game did not meet the standard of leadership I should consistently set,” Turner said in his statement. “For that, I apologize to the UC Irvine community, including the student-athletes and coaches of our men’s basketball program.
"When student-athletes on our team make mistakes, I expect them to take responsibility and to learn from their mistakes in order to improve themselves. I will do the same. I accept full responsibility for my ill-considered actions, and I will learn from this situation to be a more thoughtful coach and competitor.”
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