I had always been aware my aorta was a little bit bigger than usual. I was 6’5” by the time I was 13 years old. For people who are tall at a young age, everything is bigger. My feet. My hands. And my aorta. For a long time, everything was fine.
But then it wasn’t, and all hell broke loose.
Between the Chicago pre-draft camp in 2005 and the actual physical after I got drafted by the Lakers, my aorta grew. Everyone was just dumbfounded. Suddenly, my condition was life-threatening. Had they not caught it, there’s a big chance something bad would have happened in the next few years. I might have dropped, and there’s no coming back from that. At all.
I’ll never forget being in the room with Lakers team doctor John Moe, who told me straight up, “Listen. You have two choices: A) You stop playing basketball. You are on blood thinners for the rest of your life. You can’t really do too much activity. Or B) Surgery. And there is a chance you’ll come back and play.”
“Alright, how soon can I have surgery?”
I knew nothing about open heart surgery when I said that, and plain and simple, I didn’t give a damn. I left home at 15 to attend a prep academy in France that would allow me to pursue a career in basketball. You don’t realize it until later, but emotionally and psychologically, leaving your house at such a young age to be a professional basketball player is damaging. You get cut off from having a childhood. From your family. From experiencing the things a “regular” teenage boy does while evolving into a man.
I chose to leave to provide for the people I love, and it’s great being able to make that stuff happen. But having already sacrificed in order to play gave me the strength to say, “I don’t give a damn what I have to do. I will be back on the court.” Not just for myself. For my family. For the island of Martinique and for all the kids that never had the chance to make it out of the projects like I did.
This journey was about something way bigger than Ronny Turiaf. I had no other choice.
My mom worries about everything, like all moms do. So I called her and said, “Yo, mom. I’m having heart surgery.” Bam. Done. Let’s talk about something else. I know how she gets and how I get. When I was little, she used to drive me insane by asking over and over about how I was feeling, which in turn created this little monster inside me that doesn’t like to talk about my feelings. But now she knows if I don’t want to talk about something, I’m never going to, and she respects that.
But I was also trying to be strong for my family, which isn’t easy. Later, I called my father, allowed myself to be honest with my feelings, and asked him for advice. He told me that he’d “rather have a son alive than a dead champion.” He wanted to let me know how important I was to him and the family, and that if the surgery had too many risks I should really weigh the pros and cons. Life is far more important than basketball. At the time, there was no precedent of anyone undergoing heart surgery and coming back to play.
But this convo ultimately helped me feel at peace. I knew I’d gone over the facts with my doctor, Craig Miller, and he felt confident that fixing my aorta would allow me to resume my career. I felt good about this decision. Still, at the press conference in Los Angeles to announce the surgery, my situation really hit me. I walked in, saw all those cameras and lights, and was overcome. “What did I get myself into? This is a big deal!” I admitted to everyone that I was scared of dying, but also explicitly said you’d have to kill me to stop me from playing basketball again.
I didn’t know until a couple months later that I actually needed two surgeries.
My heart stopped after the first one because of a blood clot. They wheeled me out after six hours, then had to take me back in. I have no clue how long my heart stopped. I don’t ask those questions. But my mom held that from me for a while, just like I tried to protect her from the gravity of my surgery. I was kind of mad about it at the time, but throughout my whole life, she’s tried to protect me from everything. And she wasn’t the only one. My girlfriend at the time, my college roommate Brian Michaelson, my assistant coach at Gonzaga, Tommy Lloyd — they were all in on the little secret.
I was the last to know.
But that didn’t matter, because I was grateful for so much more. Take Fred Adjiwanou, who played at St. Mary’s and is like the older brother I never had. I don’t even remember telling Fred I was having surgery, but I do remember the first voice I heard after opening my eyes, when I couldn’t see anything in front of me. “Bro! How are you doing?” I’m like, “Who is that … Fred??? Is that you?” He took the initiative to support my mother while I was recovering. That was the first time I realized there are people who really care about me on a whole other level than just basketball.
Then, after my surgery, while recovering in Spokane, I was able to have a meal at the same table with my mom, dad and little sister for the first time in my life. My parents separated when I was five years old, so this became my first memory of us four sharing a meal together, some shrimp and rice. This was the family experience I never had before, and it’s very powerful to be able say that from near tragedy, I was able to enjoy something absolutely priceless, and for that, I’m grateful.
“Gratitude” is also my word for the Lakers. Once I failed my physical, they had zero obligation to pay for my surgery. Zero. I had never even met Dr. Buss at that point. But they did, and they were added to the list of people I needed to honor by getting back on the court.
I don’t think many people know this, but after every home game I played with the Lakers, I would see Dr. Buss in the Chairman’s Lounge. Just to make sure I acknowledged him. We had that unspoken language. He knew why I was coming to see him, and looked at me like, “I got you, son. You’re part of the family.”
I told Mitch Kupchak to bring a jersey to the hospital. I had a Sunday white right in front of my bed. He came to see me, and I had tubes in my neck — tubes everywhere. But I told him, “I’m gonna rock that No. 21. I guarantee you.” He didn’t believe me. I know he didn’t. He had to be like, There’s no way that kid comes back and plays.
Maybe he knew what I was up against, because while the surgery was tough, rehab was hell! But my back tattoo that reads “never lose faith” symbolizes the story of my life. I started rehab by doing one “up” — going up the length of the floor — and had to sit down for five or ten minutes. You get dizzy. They tell you do not walk any surface that is not flat. Well, I wanted to prove I was special, so I walked up this little hill, and was sick for three straight days with headaches and migraines. It’s almost like being a kid again. “Oh, I can move my arms! I can tie my shoes!” You fall so low, every victory seems like a home run. It makes you realize, as human beings, we take a lot of things for granted.
A few weeks after my surgery, I reached out to Fred Hoiberg, who also underwent surgery for an enlarged aorta. His procedure happened three weeks before mine, and he walked me through every single issue I could ever encounter. He gave me moral support and told me everything was going to be okay. That meant a lot to me, because when you rehab from heart surgery, little scares come up all the time. There is so much to know and worry about, so every conversation with Fred was as priceless as the last. That’s why when I joined the Timberwolves in 2013, I chose Fred’s number. I’d always worn 21 whenever possible, but I wasn’t touching Kevin Garnett’s number, out of respect. So Clayton Wilson, the equipment manager, mentioned wearing 32 in honor of Fred, and we thought it was a great idea. What a wonderful rite of passage, and a way to honor someone who played for the Timberwolves and had such an impact in the Minnesota community.
The three-month mark was big because I could actually lift weights. Four months after my surgery, I was on the court playing. Not for very long, but I was still on the court. Then, when I was practicing with Gonzaga, I took a good hit from J.P. Batista. BOP! But I was okay. Once I was back with the Lakers, we took it to another level. For protection, I used to wear this plastic molded thing on my chest. Kwame Brown, who was so strong, hit me and actually broke it. Everybody freaked out. I looked at them and was like, “I’m fine.”
That day was big, mentally. If I can handle a hit on my sternum from that big old dinosaur, I’m good.
But I still needed to play in a game. Every time I would try, Phil Jackson would yell, “Ronny, get off my court!” Not just because I was a rookie and rookies were, in his words, “lower than whale poop.” Phil had put me in glass because he was worried about me.
Finally, I got a chance.
February 8, 2006, in Houston against the Rockets. There was a minute or so left in the game. Phil Jackson looks at me and growls, “Ronny, do you want to play?” I’m like, “Hell yeah!”
Everything was going so much faster than practice, but I don’t give a damn because I’m playing in the NBA! The first person I hear is Lamar Odom. “Hey, you popped your cherry! YEAAAAAH!” Everybody’s jumping on me. I’ll cherish that day for the rest of my life.
Still, while I was comfortable on the court, it took a while before I let people see my scar from surgery. Let’s keep it real for two seconds: I’d been opened up like a lobster. I had wires in there. The scar was very bright against my skin, and my pectoral muscle is a little lopsided. But now I’m more comfortable. I recently took a picture for one publication with the scar displayed. If I go to the beach or in the water, I wear that scar proudly. It makes me look cool, you know what I’m saying? Like a gladiator. A lion that fought for his tribe, and is still standing.
It feels like the surgery was just yesterday. I’ve been fortunate to play with the best players of our generation. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. Chauncey Billups. Pau Gasol. And coaches, from Phil to Don Nelson to Rick Adelman to one of the greatest offensive minds in Mike D’Antoni. Erik Spoelstra, who discovered the way for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to function together. Are you kidding me?
When I think about the last ten years, I view it as a journey of self-discovery. The nomadic lifestyle I enjoy. Being open to new experiences. Exploring life to the limit. It’s been a fun ride. There’s a quote by Martin Lawrence: “Live this life until the wheels fall off.”
That’s what I’m doing.
I never wanted my heart surgery to define me, but then I learned to tap into the darkness that came with it to live my life fully. I embraced that basketball can allow me to touch lives. I’ve left a mark with my Heart To Heart Foundation. Fred Hoiberg was my mentor, and I’ve in turn reached out to other players like Jeff Green, Etan Thomas, Chuck Hayes and Channing Frye, who’ve faced similar challenges. I now enjoy that people see me as the guy who had open heart surgery. If I can use that to help other people, I’m all about it.
Ten years later, the heart surgery is now in the background, but it’s so embedded into who I am, it actually ended up defining the way I live my life each and every day. It formed me into the person I am. My life is wanderlust driven by experiences, so now let’s see where the next chapter of my life’s book takes me.
Ronny is the founder of The Ronny Turiaf Heart to Heart Foundation, whose mission is to provide medical care for children who do not have health insurance and cannot afford the care that they so desperately need.