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Friday, July 22, 2005 - Page updated at 03:09 PM


Heart surgery changes game for Turiaf

The Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Ronny Turiaf was getting ready to make his pro basketball debut with the Los Angeles Lakers. He signed a contract last week. Then he took a team physical.

Now the 22-year-old is preparing for surgery to keep him alive. Prospects of returning to the NBA are less than certain.

"I'm going to try everything I can to beat it," an emotional Turiaf said Friday at a news conference at the team's training facilities in El Segundo.

The problem, described as an enlarged aortic root, was discovered during a physical Turiaf took as a condition of joining the team, Lakers spokesman John Black said.

It's too early to determine whether Turiaf's heart condition will be career-ending.

"We don't want to speculate on that, but obviously we're hopeful that if things go well he will be able to (play again)," Black said.

Added Black: "Had he not had this corrected, my understanding from our doctors is very likely this would have been a fatal condition."

Turiaf will most likely have the operation in the next four-to-six weeks.

Turiaf thanked teammate Kobe Bryant and fans for their support and vowed to get past the condition so he can help his family.

"Today is just another setback, another hurdle I'll just have to jump over," he said.

The 6-foot-9 power forward and Martinique native moved to Paris when he was 15 to hone his basketball skills and eventually wound up at Gonzaga, where he scored 1,713 points and grabbed 847 rebounds over his four seasons.

He was the West Coast Conference player of the year for 2004-05 at Gonzaga, helping the Zags reach the NCAA tournament for the seventh consecutive season.

The Lakers drafted Turiaf last month with their second pick (37th overall) behind 17-year-old center Andrew Bynum of St. Joseph High in Metuchen, N.J.

Examinations of Turiaf a couple of years ago and earlier this year at the pre-NBA draft camp turned up an abnormality. But in both instances doctors didn't think it was serious and cleared him to play.

Further examinations by the Lakers' own physicians turned up the more serious problem, Black said, and independent experts confirmed it.

The diagnosis of his condition surprised Turiaf, who said he feels just fine.

"I never noticed any discomfort," Turiaf said. "That's the thing why I am so bothered by it. I don't feel tired. I have energy. ... It's just the way my heart is. I guess I have too big of a heart, I think that's what it is."

A number of high-profile athletes have died after suffering sudden cardiac attacks in recent years, including former Loyola Marymount basketball standout Hank Gathers, who collapsed during a game and died in 1990.

Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics died in a similar manner three years later, and Olympic figure skater Sergei Grinkov — who, it was later determined, had two clogged arteries and a genetic defect that predisposed him to heart disease — died unexpectedly while practicing in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1995.

The two most common factors that lead to sudden cardiac deaths are hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or an enlargement of the heart muscle; and Marfan's syndrome, which often leads to a weakening of heart valves. When a person overexerts, those conditions can be fatal.

Despite the disappointment over his condition, Turiaf said he was grateful it was diagnosed in time.

"I feel lucky because I don't want to die," he said.

Turiaf agreed to a two-year contract with the Lakers, which would have been worth about $1 million if he played for both seasons.

Black said the team's position on the Turiaf's contract is that it is void because he failed to pass the physical, but the league will have final say.

The Lakers want to pay for Turiaf's surgery, if the league approves, Black said.

Turiaf struck an optimistic tone when asked about his prospects for returning to the NBA following surgery.

"Hopefully the doctors do a good job — I'm sure they will — to fix me up," he said. "I'm going to be back. ... And if not, I'm smart, I have a degree in sports management and communications. I'll make money no matter what."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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