CRAWFORD | In new book, Bobby Turner says he was coerced to play at U of L, but has made peace with it
In a new book, former Louisville star Bobby Turner tells the untold story of his commitment to Louisville after deciding to get out of his hometown, and the shadow of high school teammate Darrell Griffith, for college.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Bobby Turner isn’t looking to make headlines. But he is looking, at long last, to tell his story, four decades down the road.
He was one of the most celebrated high school basketball players the city of Louisville ever produced – but also one of the least, in some ways, given his talent. That’s what happens when you play on a high school team with Darrell Griffith, basketball royalty in the city of Louisville.
Both were 6-4. Both could jump out of the gym. They grew up together, perfecting their high-flying games on local playgrounds and in gyms together, and at Male High School. And both wound up at the University of Louisville.
Griffith was rated the nation’s No. 1 high school player. When he signed with U of L, NBC Sports came to film it. When Turner signed with Oklahoma State, the cameras were gone, and so was his father, Earl Turner, away on a business trip.
Turner figured he would escape his friend and teammate’s shadow, and finally get to play his natural position, shooting guard. His father, however, having heard of his signing on the news, rushed home to tell him something that would change his life.
A new book on Turner, Bobby Turner: Forgotten Legend, written by Louisville native Ginger White, tells the story Turner has wanted to tell for many years, about when his father, who owned clubs in the West End that dealt in gambling, protected by police he paid to leave him alone, pulled up a chair and had a discussion with his son.
“Son, I’ve never asked you to do anything, ever,” White writes in the story Turner related to her. “I need you to do this one thing for me. I need you to sign with U of L.”
White goes on to write that Earl Turner told his son that if he didn’t go to Louisville, his arrangement with police would be over, that he’d be arrested and sent to jail. Earl Turner told his son that the police chief and then coach Denny Crum knew. Bobby Turner never looked into any of that. And all these years later, he’s not interested in following it up. Jerry Eaves, a former Louisville player and current radio host for 1080 AM in Louisville, contacted Crum in Europe on vacation recently to ask him about Turner’s story. Eaves said Crum didn’t know anything about what Turner was alleging.
Turner isn’t interested in pointing fingers. There's no NCAA ramification. The statute of limitations has long since passed. He just wants to share his story about why he walked away from getting out of Griffith’s shadow, and in some ways from his dream of being “the man,” at a school out of town, to play at Louisville, in a supporting role for Griffith, who remains a close friend and someone he admires.
Turner could’ve gone a lot of places, was recruited by North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Kansas and others. In his final high school regular-season game, with Griffith out hurt, Turner had 40 points and 28 rebounds against Richmond Madison. He knew he could score, and was a physical, determined defender who could rebound. He wanted to find out what it was like to try to be a star himself.
But he’s always felt like he never really got to make a choice.
“The thing about my dad, he worked so hard,” Turner said. “He had 16 kids to take care of. He had to work a lot. If he asked me to do it again, I’d still do it. I have that much love for him. Although I gave up where I wanted to go, sometimes you’ve got to do something for your family. I had a lot of brothers and sisters. I had to take care of my dad. I couldn’t leave him out there like that.”
Turner went on to a great career at U of L, though he didn’t always hang with the best crowd, and he struggled at times academically. He was a backup to Wesley Cox as a freshman, then averaged 11.6 points as a sophomore and 13.6 as a junior, before losing his academic eligibility.
And with his eligibility gone, his father’s freedom eventually was, too.
The year after Turner played his last game at Louisville, at 3 a.m. of Oct. 22, 1980, Louisville police served a search warrant at Turner’s Café on South 18th St., arrested 22 people, confiscated liquor and evidence of gambling, and charged Earl Turner with selling alcohol without a license and permitting gambling on the premises. He wound up in jail.
That spring, Bobby Turner watched his former teammates win an NCAA title without him. On a TV in his home, he suffered and celebrated at the same time.
“I wish I could go back and change it, not miss that last year, work harder, something,” he said. “. . . I used to be upset about not playing that last year. But as you get older, you grow. When they won the championship, I felt like that was my punishment, for missing. The championship, that’s all the glory, it’s pretty much everything you work for. I was happy to see those guys win, but I was sad to not be a part of it.”
Turner was drafted by the New York Knicks, but was cut. He wound up playing professionally in the Philippines, where he had a good life, had a driver, and a cook. But he got food poisoning in his second year in the league, lost nearly 60 pounds, and decided to come home.
Back in Louisville, Bobby Turner didn’t really disappear. He was working. He got a job in a factory. He worked for 15 years at Louisville Plate Glass. For the past six years, he’s been working at Louisville’s Ford assembly plant as a parts inspector. He has built a good life.
Last year, he was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. And he met White, who after writing her own life story, was looking for a new project. Once she looked at Turner’s story, and talked to him, she knew his was a story she wanted to tell.
“What happened to Bobby Turner?” White said. “It was almost like he faded away and no one had ever heard from him. But here was one of the best basketball players ever to come out of Louisville, out of so many. . . . I was honored to be tasked with such a project. What surprised me the most, and this has been as much an emotional roller-coaster for me as it has been for Bobby, I couldn’t believe how modest he was, how nice he was. Every time I’d ask him a question about himself, he’d tell me a story about another basketball player. . . . But to me, this was a story about a young man who had a dream, and it was taken from him. And I don’t think Bobby ever recovered from that.”
Turner said he went through a long period of resentment. It’s only human to look back and wonder what might have been, if he’d gotten to do things his own way, or if he’d not run off the tracks academically. He felt as if he’d asked for help in class, but didn’t get it. He was working in a factory, and watching guys he’d played with on playgrounds play professionally.
The rather amazing thing about Bobby Turner, however, is that he got on with his life. It took a long time for him to let go of any anger he might’ve had, even some anger with himself. And this book project has been another step in that direction, and that’s worthy of respect.
He’s not looking to throw anyone under the bus, after all these years. But he wants to talk about his experience, and his experience is valuable, and might even help some young players today.
“It used to be painful to look back on that,” he said. “I’d think about it and get upset. But I’ve learned to live with it. I’ve moved on, and learned to live with it and not worry about it. Don’t worry about the past. Some things we can’t worry about. We don’t even need to think about it. Just let it go. This book got me together as far as thinking about something else to do, to put my energy toward. She did a wonderful job with it. It’s my heart and soul in that book. . . . Hopefully, maybe some young people will read the book and not make the mistakes that I made, and keep their grades up, because it’s all about getting your degree from college. A lot of athletes don’t get it – a lot of guys I played with didn’t – but that’s the real reason you’re there. You have to find a balance with sports and academics. Mine got out of whack.”
But Turner is still around. He says he feels a certain sense of freedom, having told his story. He’s been heartened by U of L fans who have reached out to him since he’s done a few interviews to introduce the book, and undoubtedly more will follow.
Not every story ends with a championship. But you don’t need a championship to write a happy ending. Turner’s is a story of perseverance, grace, and hard work.
We need more of those.
TURNER AND WHITE WILL BE SIGNING COPIES OF THE BOOK THURSDAY AFTERNOON AT CARMICHAEL’S BOOKSTORE IN THE HIGHLANDS FROM 4 to 8 P.M.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Turner was arrested just before the start of his son's senior year. He was arrested after that season was completed, as reflected in the date reported.