Sat Down for Life by Fate, Former Basketball Star Landon Turner Rebounds with a Gritty Comeback

updated 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

In a cold drizzle in Indianapolis, Adell Turner and his wife, Rita, walk into the Crispus Attucks Jr. High School gym to watch their son Landon play basketball. Eight years ago, they strode into another arena—the Philadelphia Spectrum—to watch Landon help the Indiana University Hoosiers win the NCAA championship. This time there was a difference: little noise, no TV cameras, just a handful of parents and friends, a janitor and a cop getting out of the rain.

Landon Turner, 28, the onetime 6'11" boss of the boards for Indiana, now plays basketball in a wheelchair league. But to his parents in the stands tonight this game might as well be for a title.

"Be tough, boy," hollers Adell when Landon, now a member of the Circle City Knight Riders, rolls onto the court.

"Watch your toes, son," yells Rita, mindful of Turners size 16 shoes. "His feet stick out" she explains to a man sitting next to her. "I'm afraid he'll get his toes broken."

The Indianapolis team loses tonight and Turner watches most of the game from the sidelines. But no matter; it is a triumph that he is here at all. Four monins after that championship game in 1981, Turner was driving on a winding stretch of Indiana Route 46 when his car drifted to the shoulder of the narrow road. The tires veered off the pavement, and when Turner swung the wheel back, the car Hipped over, crushing his spinal cord.

In the years since then, Turner has battled to cope with permanent paralysis that has left him bound to a wheelchair for life. He has also battled a paralysis of spirit that threatened to leave him emotionally disabled. He has fought back from the gloom, become physically self-sufficient (despite some limitations even in the use of his arms), and now he has ventured back to the edges of the sport that had once opened the world to him.

To Turner, a certain first-round draft pick in 1982, it had once seemed a world rich with the promise of million-dollar paydays and endorsements. Then, several days after the crash, a doctor told him that he would never walk again.

"I couldn't talk because there were tubes in my mouth, so I just looked at him," Turner says now. "It seemed like a nightmare. I just thought I must be dreaming. I went into a terrible depression because I had so many hopes and dreams. I went to church regularly. I was a good son, a good person. How could this be happening to me? I was real negative about it."

Indiana coach Bob Knight was on his summer fishing vacation in Idaho when he heard the news. He rushed home to join Adell, Ruth and their other son, Larsen, 25, at Turner's bedside. Knight also used his considerable influence in the state to hustle up more than $400,000 for a Landon Turner Trust Fund. "He played for me, it's that's simple," explains Knight. "You play for me, I'll stand by you."

Later that year, Turner's former IU teammate Isiah Thomas, now a superstar with the Detroit Pistons, helped stage an all-star game that raised another $90,000. An undisclosed settlement from Ford, maker of the car that Turner had been driving, gave a final guarantee of financial independence. Even so, Turner says, "I couldn't shake the depression."

Returning his former star to fighting form would not be easy, but the irascible Knight accepted the challenge. "He'd come and talk to me all the time," says Turner. "He said, 'You're strong, I cussed you and sent you through a lotta hell, and you came back like a champ. You can come back like a champ now.' I began to believe him."

In 1984 Turner took a job as coordinator of minority affairs for IU. He began attending team practices and home games (where Knight, to this day, reserves a seat for him on the bench). He moved into his own two-bedroom bachelor condo, one equipped with ramps, wide doors and the other necessities for wheelchair living.

Still a proud and stubborn rage remained. So when he was asked to join a wheelchair basketball team, he quickly declined. "Man, I was used to those sweet lay-ups and big dunk shots," he says, gesturing toward a huge picture on his den wall. It's a shot of Turner that shows him soaring toward a slam dunk while Isiah trails the play.

"Isiah's yelling, 'Pass off!' And I'm thinking, 'No way.' If I can't go to the hoop and lay it up like that, I didn't want to play. I had a real immature attitude."

He also had a restless spirit. Last year he gave up his university job ("I got tired of shuffling papers") and plunged into volunteer work with the Wheeler Boys Club in Indianapolis. This season, while Indiana was playing its first home game, Turner was driving his specially outfitted van through the rain to address 30 kids at the club.

"When I was your age," he told the group, "I wanted people to like me, and I found that here in the Boys Club. If I hadn't come here, I might have been out robbing and breaking into cars."

At one point, after a nervous silence, a boy asked Turner how it feels to be in a wheelchair. "There was something in my heart that let me reach down and say I don't want to be a vegetable," he said. "This is a beautiful world, and I want to be part of it. I'd rather be 6'11", like God made me. But life goes on. I accept it."

Another stage of acceptance came last fall, when Turner finally called a friend named Tony Williams and accepted a six-year-old offer to play wheelchair ball. Williams, the Knight Riders' team leader, had exerted little pressure over the years because he knew what Turner was going through: His own spinal cord was severed by a gang-war bullet when he was 15.

Now Turner performs before tiny but boisterous audiences in near-empty gyms. He talks to Knight frequently, sees him occasionally, but spends much of his free time in the jazz clubs of Indianapolis, where he takes his many girlfriends. The Knight Riders are a sub 500 team, and the inexperienced Turner is a part-time contributor. But who's keeping score? "I'm alive, man," he says with a smile. "This is what keeps me going. Just living, waking up and seeing another day is enough for me. I feel like a champ again."

—Pete Axthelm, and Bill Shaw in Indianapolis

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